Gender and Violent Extremism: Contemporary Debates

On May 14/15 2018, C-REX, the Centre for Research on Extremism in the Faculty of Social Sciences held a cross-disciplinary conference on ‘Gender and Extremism’ at the University of Oslo.

The conference situated gender at the heart of extremist political movements, viewing ideas about masculinity and femininity not as tributary factors leading to violent ideologies, but as an inextricable element within radicalization and extremist politics. The conference touched on movements that ranged from the Far Right in Germany and neo-Nazism and the alt-right in the United States, to Islamist fundamentalism, as well as left-wing groups like the German Red Army faction.

Professor Kathleen Blee (University of Pittsburgh) and Professor Michael Kimmel (Stony Brook University, New York) were the keynote speakers at the conference, and their addresses can be viewed here. Professor Blee discussed the role of women in far-right movements in the US, noting that women are ‘operationally critical’ to the spread of far-right ideologies and that they also serve as ‘foils’ to the muscular, active, and violent masculinity of the men in these movements. She noted that right-wing extremism is part of a populist movement that had a ‘thin’ ideological barrier between left and right-wing political goals: in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan actually supported female suffrage in an effort to recruit more women to the movement.

Professor Kimmel, a world-renowned scholar of masculinity and extremism in the US context, offered an intersectional analysis of a number of far-right cartoons (see below). He discussed the affective power of narratives that evoke the retrieval of a lost masculinity and the ‘aggrieved entitlement’ among some working class men in the US. The effeminate white man, who has been beaten down by the state, liberals, Jews, homosexuals and feminism, is humiliated in front of a woman by a muscular black male. He builds up his physique and returns to fight the man who had previously shamed him, thus claiming dominance. Kimmel showed how these cartoons speak to a wider narrative of victimization in American politics, linking it to the normalization of far-right and the rise of Trump.

Participants at the Gender and Extermism workshop.

How women position themselves

Professor Margaret Power (Illinois Institute of Technology) addressed how women position themselves within extremist politics, comparing two groups of right-wing women, pro-Pinochet supporters in Chile and the supporters of Trump in a Southwest Pennsylvania. Both groups were bourgeois women who saw themselves as apolitical, but who used their identities as mothers to oppose the governments of Allende and Obama respectively, citing the necessary protection of their children. Both groups looked to the figure of the ‘Strong Man’ leader to protect them and their children from the spectre of a frightful Other – African Americans or immigrants.

The role of emotion and representation

A number of papers addressed the role that emotion and representation can play in radicalization. Dr. Flood’s paper examined some recent examples from North African cinema to show how factors like youth vulnerability to the social and economic changes brought on by globalization can feed into extremist narratives of personal and political humiliation of the Muslim world by Western powers. She also argued that the medium of film, by offering person-centred narratives and a ‘safe space’ in which to explore difficult themes, can clarify the complex web of factors that lead to radicalization (see info graphic below). Dr. Shirin Deylami (Western Washington University) discussed the question of agency in relation to the rhetoric of empowerment that she has recently identified in English-language ISIS propaganda directed at women. She showed how ISIS literature that is targeted at women rejects Western feminism. Instead, these documents create an alternative language of empowerment, one that evokes the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Hadija, a business owner and financially independent woman.

The British Context

A number of papers discussed the British context. Dr. Narzanin Massoumi (University of Bath) discussed the gendered dynamics of the UK counter-terrorism programme ‘PREVENT’. She showed how many of the government’s strategies, including the setting up of the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG), ended up becoming ‘tick box exercises’ that relied on forms of social engineering and problematic assumptions about Muslim women’s lack of agency. Women, in their role as mothers, were assumed to be able to redirect ‘their’ men away from extremist ideologies. Many of the PREVENT programmes that were said to be grassroots, female-led initiatives were in fact government policies, such as the #MakingaStand Twitter hash tag. Dr. Naaz Rashid (University of Sussex) showed how Orientalist assumptions about the inferior position of women in Muslim communities informed much of the UK government’s rhetoric around anti-extremism measures in the UK. She argued that gender equality has been instrumentalized and weaponized in the name of the ‘War on Terror’, stating memorably that ‘everyone is a feminist when it comes to Muslim Women’.

The Red Army Faction

Dr. Patricia Melzer (Temple University) offered a provocative exploration of the role of women in the left-wing anti-capitalist group the Red Army Faction, active in West Germany in the 1970s. She discussed how media representations of women in the movement, such as Ulrike Meinhof (pictured below), depicted them as having been transformed from good, educated girls into deranged and pathological activists, who abandoned their children to participate in acts of violence. She showed how these women insisted on violence as part of their activism against systems that they perceived as violent: capitalism and sexism. She asked whether feminist (out)rage and fury could be considered to be the emotional origin of feminist politics, arguing that some violent regimes (such as patriarchy) might only be overcome using violent means.

Dr. Maria Flood is Lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University, UK. Her broad research interests centre on the representation of political violence in non-Western cinema and by Western minority filmmakers, with a particular focus on the gendered dimensions of both violence and resistance. Flood adopts a cross-disciplinary methodology that weaves together historical and empirical data, film theory, reception, aesthetic and political philosophy, and theories of affect. Her monograph, Screening Histories of Violence: France, Algeria, and the Moving Image (1962–2010), is the first book to offer a comparative examination of French and Algerian film.

Tags: Gender, Extremism By Maria Flood
Published July 9, 2018 2:13 PM - Last modified July 12, 2018 9:30 AM


Welcome to the “RightNow!” blog where you will find commentary, analysis and reflection by C-REX’s researchers and affiliates on topics related to contemporary far right politics, including party politics, subcultural trends, militancy, violence, and terrorism.

“RightNow!” also provides a platform for republishing op-eds by our core team of experts (with due acknowledgement of course) which have been published by newspapers and on other blogs in order to further highlight the breadth of our work here at C-REX. The articles give the views of the authors, not the position of the Centre for Research on Extremism.

To submit proposals and comments, contact the RightNow! editor Pietro Castelli Gattinara