How have feminist ideas and, by contrast, extremist views gained popularity among Muslim women? Can development assistance encourage feminist empowerment and dissuade women from involvement in extremism? This paper from the Danish Institute for International Studies analyses the flow of feminist and extremist ideas into Muslim countries and communities, and examines women’s roles in extremist groups. It argues that feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an and development interventions targeted at enhancing women’s educational and social standing could offer empowering alternatives to extremism.
Increased internet use and fresh reinterpretation of the Qur’an on gender issues have expanded transnational, regional and local networks of Islamic feminists, whose gender-progressive approach is based on religious texts. There is increased ownership of feminist discourse by Muslim women, but their resistance to patriarchal practices may provoke a backlash from conservatives and extremists.
Radicalisation, the support for extremist ideologies and participation in violent actions, can emerge in contexts of despair, outrage against injustice and perceived lack of alternatives to effect change. The spread of patriarchal extremism among Muslims has also intensified recently: women are brought into contact with these discourses at the country, the local or domestic level. Various findings are made about the spread of radicalisation among women:
- A variety of country specificities need to be taken into account by development actors seeking to address women’s radicalisation.
- The size of the Muslim population; whether the country identifies itself as Islamic or secular; the existence of conflict or occupation; any history of feminist debate – all these factors should be examined to optimise development initiatives.
- The largest group of women vulnerable to extremism are the poor, the under-educated and the socially excluded. Women with strong political grievances, and with close ties to radicalised men, and those who have lost husbands, fathers, and brothers in wars, fighting, reprisals, etc. are also at risk.
- Women’s roles in extremist groups range from recruiters to providers of basic services and, in rare circumstances, militants.
- Enticements to radicalisation for women include material benefits, greater self-esteem and religious pressure.
Development programmes aimed at diverting women from extremism and towards self-empowerment should broaden their social opportunities and educate them on their rights, while remaining sensitive to local conditions:
- Development actors should support girls’ education by building schools, promoting gender-progressive ideas in schools and encouraging girls’ attendance at madrasas, to which Muslim communities show less resistance than secular schools.
- Projects opening job opportunities to women in teaching or other community work should be fostered, and Islamic feminist arguments used to promote women’s prospects in careers not traditionally open to them.
- Women should be educated in their legal rights as expressed in constitutions and state and Islamic law, including their rights within Muslim marriage and personal law.
- Women leaders in educational, cultural, religious and media spheres should be encouraged to teach and empower other women.
- Public forums, workshops and conferences should be established to allow women a space to discuss gender-related questions.
- Women in war and disaster zones should be targeted as they may be are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation.