Iraq Islamic State Peace & Conflict Studies Peace & Security Rights Security Terrorism Uncategorized Victoria Heath Women in Security

Women Are Game Changers in Countering Violent Extremism: Part Two

Marilyn Monroe Was Right

 In the 1950s Marilyn Monroe wrote in her personal diary, “Everyone’s childhood plays itself out. No wonder no one knows the other, or can completely understand. How do we know the pain of another’s earlier years, let alone all that he (she) drags with him (her).”

Article 2 image

Monroe’s words find relevance in today’s efforts to counter the lure of violent extremism. Yes, the arguably best-known Hollywood movie starlet of all time unknowingly had something to say regarding the modern struggle with violent extremism. The core idea Monroe expressed in her diary suggests that all individuals are impacted by their childhood and those subsequent experiences. When discussing the thousands of individuals who have left their homes to join ISIS in the Middle East or who resort to violent extremism in other parts of the world, it is important to take into account this notion that their identity began from their childhood and the experiences that shaped them are the roots of their behavior today. This includes social and familial interactions, religious experiences and education, among others.

The Lure of Violent Extremism for Women

 Earlier this year, Canadians were alarmed when it was discovered an ISIS recruiter located in Edmonton was enlisting Canadian women to fight in Syria. The family of one of these girls, known publicly as Aisha, stated, “We all went to work, came home, and all her stuff was gone.” Many Canadians, including Aisha’s family, are struggling to identify what convinced her to leave for Syria. Unfortunately, the path to violent extremism is overwhelmingly complicated and differs for every individual. Within this complexity lies the importance of Monroe’s words.

With regard to the women now joining the fight in Syria, particularly with ISIS but also other extremist groups, the UAE-based think-tank Hedayah indicated that women and young girls have been recruited primarily through social media and for some, the notion of marriage is an important factor. Although the estimated number of foreign women who have joined ISIS is only 10% of the total Western men fighting, it is still significant that women are joining an organization that a majority of the world deems oppressive towards women and extraordinarily violent.

ISIS has recognized the importance women serve in communities. A working society cannot exist without the presence of women, particularly a society that aims to become a gender-segregated state, adhering to their version of Islamic law regarding the dress and conduct of women. For example, the Syrian city of Raqqa, now under ISIS control, has a female security force that was established to help enforce these ideas and laws amongst the female population.

In order to combat violent extremism associated with groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, several countries have implemented counter-violent extremism programs. Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Yemen and the Netherlands are in the forefront of creating these programs. However the US Institute of Peace in 2008 reported several challenges facing them, such as a lack of resources, transparency, monitoring, social reintegration, popular opinion and political will.

Despite the challenges, these programs are essential towards combating terrorism in order to gain a better grasp of what drives individuals to become violent extremists. It is also imperative that individuality is taken into consideration in both de-radicalization and countering radicalization. Marisa L. Porges and Jessica Stein argue in Getting Deradicalization Right, “focusing on rehabilitation, as opposed to ideological change is sensible if it is acknowledged that committed ideologues may never give up their beliefs but might change their behavior.” This will differ by individual, and often utilizing family connections is imperative in order to promote behavioral change or recognize violent behaviors. Porges and Stein also emphasize that the development of personal relationships between detainees, program officials, community members and other workers are important in order to foster individual attention and understanding.

The International Peace Institute (IPI) also identified the importance of interviewing radical individuals and developing strategies in CVE programs that center on trends found within these interviews in terms of paths to radicalization and beliefs. The IPI found that most importantly, social camaraderie and social networks maintain an extremist community and lure new recruits most effectively.

Although a dialogue has emerged identifying the motives of women who have joined ISIS today, the reasons women join violent groups historically, including in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Columbia, etc, are still wholly unknown. Questions should continue to be asked but will only be answered effectively if the experiences of individuals are studied in depth.

Women’s Role in the Community

In order to lessen the grip of violent extremism on some women, CVE programs should integrate the interests, to some extent, of women’s groups that can target other women specifically. Women can be game changers in CVE in this regard, not only at a communal level but from within their own families. The US Institute of Peace reiterated this importance recently, stating, “Women as mothers, caretakers, partners, teachers and faith leaders – can uniquely, help build social cohesion, sense of belonging, and self-esteem that youth might need to resist the appeal of a violent group.” Groups already exist in countries such as Pakistan (Paiman Trust), Tunisia (Tunisian Association of Democratic Women) and Egypt (Center for Egypt Women’s Legal Assistance) that vary in size, specialty, structure and mission. However, they each experience a lack of resources, international support and outreach.

This delegation of women in Pakistan, are a part of Amn-O-Nisa, a coalition supported by The Institute for Inclusive Security aimed at countering extremist violence and formulating effective policies.


In particular, the focus on the individual woman, her experiences and her decisions, as Monroe indicates, is important in understanding her actions and can help forge a new solution to the problem of violent extremism. Utilizing women’s groups that already exist and supporting others for further development can foster this focus. Understanding the lure of violent extremism is not justifying the action; instead it is actively searching for a solution grounded in individual experience and fact instead of general theory. The overarching motives expressed today are relevant, but what makes these motives attractive to individual women? Instead of studying the surface of a problem, the roots are most significant for applicable solutions.


To view Part One of this series please click here.


Victoria Heath
Victoria is a former Program Editor for Women in Security at the NATO Association of Canada. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2013 with a BA, honours degree in History and Political Science with a focus on the Middle East and women's rights. She was a member of AmeriCorps from 2013-2014 working at Great Oaks Charter School in Newark, NJ as a tutor and advisor for high-risk students. Her interests in security, women's rights and defense issues originate from her family's background in the U.S. military and growing up abroad in the Middle East. She has done previous research in U.S. Foreign Policy and Congressional affairs at Project Vote Smart, as well as research in women's health and refugee issues for the Lutheran World Federation in Kakuma, Kenya. She is also the creator of the Migration and Policy Coalition at the University of Toronto and the Co-Chair of the MGA Crisis Simulation 2016. She is currently pursuing her MGA at the Munk School of Global Affairs and is expected to graduate in 2016. You can connect with her @victoria_heath7 on Twitter or send her an email at