In this article, Mossarat Qadeem explores the role women play in supporting, participating in, but also countering extremist movements in Pakistan.
Throughout Pakistan, after decades of living under the threat of terror and wide-spread violent extremism, there has been a sigh of relief due to Pakistan’s improving security dynamics. The government, military, and citizens alike, now appear to stand together against violent extremist (VE) groups including the Pakistani Taliban, and others. Statistically speaking, since 2017, there has been a downward trend in the number of overall incidents of violence. Deaths from terrorist violence in Pakistan have decreased by approximately 77 percent, partly due to measures taken by the Pakistani state. Through three successive military operations and partial implementation of the National Action Plan, the government has attempted to deter active participation in terrorism and wider violent-extremism in Pakistan.
However, for concrete change to be made, further measures are necessary, including countering passive support for extremist groups, tackling the prevalent extremist tendency that exists in some communities, and addressing other non-violent ways extremists influence the mindset of the communities. Addressing terrorism through military operations is not enough. It is the responsibility of government and civil society to address extremism and we have to work hard to foster a more tolerant, pluralistic, and inclusive society in Pakistan. Moreover, there is a gender gap in preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) response.
Women engaged in extremist movements remain unnoticed and invisible for many reasons. This oversight persists because women are not visible in public sphere and use private social gatherings and home visits to carry out their agenda while the society continues to believe that violent extremism, like war, is men’s domain. Based on the author’s experiences of working for the PAIMAN Alumni Trust in Pakistan, this article explores the role women play in supporting, participating in, and in countering extremist movements in Pakistan.
The drivers of violent extremism in Pakistan
In my experience, it is not possible to identify a single pathway to radicalisation into violent extremism and terrorism. Each case is a unique combination of factors, including personal trajectory, people’s psychology, and the wider context, or enabling environment, which shaped their extremist or radical thinking. The existing extremist movements in Pakistan gained momentum by attracting many people who did not consider the dangerous impact on themselves or their families and communities.
Every movement must have a goal to justify its acts, and in a country where religion plays a central role in the everyday lives of many, these extremist movements exploited the people’s emotional attachment to religion, citing Islam as validation and justification for their acts of violence, aware that the majority would never question their narrative against the message of peace, humanity, love for all, value of tolerance given in the Quran and then practised by Prophet Muhammad
Most existing research focusing on the Pakistani context mainly quote poverty, poor access to quality education, socio-political marginalisation, corruption, and lawlessness, or a bad/absent government apparatus. However, from my experience working with radicalised and vulnerable young people and communities, in the majority of cases, the push factors are people’s rigid worldview, misinterpretation of their socio-economic situation; belief in conspiracy theories, lack of critical thinking, and limited knowledge of the religion. A search for group belonging also plays a crucial role in Pakistan.
Excluded from mainstream society, the majority of young people desperately seek a sense of belonging and find it rewarding to associate with those who share similar worldviews, needs, and grievances. Taking advantage of this, extremist movements prey on young people’s vulnerabilities and grievances to channel recruits into their groups through persuasion, pressure, coercion and manipulation, and selective use of Quranic text to influence the minds and hearts of the target group.
Understanding violent extremism (VE) from a gendered perspective
VE groups in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan have been strategic in appealing to women through their messaging to join their jihad. These groups have capitalised on and weaponised illiterate and semi-literate women in the Swat District who lack knowledge of the Quranic text that extremist groups misinterpret and misuse to mobilise them with the promise of heaven-after-death rewards. Until recently, no one in Pakistan could have imagined the radicalisation of women and utilisation of their skills to stitch suicidal jackets, preach extremist narratives, or radicalise and build networks of other women. VE groups have strategically exploited gender stereotypes, using women operatives to circumvent security personnel and avoid detection, influence other women, and shame men into action.
Terrorism and VE are gendered phenomena because they are experienced differently by women and girls compared to men and boys, as victims, perpetrators, or those working to prevent or counter the threat. It is also important to understand the multiple roles women play in preventing countering, and supporting violent extremism , alongside their experiences as victims. To counter extremist tactics and avoid blind spots, it is imperative to integrate gender analysis into programmes that seek to address the drivers of radicalisation and develop gender-responsive and inclusive security and preventive policy frameworks. This includes promoting the participation of women to ensure that these programmes are effective and sustainable, and protect and promote women’s rights.
Engendering prevention and countering violent extremism work in Pakistan
Feminist concepts of Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) are premised on the integration of a gender perspective into all spheres, as well as on the equal participation of women and men at all levels and in all processes of security and P/CVE policy frameworks. P/CVE from a feminist perspective means challenging and analysing patriarchy, militarisation, and neo-liberalism as the causes of violent extremism and the dominant order. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015) calls for women to take a leadership role in developing strategies to ‘counter violent extremism’.
Yet, women remain overwhelmingly underrepresented in influential national, regional, and international security institutions limiting their ability to effectively influence the formulation of relevant definitions, strategies, and approaches to P/CVE. Women's right to be involved and recognised as decision-makers and their activism and contributions to promoting peace and social cohesion in difficult security situations as well as in different public and private spheres remain largely unrecognised.
Women, Peace and Security (WPS) promotes political, social, and economic empowerment of women and girls as an end in itself, but with its resolution UNSCR 2242 it is extended as a means to serve P/CVE purposes. The majority of P/CVE strategies have a narrow focus on the role of women as either victims or peacemakers who can help prevent ‘violent extremism’, without paying attention to the diverse roles they play in countering, mobilising against, or participating in violent movements. This resolution further reinforces human rights-restrictive approaches to counter-extremism that justify the perpetuation of human rights abuses in the name of counter-extremism, leaving women, and girls particularly vulnerable to increased insecurity and violence.
