Countering Violent Extremism Means Countering Gender Inequality


In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere, we are reminded of the need for people to work together together to take back their religions and counter violent extremism. Doing so without addressing the fundamental lack of rights and opportunities for women and girls because of official laws, practices, or edicts that may be based on religion, however, is akin to cutting off the top of a weed without addressing the roots. This is one area in which the world cannot afford to take shortcuts.

There are ongoing discussions and debates about gender roles within almost every world religion, often led by women and men who want to see change within their communities. But in many parts of the world, official laws and policies impose gender discrimination and even gender-based violence in the name of religion, prohibiting women and girls from leading happy, healthy, productive lives.

These laws and policies discriminate against women throughout society, not just in religious spaces. For example, they preclude women from voicing their concerns in a court of law. They permit husbands, fathers, and brothers to beat women, or to marry them off when they are still adolescents. They restrict women’s ability to work, own property, pass nationality to their children, or leave their home, city, or country without a man’s permission. And they inhibit women’s freedom to make decisions about their bodies and access medical care. These laws and policies undermine our ability to create fully functioning societies and undermine prospects for peace and stability.

Furthermore, gender inequality is linked to violence and helps fuel violent extremism. The tactics of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) present the starkest example. The group is using sexual and gender-based violence not only as a tactic of terror, but also as a method of recruitment, luring thousands of young men with promises of access to — and full control over — women and girls. But its strict gender norms don’t just appeal to men; thousands of women from around the world — including Western Europe and the United States — also support the group, at least some of whom crave its idealized depictions of marriage, motherhood, and “traditional” roles for women.

But ISIL is not alone in promoting this type of ideology. This year, the United Nations supported a global study to examine progress on the women, peace, and security agenda. It found that “across religions and regions, a common thread shared by extremist groups is that in each and every instance, their advance has been coupled with attacks on the rights of women and girls — rights to education, to public life and to decision-making over their own bodies.” It is hard to think of another single factor that unites each and every violent extremist group’s agenda. And as we’ve seen in far too many cases, groups that are willing to use violence against women and girls in their own communities are all too willing to use violence against others as well.

For this reason, it is critical that government, civil society, and religious leaders speak out in unequivocal terms against discriminatory laws and policies that authorize violence against women, even if they are based on religion. We must collectively use all of our efforts to promote gender equality, not only as a human rights or “women’s issue,” but as a national security imperative. We can no longer accept justifications or excuses that authorize violence against women and girls in the name of religion, because we have seen the implications of such thinking on our own security.

President Obama has long understood the connection between gender equality and national security. In the first two months of his presidency he nominated the first ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, a strong symbol of the importance he places on these issues in his foreign policy. The current Ambassador-at-Large, Catherine Russell, firmly believes that as we grapple with today’s challenges and consider ways to confront ISIL and other violent extremist groups, we must continue to include advancing the status of women and girls globally as an integral part of our efforts. As one of her senior advisors, I engage religious leaders and people of faith globally to advance the status of women and girls, and I also recommend strategies for including women in our international efforts to counter violent extremism.

The good news is that we have no shortage of partners around the world to help us. In my travels abroad and my work here in Washington, I have had the good fortune of meeting women of all faiths — and some of no faith — working to promote gender equality and to push back on violent extremist ideology around the world. In Sri Lanka, Catholic nuns are working with women of all faiths in the Northern Province to provide war widows with income-earning activities and to support victims of gender-based violence. In Bangladesh, women of different faiths are working within their communities to end early and forced marriage, which has hugely negative effects on girls, their families, and their communities. This summer, during the West Africa and the Sahel Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, I met women from around that region who are pushing back on violent extremism within their communities, including by rejecting religious-based narratives that keep women down.

These women and the many others like them doing similar work around the world are not turning their backs on their faiths or promoting a “foreign” agenda. Rather, they are working to advance the principles that underpin all of the world’s great religions: tolerance, love, and respect for human dignity. And — given the links between violent extremism and restricting the rights of women and girls — supporting their work is one of the most effective counterterrorism strategies the international community can employ.


Julia Santucci is a Senior Advisor to Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to joining the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, she covered national security issues in the United States Government for more than a decade, most recently as Director for Egypt at the National Security Council.


Photo credit: AfghanistanMatters