Different Cities, Shared Stories: Voices from Europe and Canada on Gender and Violent Extremism and Women’s Roles in Countering It

Project Title

Different Cities, Shared Stories: Voices from Europe and Canada on Gender and Violent Extremism and Women’s Roles in Countering It

Lead / Author

Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Relevant Dates

Published November 2016.


This study aims to assess gender dynamics in violent extremism in communities across five countries, with a focus on the role of women, and explores both radicalization to violence, and attitudes towards countering violent extremism (CVE) measures. As emphasized by the authors, the research takes place in context of global growth in recent years of efforts to include gender, and women in particular, as part of the design of CVE programs. This context is also characterized, however, as one where assumptions about radicalization to violence and how to counter it are underdeveloped (e.g. that women always play peaceful roles in situations of conflict), and where there is limited evidence about what works in prevention, including for programs that aim to engage women.

This publication is one of several expected from a larger study, and focuses primarily on Daesh-inspired extremism, with radicalization to extreme-right movements considered in more depth in the overall research. For both movements, core questions for the research are, ‘How wanted are programs targeting women in the communities they are intended to help?’ and ‘Should CVE specifically target women, and, if so, how?’ Participants from two sets of communities were sought. The first is “communities of religion,” identified either by Daesh recruiters or by governments as ‘vulnerable’ to radicalization, a framing that the authors note is often challenged by the communities themselves. The second set is “communities of geography”: people living in locations affected by the extreme-right. The objective of the secondary study is to better understand extreme-right narratives and the gender dynamics involved. 

The overall study is based on interviews and focus group discussions with “ordinary” men and women, as well as experts, and carried out in two cities in each of five countries - Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK - in order to find shared themes and distinctions. The researchers conducted 41 focus groups, and over 200 individuals participated in the study. In addition, nine in-depth interviews with people with direct experience with radicalization to violence were also conducted.

Select Findings

The study highlights that gendered CVE programming is often focused on the integration and empowerment of women, emphasizing the role and impact of women on reducing violence.  This approach has formed the basis of many CVE strategies, including in Canada.

The authors note that CVE interventions, particularly those aimed at Muslim women, generally engage women as “peacemakers” and mothers, based on assumptions which may not be accurate. Participants in all countries expressed skepticism about women’s role in CVE, indicating that this deflected from more important issues, such as shared social responsibilities, Islamophobia and violence against Muslim women, and the roles of government and the media.  Empowerment was, however, regarded as positive and desired by female participants, but on their own terms. Similarly, male participants sought programs to support their development as positive role models. Skepticism appeared to be part of a broader concern about the concept of and approaches to CVE, as these are seen as “targeting” rather than “partnering” with Muslim communities.

In short, the study finds widespread pessimism, particularly among Muslim youth, about the prospect of countering diverse motivations and mechanisms involved in radicalization to violence.

At the same time, the research reveals differences in perceptions about radicalization to violence between sexes. For example, the authors found evidence that the Internet is more likely to impact females, with face-to-face contacts more influential on males; that debates on Islamic clothing alienate young Muslim women in particular; and that Daesh recruitment disproportionately affects female converts in some countries, e.g. France and Germany. The research also finds more evidence for status-gain as a motivation among female Muslim recruits to Daesh than for males, suggesting that part of the allure for young women may be the perception of full “citizenship.”

The authors note that the majority of participants from all communities focused only on Islamist extremism even when directly asked about the far right. No participant had any information regarding measures to counter the extreme-right, which suggests that it has not elicited the same publicity or attention.

The dynamic of “cumulative Insecurity” – anxiety and insecurity in one group creating anxiety and insecurity in another – is highlighted as a major concern. Both communities described a sense of alienation from governance: Muslims due to Islamophobia, particularly if they felt this was institutionalized in the media, police or government; non-Muslims due to a feeling that their views did not matter to those in power, with society changing into something unrecognizable.  

Recommendations stress the importance of engaging positively with males and females on their terms and across communities, not just Muslim communities. The issue of convert radicalization is seen as neglected, while youth strategies are found to be too often led by police. A need articulated only by young women in Canada was for self-defense classes to protect against xenophobic and racist physical attacks. This reflected widespread concern related to the backlash experienced against Canadian Muslims in the wake of Daesh-related attacks in Paris.

The authors conclude by noting tensions in their findings, including how participants both sought distance themselves from issues extremism but also expressed anxiety as well as personal knowledge about it. They call for moving away from common assumptions about gender, and learning more about what women – and men – across communities can actually do to prevent violence and sustain resilience.

Further Information

Different Cities, Shared Stories:  Voices from Europe and Canada on Gender and Violent Extremism and Women’s Roles in Countering It

Related Initiatives

Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith, “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon,” ICSR and ISD, 2015.

Laura Huey, “No Sandwiches Here: Representations of Women in Dabiq and Inspire Magazines,” TSAS, 2015.

Charlie Edwards, Calum Jeffray and Raffaello Pantucci, “Out of Reach? The Role of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism in Canada,” RUSI, 2015.



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