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Women’s roles in violent extremism are diverse and complex. Traditional stereotypes only create a misleading picture. Counter-extremism strategies are unlikely to yield expected results unless women are factored in.

The upholding of convictions and sentencing of two female US citizens by a federal appeals court in Minnesota in August, found guilty of conspiring to funnel money to a terrorist organization in Somalia, has added to the debate on the role of women in terrorist activities. They are said to have posed as humanitarians and solicited money in the name of charity, which was instead channeled to Al-Shabaab. This particular case further challenged conventional thinking that assumes women to be passive victims of male dominated criminal activities.[1]

Narrowing down to Kenya, the number of cases of women’s involvement has been on the increase in the recent past. In March, three young women were arrested in Elwak on the Somali border on suspicion of being on their way to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia, while in May, two other young women disappeared. [2] During the same month, two other Kenyan female students confessed to their families that they had gone to Syria to join the ISIS, one of whom was a ‘well-behaved part-time teacher.’ [3]

It is perceived to be against the norm when news of women’s participation in criminal activities breaks out, due to stereotypes associated with their nature as passive homemakers. These kinds of assumptions, however, divert attention and suppresses the role of women as active agents and so further questions need to be raised on the nature of women’s involvement and what prompts their participation in extremist activities and at what levels. Documented cases give diverse information on their role either as victims, direct perpetrators or indirect supporters of extremism and terrorist activities. Like men, women can act in capacities such as suicide bombing, leaders of militant groups, recruiters and mission operatives.[4] They can also act as sympathizers, mobilizers and supporters of radical ideology by offering encouragement, handling logistics such as hiding weapons under their clothing, cheering their sons and husbands to join the action and defending their male relatives at all costs.[5]

Although women’s traditional roles and position in society can explain their minimal numbers in terrorist activities, they are more vulnerable to being dragged, raped, physically coerced and emotionally and socially blackmailed including by family members especially in patriarchal societies. In some societies, their dressing gives a false perception of their nature while at the same time, their traditional positions as custodians of cultural, social and religious values can easily be capitalized upon by militant groups to pursue the latter’s objectives. It is no wonder therefore that in criminal gangs such as the ‘Buibui’ in Mombasa, Kenya, men disguise themselves in traditional Islamic women’s clothes known as the ‘buibui’ to commit acts of crime.[6]

In Kenya and Somalia, cases where women have acted in various capacities as agents, either willingly or due to coercion, have recently been on the increase, although this is not to deny their active roles especially as secret agents especially during independence struggles.[7] The two neighboring countries are faced with the threat of terrorism as well as a seemingly transforming position of women especially with the ushering in of their new constitutions in 2010 and 2012 respectively. It is, however, worth noting that patriarchy, rooted in deep cultural values, is still the norm in these countries regardless of new legislation in place. To understand the problem of violent extremism further, it is therefore worth the effort to explore its linkage to patriarchy.

A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies[8] on radicalization and recruitment to Al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council offers an interesting insight. Respondents associated with Al-Shabaab revealed that it was their father who made rules at home and in his absence a male relative was responsible. Women would therefore only do so in the absence of any of the two. A majority also indicated that their mothers only punished them in the absence of their fathers or a male relative. This shows an exclusion of women in important family responsibilities. The question that comes to mind at this juncture is, to what extent does this exclusion enhance the propagation of extremism, and would the vice versa be true if women become more involved in creating family rules?

The traditional role of women as educators of their children is also a good point to question. In Kenya and Somalia where women still play traditional roles, such as spending substantial amounts of time with their children, teaching them good manners, ideals and expectations of the society, highly determine the direction that the child will take in their life. This is a fundamental stage at which a child’s development, ideology and future is shaped and so a closer look at this could offer interesting insights on whether radicalization ideologies are inculcated at this stage and who calls the shots at what point in a child’s development. Such knowledge can also help in shaping counter-extremism.

Another unexplored area is in religious institutions. Motivated by the need to understand the recent problem associated with ousting of imams from some mosques in Mombasa, a recent research on mosque management structures, reveals that women are excluded in management structures of most mosques. A group of women interviewees from selected mosques in Mombasa and Kwale counties explained that their involvement in most mosque management committees was minimal as they only played supporting roles yet they believed to be able to contribute positively towards reducing the potential for violence outside their homes if given the opportunity.[9] Such roles could range from giving new information, contributing their opinions and ideas that include a gendered angle to offering solutions to problems.

According to Sheikh Mahmud Abdillahi of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, women’s exclusion is more of a cultural than a religious issue because as long as they do not claim overall leadership positions and observe the Islamic principle of gender segregation, it is permissible to include women in mosque management. [10]

These are just but a few areas. Although the same factors that drive men to violent extremism could be the same for women, namely, grievances on social political conditions, death of a loved one, real or perceived humiliation, lack of education and employment, commitment to a religious /ideological belief, economic benefits, age and peer pressure coupled with the desire for a radical societal change, past involvement in criminal activities, search for identity and alienation due to migration to a new culture among others, the huge potential that women possess demonstrate that a gender lens is necessary to probe patriarchal structures and how they might be compelling women to act against their will, the extent to which women act independently as agents as well as lost opportunities that accompany their exclusion.

Women should be seen as partners not only because of their huge potential but as equals in a society. The recent announcement by the coast regional police commander, Robert Kitur, that they would prosecute parents whose children had gone missing but had not been reported would mean they conspired with their children[11] can therefore only be counterproductive, especially given that some of these parents – especially mothers - might be cut out of important decisions due to patriarchal norms in place. It is important to keep in mind that women are also family members of terrorist survivors and so they are well positioned to narrate their experiences. Their traditional roles as mothers and wives, although not to be overemphasized due to women emancipation and the emergence of working women, can also help build tolerance and non-violence, identify first signs of behavior change amongst their children and eventually contribute towards countering extremism.

Conclusively, in order to understand women’s involvement in violent extremism, it is not only necessary but crucial to first have a context-to-context understanding of the relationship between patriarchy and their played roles, how the former suppresses their ability to exhibit their full potential as women and the extent of their willingness to cooperate against the vice. Such knowledge is vital especially for security personnel faced with complex security challenges while at the same time under pressure to uphold human rights standards. Overall, a gendered approach to violent extremism will effectively contribute to better implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, that recognizes women both as victims and strong peace building partners hence a good platform for their engagement.[12]

*Hawa Noor M. is a gender, peace and security researcher based in Nairobi. Her professional interest lies in the drivers of religious extremism and counter violent extremism (CVE) strategies. She can be reached at: [email protected]


[1] (Accessed on 22nd September 2015).
[2] Ndung’u I., Why are young women drawn to extremism?
[3] (Accesses on 22nd September 2015)
[5] on 4th September 2015)
[6] (Accessed on 10th August 2015)
[7] Turshen, Meredeth, and Clotilde Twagiramariya, eds.1998. What Women do in War Time: Gender and Conflict in Africa. London: Zed Books.
[8] Botha A. Radicalization in Kenya; Recruitment to al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council.
[9] Hawa Noor’s interviews with Ukhtis for a study on mosque management strucutres. June 2015
[10] Interview with Sheikh Mahmud Abdillahi, Council of Imams and Preachers (CIPK) in Mombasa
[11] (Accessed on 22nd September 2015)
[12] UN Security Council 1325, (Accessed on 22nd September 2015)



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