Gender Dynamics of Militant Islamism and Terrorism

Prepared for the February 18 – 19, 2016 seminar, Transforming Violent Masculinities, organized by the winners of the 2015-2016 WPF Student Seminar Competition

Mainly it is the militaries, intelligence agencies, media and political scientists that guide our understanding of global terrorism and militant Islamism. Sustainability focused academic disciplines allow deeper analysis and can provide holistic answers to difficult questions such as what are the causes of escalating violence among (Muslim) men and to what extent can de-radicalization and other interventions really be treated as solutions etc. It is very important to let development studies and anthropology influence our understanding of militancy and terrorism. Gender theory that has not quite informed or formed our strategies and/or perspectives on issues of militancy, terrorism and counterterrorism, can in reality play a much greater role in proposing practical and effective solutions.

Through empirical research I mainly investigate Muslim contexts; the lived experiences of Muslim men and the factors that drive/or may drive them towards political violence. I have found that a strong connection exists between gender constructions (identities, roles, expectations etc.) and militant Islamism, and terrorism. Therefore any discussion on prevalence of violence among Muslim men cannot be complete if factors that shape masculinities are not considered. Here I discuss three such factors that shape Muslim masculinities. First is culture that primarily includes ethnic, kinship, clan, community values and ways of living. Religion i.e. Islam has a primordial and meaningful interaction with local culture and so does media. The second significant factor is history and third is the global and local politico-economic context within which Muslim masculinities form. These factors either offer a certain ‘gender-appeal,’ or a ‘gender license/leeway,’ and at times cause gender-based grievances. For example, cultural codes of honour; Quranic concepts of shahadat i.e. martyrdom and arrijalu qawwamuna al’un nisa’ i.e. men are the protectors and maintainers [qawwamun] of women; along with media representations of a hero who is involved in some ‘mission impossible’; and the historical evidence on Muslim warriors who rebelled against oppression of the colonial masters; all have a certain element of gender-appeal (and anxiety) for young Muslim men.

Simultaneously gender programming in certain cultures is done in a way that tools of violence i.e. weapons along with blood hunt and revenge are considered part of masculine identity. Muslim cultures are often silent when men commit violence and generation upon generation of women have been programmed to tolerate bad behavior and violence from men so that based on gender inequality household equilibrium can be maintained. Add on this the leeway that men can have in their public interactions. Outside their homes they may interact with drug peddlers, traffickers (or even bomb suppliers or terrorists networks) without their families ever discovering or intruding. In Muslim spaces the norm is to keep women under surveillance, not men.

Regarding gender based grievances, a prominent example to understand this can be the counterterrorism tactics adopted at Abu Ghraib prison. Leaked photos confirm that emasculation was used as a means and tool to abuse, ridicule and humiliate Arab men – causing direct offence to the wider Muslim population; Arab, non-Arab, men and women alike. In parenthesis, it is equally relevant to problematize our symbolic interactionism with masculinity and femininity. If violence against Abu Ghraib prisoners is deleted from the equation – then essentially we are left to conclude: masculinity is noble whereas femininity is humiliating and that the latter can be used as a weapon to strip men of a state much higher and precious i.e. masculinity. This however is not the focus here. The very fact that emasculation can be used to victimize men (particularly within a politically violent context), confirms our original understanding of ‘gender’ being cross cutting. Therefore gender studies should and must always remain a valid concern and interest for policy makers in the realm of counterterrorism, and counter militancy/insurgency operations.

Also it is important to note the dissonance existing between the contemporary living conditions of Muslim men and the masculine attributes that they are programmed to idealize. Mostly leading dangerous and/or politically and economically deprived lives many Muslim men have difficulty upholding religious, socio-cultural ideals associated with their gender. At some level all this creates a crisis in their gender identity and performance. In cases, militant Islamism becomes a means to authenticate and enact one’s culturally prescribed and idealized gender roles. Men have used and continue to use Islamism and particularly militant Islamism as means of self-actualization and directly in service of matters associated with personhood and masculinity. Terrorist networks harness the political agency of these masculinities in crisis. In many cases families fail to discover what their boys are doing.

One must recognize that marginalized contexts cause emergence of protest culture and practices and these are often manifested in form of violence. Mostly protest cultures have in them reactionary forces who have revenge on their mind. In Muslim spaces, I mainly see two forms of masculinities: aggressive and emasculated. Mostly demanding an end to occupation, socio-economic inequalities, injustices, bad governance these agitated young men express themselves through protests. Islamist and terrorist groups operating around these protestors know how to engage their aggression and remove their grievances. The question is, do we?

We cannot spread correction fluid over violent men and pretend that everything is fine. Neither can we eliminate violent men treating them as some zombie paper shooting targets (an approach we know governments and militaries are capable of adopting). It is only through planning policy, academic and community level interventions that we can hope to make progress in transforming violent masculinities. In this regard some thoughts and concerns are shared below:

Policy Level

Making governments ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’ against violence. In real world we have to see whether governments are interested in transforming violent individuals or in punishing them. Soon after the Army Public School attack in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan lifted the moratorium on executions and within the next nine month hanged 239 men. Governments consist of civil and military bureaucracies, legislative and judicial bodies but governments also administer public universities. The question is who will continue advising the presidents and prime ministers in matters of political violence and acts of terrorism? Even if universities with their theorists and empirical researchers play a role – who will have the final word? In case of Pakistan, almost always we find it to be the military generals and/or external sources (ordinarily ‘understood’ as US Administration). Notwithstanding, military cannot be held responsible in isolation. Long term governance failures and administrative inefficiency pave way for aggressive military action as a quick and final fix. This can only be avoided if the civilian machinery works efficiently and effectively around the clock.

