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Women Keeping Peace: a Gendered Perspective on Countering Violent Extremism

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, WRN spoke with Board Member Judge Najla Ayoubi, a lawyer and former judge from Afghanistan, about the role and importance of women at the grassroots in the global fight against violent extremism. With her extensive experience in judiciary, elections, human rights and women’s empowerment, Najla Ayoubi says the current policies put in place by the Afghan government to prevent radicalization and armed violence have major blind spots and suggests that including women’s knowledge and local practices into national and regional CVE plans will greatly improve these strategies.

Countering violent extremisms “CVE” and “deradicalization” have become popular terms amongst governments and civil society alike, what key elements are missing in this dialogue?

There are four major issues that are missing. First, the field of CVE is very security focused which means that the state responds only after violence has occurred. However, we need to be proactive rather than reactive and concentrate on long-term solutions. We need to put greater emphasis on the prevention of violence through education, an area where Afghanistan has been particularly weak. Inter-faith dialogues are also an important component. The second issue that remains unexamined is the conflation of extremists with a particular religion like Islam for example. But extremists belong to different sects and ethnicities, speak different languages, and adhere to a range of political ideologies. They use these identities for personal gains for example to gain political power, to manipulate societies, or to reap economic benefits.

Third, various communities do not speak openly and honestly with one another. For example, there is a complete lack of understanding between one school of Islam and another. People need space for dialogue so they can frankly discuss contentious issues, concerns, and grievances. The policies also need to pay more attention to the youth in real and tangible ways. This is particularly important because young people make up about 65 per cent of Afghanistan’s population and the youth bulge in rest of South Asia is also growing. When CVE is discussed it is often in the abstract, which means nuanced details and local context are often missing. Outside parties enter dialogues or peace talks on behalf of Afghanistan without the ownership, buy in or even knowledge of the government or its people. Transitional justice is rarely mentioned within these dialogues, how can we move forward when these issues only deepen existing grievances?

What do you see as the root causes of extremism in Afghanistan?

At the domestic level: unemployment, poor economy, and a dysfunctional education system are the main causes. External factors are also an important root cause of extremism in Afghanistan. External factors include: foreign actors both regionally- Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Iran, Central Asia and internationally for example the United States (since the time of the Cold War) has played a major role in destabilizing Afghanistan. These international actors lacked a core understanding of the religious, ethnic and linguistic divides within the country. Since Al-Qaeda began its operations in 1986, Afghanistan has seen an influx of about 20,000 foreign fighters who brought with them a culture of violence, radical ideas and ideologies; these actors are also responsible for growing extremism.

Given the serious weaknesses in the field of CVE, what has been Afghanistan’s strategy over the years, how effective are these policies, and where do women fit in?

Afghanistan lacks a concrete, national level policy and has so far relied on fragmented local level strategies and military operations to fight against violent extremism. When the Soviet Union backed government came to power in 1979, many groups emerged with the support of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, the United States and so forth. Over the years, these groups splintered into numerous grassroots militia, which currently pose a large security threat.

There have been initiatives by organizations such as the Moderation Center for Afghanistan which bought together Sunni and Shia religious scholars for inter-faith dialogues and sent them for training to Kuwait. The problem with programs like these is that they are project-based rather than issue-based and have a limited timeframe. Unfortunately, women were not included in the discussions. Even when women become a part of important national bodies like the High Peace Council (HPC), we must still ask who exactly is participating.

Currently, there is a worrying trend in Afghanistan, in which extremist groups are increasingly recruiting women into their fold as a way to harass and control communities. For example in Kunduz province women who are being radicalized in religious schools (madrassas), are returning home and accusing their families of being bad Muslims. Families are then hesitant to send their girls to school, which in turn leads to greater restrictions in women’s rights and movement.

The High Peace Council and other state machineries within Afghanistan with gender quotas are criticized for appointing token women and sometimes the wrong candidates who support extremist agendas. How can the state and civil society promote qualified women who are also committed towards advancing gender rights and the overall rights agenda into these key positions?

While CVE policies continue to exclude women from the decision-making process, extremist groups are finding new ways to engage them. Therefore, it is important to observe how extremist organizations are involving women and then adopt similar tactics to devise gender-friendly CVE policies. Proper strategies must also be put in place to protect women from being unfairly influenced by extremist ideas and to make them aware that other avenues are available. In addition to engaging the right women who are already in positions of power, it is equally important to build constructive and positive relationship between the wider civil society and the Afghan government.

You mentioned women play multi-faceted roles in relation to extremisms including but not limited to perpetrators, recruiters, sympathizers, counterers and activists. How does this affect global strategies to counter extremism? What needs to be focused upon or further understood?

First, we need to strengthen the work that women human rights defenders are already doing at the grassroots level such as facilitating dialogues, trainings, sensitization programs and support their ongoing fight for peace, equality and freedom. Second, we need to better harness women’s ability to identify early warning signs and gather information. Women are usually the first to recognize when family members (usually men) begin leaning towards extremism. Hence they can be important mediators; they can dissuade men from fighting and encourage them to maintain their responsibility as head of the family. For example, an educated member of my extended family suspected her son of being involved in suspicious activities and attending radical meetings. When he returned home from one of these sessions, she warned him that if he wanted to continue taking part in these meetings she would disown him and he would have to leave the house. This man now works for various INGOs and his life has taken a very positive turn. Women also have a lot of knowledge about the day-to-day happenings in a community, they can help counter extremism by sharing this information with their local leaders.

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