Flora Bagenal’s work unveils the gendered misconceptions about violent extremism.
“We are still programmed to be shocked when we see women holding guns, joining resistance movements, plotting mass murder, or even showing strong political opinions,” Bagenal said at a recent Mercy Corps event marking the International Day of the Girl.
In 2012, the United Nations, declared October 11 the Day of the Girl to raise awareness about issues affecting girls worldwide and to develop solutions to advance their futures. The theme kicking off this year’s action is “EmPOWER Girls: Before, during, and after crisis.”
Bagenal is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, focused on issues affecting women and girls. She has over 12 years of experience reporting in Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Her work appears in the Guardian, AFP, Reuters, and The Sunday Times.
Her latest project is a series of videos and articles with Newsdeeply, a news and information site covering issues that affect girls and women in developing countries. Bagenal’s writing address the complex ways violent extremism affects women and offers alternative narratives to a male-dominated story.
Bagenal covered the investigation into the “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, a proudly radicalized wife of an extremist who killed 52 Londoners in 2005 by coordinating bombs on the city’s transit system. The world had difficulty grasping that a woman could be willingly radicalized, and Bagenal wondered about women’s experiences with violent extremism.
“When it comes to violent extremism, we talk about women who are victims or women who are jihadi brides or Samantha Lewthwaite monsters,” she told the audience at Mercy Corps’ international headquarters in Portland, Ore. “We never really hear anything beyond that. But it also plays into the hands of terrorists because it means they have something to capitalize on—they have a shock factor.”
Experts have identified the spectrum of push and pull, the factors that drive people to extremism. The push of political and economic disenfranchisement, paired with the pull of radical groups appealing to a desired sense of belonging or glory, are ways both men and women are drawn to violent extremism. Identifying these factors is important in understanding how women engage in extremism and how they can prevent it.
Violent extremism touches women in deep and diverse ways. Some women are kidnapped and forced into membership, but some women willingly seek the status and security of radical groups. Many women don’t even need to leave their home: They’re radicalized and recruited online. Women have developed programs to help deradicalize former female extremists and teach women to identify, combat, and resolve violent extremism in their communities.
Bagenal shared the story of Aisha, a 25-year-old proud Boko Haram wife who was undergoing deradicalization when they met. Aisha was living in a camp for former Boko Haram wives, but longed for her husband and the stability she found in the terrorist organization.
“She said he also offered her protection,” Bagenal said. “He sheltered her family when government soldiers came in. And he also gave her money.”
Coming into communities with protection and money is a common recruitment tactic.
“She’s not the victim in the traditional sense,” Bagenal said. “She chose to join Boko Haram. Whether she believes it, whether she is going through a process of deradicalization or not, she saw some currency in being part of the group. There was something she got. She got status.”
Bagenal told of two Kenyan sisters who grew up in a well-off neighborhood with a loving family, and with access to both education and the internet. They, along with another girl, pulled a knife on police in retaliation for the Kenyan government’s involvement in Somalia. They were shot dead. The girls had pledged allegiance to ISIS in a suicide note found later. They had been radicalized on the internet.
Another Boko Haram victim, Aisha, had a more familiar story to tell of her experience as a kidnapped girl. She was lucky enough to escape, pregnant by a fighter in the group. But now she faces the social stigma of being a “tainted” woman, bestowed upon her by an orthodox community.
Women aren’t just fighting alongside extremists, but against them, too. The most important addition to Bagenal’s series is her coverage of women leading programs and organizations dedicated to stopping and preventing radicalization in their communities. Peace activist Mossarat Qadeem helps women identify and combat signs of radicalization in their sons. Her organization, PAIMAN Alumni Trust, helps women develop livelihood skills, like beekeeping and accounting, while providing a space to discuss extremism. The organization even teaches negotiating skills so that women can offer alternatives to radicalization. Mariam Safi is one of the few female researchers from Afghanistan and advocates for women’s involvement in peacebuilding and policy.
Bagenal’s work stresses that extremism occurs outside of the Muslim faith and its communities. She also noted that headlines painting women as “radical terrorists” or “jihadi brides” can actually offer a sense of pride and empowerment to women seeking the glory associated with their radical actions.
Understanding the stories of women affected by extremism is key to fighting it.
“It’s important to understand not everyone is equal,” Bagenal said. “Not every woman is equal. Not every experience is the same. So when they leave we have to unpick all these things and understand them in much more detail to deal with the problem and offer alternatives. Offer ways to provide women help, other than turning to extremists to find that small amount of status and financial stability.”
Visit Newsdeeply for more on Flora Bagenal’s work.