Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 2, February 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Gender, Masculinities, and Counterterrorism

Catherine Powell and Rebecca Turkington

Originally published in
Council of Foreign Relations, 23 January 2019

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia stand during a ceremony at a camp in the Colombian mountains. Luis Acosta/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images.

A growing body of research has made the case that counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism would benefit from a more nuanced gender lens. What remains under-studied—and generally absent from policy discussions—is whether the growing attentiveness to gender might also include a greater focus on masculinities.

Since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, a central pillar of the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda has been bolstering the participation of women in peace and security processes. Normative arguments claim that women bring an alternative view to peace and security policy, and research supports this to an extent, finding that women’s unique social roles often add a critical perspective to peace negotiations. In part, because women are more likely to play roles as civilians, rather than combatants, they bring different experiences and priorities to the peace table.

This approach to WPS has undergirded efforts to incorporate women into the counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) space as well. A growing body of research has made the case that counter-terrorism and CVE would benefit from a more nuanced gender lens. However, as Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, noted at a CFR roundtable last week, within the institutional architecture of counterterrorism “gender remains a short-form for women.” What remains under-studied—and generally absent from policy discussions—is whether the growing attentiveness to gender in security policy might also include a greater focus on, in Ní Aoláin’s words, “masculinities and the hegemonic masculinities that produce and sustain violence.”

Addressing masculinities can strengthen approaches to countering violent extremism by providing more precise answers to how and why young men are radicalized. “Proving one’s masculinity plays a central role in recruitment,” writes Michael Kimmel. He posits that extremist groups leverage men’s feelings of emasculation and entitlement, offering an alternative path to ‘manhood’ when traditional markers of masculinity are not available. Valerie Hudson and Hilary Matfess claim that when marriage— an indicator of masculinity and social standing—becomes too expensive, high brideprice fuels grievances and pushes communities toward instability. Extremists exploit these insecurities, and many male-only spaces, such as prisons and madrassas, serve as primary recruiting hubs. Groups like the Islamic State promote an ideology and practice that subjugates women, offering men supremacy and respect, at the expense of marginalized groups. To a certain extent, the link between men’s disenfranchisement and instability has been implicitly incorporated through the rubrics of conflict prevention, development, and youth engagement which often prioritize outreach to young men for these reasons.

Masculinity also shapes counterterrorism responses from state and international security institutions. Men remain an overwhelming majority around many of the tables, tasked with creating solutions to violence extremism, and their views shape who and what is included in the scope of counterterrorism and CVE policies. Male gatekeepers can determine which local voices are given a platform, whose freedom of movement is protected, what issues are considered security priorities, and where resources are allocated.

All this brings us back to the participation premise of the women, peace and security agenda. Increasing women’s voices in counterterrorism and CVE mechanisms and policymaking brings an opportunity not just to “add women and stir,” but to move beyond status quo conversations, for example, that view men as perpetrators and women as victims.

Much of the discussion on women’s roles assumes that women will be allies in combatting extremism. Yet numerous examples, from Chechnya to Colombia, demonstrate that women have always played complex roles in political violence, including as violent actors. Today, extremist groups exploit social media to create specific recruitment messages targeting women, and their success is reflected in high numbers of women-led attacks. The Global Extremism Monitor registered 181 suicide attacks by female militants in 2017, and women constituted 26 percent of those arrested on terrorism charges in Europe in 2016.

Just as ignoring the political agency of women can lead to security gaps and ineffective prevention programming, Ní Aoláin emphasized that the “presumed combatant” status of men and boys deprives them of protection under international humanitarian law. For instance, the New York Times reported in 2012 that the method used to determine civilian deaths during drone strikes effectively “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants […] unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

A more productive way forward requires a comprehensive understanding of how gender affects recruitment, radicalization processes, operational roles, sentencing, and rehabilitation—for both men and women. Ignoring masculinities creates blind spots that hampers the effectiveness of prevention and counterterrorism policies, undermining stability, security and human rights across the globe.


Catherine Powell is Adjunct Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations. Rebecca Turkington is Assistant Director of the Women and Foreign Policy program, Council on Foreign Relations.

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