Realizing that de-radicalization has its limitations. It is important to de-radicalize violent men and to an extent this can be achieved through psychotherapies, job provision and social re-integration. Simultaneously it is important for governments to recognize that if not addressed, extremism in the wider society will remain and grow (for example, the systemic gender inequalities and the resulting violence). Considering that social re-integration of the de-radicalized individual is of particular interest, the overall state of society to which this de-radicalized individual returns has to be questioned. To what extent can it be safely assumed that he will not be re-radicalized? Policy interventions must aim to eliminate extremism from society as a whole. Transformation in violent masculinities will not occur through symptomatic treatments but by boosting the immune system and preventing growth of disease i.e. violence. Governments must transform marginalized contexts that produce violent masculinities.

Despite the complexity involved, it is important for the ongoing and future de-radicalization interventions to address problems arising out of culturally scripted gender roles.

Early childhood development and training. Boys Scouts or something similar, can help prevent emergence and growth of violent masculinities. Let there be no boys – but only boy scouts. I am including here an excerpt from Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech to Pakistan Boy Scouts administration: “If we are to build a safer, cleaner and happier world, let us start with the individual — catch him young and inculcate in him the scout’s motto of service before self, and purity in thought, word and deed. If our young people learn to befriend all, to help other people at all times, subordinate personal interest to the welfare of others, eschew violence of thought, word and action, I am sanguine that the attainment of universal brotherhood is possible and within your reach.” Point being, the vision has always been there but Pakistani governments could not strategize and implement this vision. Not only this, many in Pakistan remain out of school and are engaged in child labour. The presence of landed aristocracy in the country i.e. the feudal classes worsens the situation. It may be possible to catch a boy in school (and transform him into a peaceful and law abiding scout) but it is a real challenge to make Jinnah’s vision a reality for out of school children.

Human Security as a solution. I also find human security a promising concept. In 1994 Dr. Mahbub-ul Haq from Pakistan compiled a report for UNDP favoring human security. Often seen in opposition to state security, human security emphasizes on food, education, environment, health – but also personal security, community security and political security of individuals. It is deliberately protective and this is what makes it valuable. There is a recognition that people and communities are threatened by occurrences and forces on which they lack control. Human security approach urges institutions to offer protection that is institutionalized (not episodic), responsive (not rigid) and preventative (not reactive) [Sen 2000]. Human security creates room to transform violent masculinities.

Militarism oriented counterterrorism and its impact. The upheaval in masculinities is exacerbated by militarism oriented counterterrorism. Gradually countries like Pakistan have to move away from this as military operations prove counterproductive – even if not immediately, certainly in the longer run. Military solutions are state security oriented and compromise human security.

Academic Level

Feminism and masculinity studies in Muslim spaces. Gender theorists engaging with Muslim societies need to contribute towards existing literature on Muslim masculinity. Gender and the agenda for women’s rights is considered a Western import – and feminists are generically perceived as secular and agents of the West. This has led many Muslim feminists to become overly protective of their women’s rights agenda simultaneously causing an intellectual block or resistance against concepts and standpoints that emerge from masculinity studies. Discussions on masculinities in Muslim academic and activist spaces is also difficult due to the magnitude of violence against women that exists in these societies. Gender almost always, regardless of global intellectual shifts from Women in Development (WID) to Women and Development (WAD) to Gender and Development (GAD) for all practical purposes remains, ‘women’s rights’. Masculinity studies is often and summarily engaged with only to the extent of serving and promoting purely women’s rights agenda. For example, feminists may have started to recognize the value of engaging men to end violence against women but they continue to resist recognizing that performance of gender roles can be as much a pressure on men as on women and that despite having some leeway (otherwise denied to women) men too lead pre-determined lives and have their own gender-based issues as well.

Journalism’s treatment of the subject. Gradually, the logic of the nexus between Muslim masculinities and militant Islamism has made it into journalist spaces. Sentences such as hyper masculinity is causing jihad etc. are now appearing in international newspapers, quite often without in-depth analysis. Qualified academics and researchers need to contribute towards improving this rather cosmetic and consumer oriented understanding of the issue.

Community level

Exposing youth to a fuller description of their culture and belief. Psychologists often use tools based on the principle of optical illusion. In this a picture may have two or three dimensions though a single is visible in the first instance. On looking closely one can gradually spot additional dimensions. The need is to produce new or use existing literature that helps men view the picture in an integrated manner. This knowledge can be disseminated through local/traditional means (for example, through ‘story telling’ sessions in market places, café’s etc.)

Involving young men. Informal social gatherings at the local level (for example, baithak in Punjab, Pakistan) can serve as avenues where work for peace may be planned. Some basic level civil society interventions can help youth organize and start their work for peace. Externally funded activism can be counterproductive at the local level, though not always. Ordinary people must own counter-radicalization processes and the efforts should emerge and be supported from ‘within’.


Whether masculinity is taken as a practice, a performance, or a normative construct – it remains transformable and is negotiable. Masculinities are a product of contexts. Change the context – masculinities will change too. It needs mentioning, however, that expected changes are not sudden but gradual. With a clear vision, a set of workable strategies and measurable indicators – violent masculinities can be gauged, intervened, monitored, and transformed in the longer run.

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