In Pakistan, the PAIMAN Alumni Trust was the first organisation to identify women’s activism in support of VE. In 2009, long before the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2242 on gender and P/CVE (2015), which, for the first time, shifted the prevailing discourse of the WPS agenda from one of protection to one of participation, PAIMAN started empowering women to conduct P/CVE work.
For PAIMAN, socio-economic empowerment of women has always been in the context of promoting human rights and not solely for P/CVE. We developed a methodology for prevention taking into account the cultural and social milieu, including family and biographical context because gender roles are strongly determined by these factors in our society. Our methodology outlines:
- Prioritise women’s economic empowerment as an essential tool to address violent extremism. As an entry point in our conservative communities, PAIMAN offers marketable livelihood skills to women after first convincing their male relatives and influential community leaders to let women come and learn.
- Build women’s capacity to understand the negative impact of VE, knowledge of the signs of VE engagement on an individual and community level, engage in alternative religious and cultural narratives, and develop mediation and dialogue skills. These are just some of the ways we address VE that have proven to have a tangible impact on women’s security and the security of their communities.
- Finally, we empower women to see their role as actively and genuinely autonomous. Our promotion of gender equality is grounded in the dignity and worth of each woman and the community she represents, not simply leveraged as a means to an end to address violent extremism.
This means engaging women from all parts of society, including teachers, elected representatives, leaders of religious-political parties, media representatives, activists, mothers, and community members. PAIMAN’s approach keeps in mind the socio-religious dynamics that both shape women’s social, economic, and political positions, and that underlie the politico-economic dimensions of VE in their areas. It educates communities to counter the appeal of violent extremism, spot signs of radicalisation, delegitimise extremist narratives, and advocate inclusive security policies.
PAIMAN supports the leadership abilities of women to not only contest local elections, but to lead negotiations with extremists, raise concerns over human rights violations, demobilise armed youth, and lead the trauma healing process of the whole community. As Shafqat Mehmood, PAIMAN’s Chairperson says:
We should build women’s capacities beyond awareness-raising and early warning against violent extremism, to also include them as shapers of counter-narratives and decision-makers, especially at [the] local level. In parallel, we have to engage and work with men, so they acknowledge and support the role of women in countering violent extremism.
Since P/CVE is a sensitive issue, PAIMAN established an effective internal community network called Women/Mother TOLANAs (a Pashto word meaning ‘together’), which engages all women in the community to become positive agents of change in their families, communities, and broader society. Through TOLANAs, PAIMAN induced a cultural shift in the local perception of women’s role in community peacebuilding as leaders and change-makers.
Today these women are carrying out mediation to resolve community conflict, leading community sessions on PVE and advocating at the local level for issues affecting their communities. These activities mark a cultural shift where women are starting to be accepted as peacemakers. The organisation provides a platform for community members to express grievances, share concerns, prioritise issues, and fulfil aspirations through civic activities and raises awareness of inclusive, just, and peaceful interpretations of religion.
TOLANAs have prevented over 220 women from becoming violent extremists by directing them to PAIMAN’s positive reformation and engagement training, and have resolved more than 26 community conflicts through dialogue and mediation. PAIMAN keeps close contacts with all its TOLANA’s members and sustains its relationship with these groups through involving them in various activities from time to time. This was possible due to the TOLANAs’ vigilance, knowledge, and trust in the communities, and their close interaction with families, which enables early stage detection.
The challenges of preventing and countering violent extremism in Pakistan
The militarisation of Pakistan’s security policy through counter-terrorism initiatives leaves limited space for preventing VE. Pakistan’s existing security policy can be justified given regional security dynamics, but at the same time it is crucial to plan a comprehensive, inclusive, and integrated preventive policy framework to create “conditions conducive” to peace and security, and not just “counter” violent extremism. The hyper-masculinised vision of counterterrorism in our country has not yet ensured security to all citizens. Legitimising the use of force against terrorist actors will not lead to a just and violence-free society unless structural inequalities are addressed.
Currently, civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in areas hard hit by violent extremism are under the strict surveillance and scrutiny of security agencies. This is negatively impacting the development of the area because CSOs usually work in cooperation with the government, acting as a bridge between government and community. Unfortunately, the growing mistrust and misunderstanding between the government and CSOs is rapidly and worryingly shrinking space for CSO activities on a daily basis. This creates fertile ground for extremist groups who move quickly into the space left by the CSOs who provided health, education, and other social services in the communities.
Moreover, the government has used counter-extremist agendas to justify heavy-handed crackdowns on civil society particularly organisations working on P/CVE. The government has to realise that organisations, like PAIMAN, carrying out P/CVE activities seek long term positive impact in addressing the root causes of violent extremism. They seek to build trust within communities affected by violent extremism and empower communities to build social cohesion. P/CVE is central to the security and survival of our communities. The lack of state trust in CSOs undermines efforts to build sustainable peace because for effective prevention of violent extremism in all its forms, the state and society both have to work together.
For durable peace and security, the government of Pakistan should invest and prioritise women’s empowerment at the heart of Pakistan's P/CVE efforts and provide opportunities for women to participate in security-related decision making. The government should promote a community-led approach for P/CVE, within both the state and citizens should address the structural factors associated with violent extremism. For this, re-building trust between state and CSOs, particularly NGOs, working in this field is crucial. Finally, women at many different levels are active in building social cohesion, carrying out interfaith/intra-faith dialogue, P/CVE, and imparting peace education. The government of Pakistan should develop and promote a WPS framework so that the implementation of the WPS agenda is carried out in ways appropriate to the Pakistani context.