Local women at the Global Open Day for Women and Peace in Gaza.
Local women at the Global Open Day for Women and Peace in Gaza.

(WOMENSENEWS)–From New York Magazine to Malaysia’s New Straits Times, ISIS has us taking women more seriously.

While recent reports indicate there is a rise in foreign female ISIS recruits, we have to ask, what about all the other women we aren’t reading about?

I’m talking about all the other women who, for decades, have been fighting against violent extremist groups such as ISIS on a daily basis; without an army and without significant material resources or support.

The number of women actively involved in non-violent political activities that are effective–if under-resourced–responses to countering extremism far outnumber new female recruits to ISIS. And these nonviolent female political actors are one of our greatest but most under-utilized modern capabilities in the fight against violent extremism: women’s empowerment.

In 2000, the U.N. Security Council enshrined this principle when it passed Resolution 1325, spotlighting the importance of women in preventing conflict and building peace.

And there is plenty of evidence to back that up.

Tracking Militancy

Women’s civil societies in Somalia and Pakistan, for example, demonstrated their ability to work directly with local communities and track signs of growing militancy, finds a report produced by the Swedish National Defense College. In Somalia, in 2012, women’s groups were noted for their public condemnation of a call by the wife of al-Zawahiri’s for mothers to bring up their children to support violence and terrorism.

Extremist groups often target women first, with gender-based violence tactics such as acid attacks, forced marriage and rape. That means these victims are some of the first to suffer rising political violence in their communities.

But when women gain power and equality it helps counter extremism and peace building, finds a 2013 Brookings Institution study on countering violent extremism in Bangladesh and Morocco.

Morocco offers a good example. In 2005, the Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs trained 50 female preachers known as mourchidates (or "guides") as a direct response to the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca to counter extremist ideology in mosques, local communities and prisons in Rabat and Casablanca. These women act as spiritual guides and promote religious moderation in their communities. In 2014, the number of certified female increased by 1,000 percent, according to the Brookings study.

Women’s Religious Authority Helps

What is brilliant about this program is the establishment of women’s religious authority. While female spiritual guides are still not equal to men (they cannot lead the call to prayer for example) women now have the opportunity to act in a public role of significant influence. If a woman feels a family member is becoming radicalized, she can approach a mourchidate to discuss the problem of increasing violence in the community.

Other countries have made the correlation between women’s empowerment and halting political violence. Turkey, Dubai and Egypt are also recruiting women to positions of religious authority and influence, according to the 2010 book Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman.

On the flip side, failing to recognize women as political actors hinders our success in countering violent extremism.

For example, studies in Saudi Arabia indicate that although women were arrested for terrorism-related offenses, including involvement in bomb preparation, they were returned home without being prosecuted. Instead, their families were asked to "supervise" them. In other words, women’s radicalization is viewed as a personal matter not of political significance.

One way to empower women is to consult with them as per Resolution 1325. Talking with organizations like Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), the world’s first female counter-terrorism platform, or the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), which works with coalitions of women peace builders living in conflict zones in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, is a great start.

They are at the forefront of efforts focused on preventing violent conflict–and they have global reach. In addition, women’s organizations like ICAN and SAVE act as our eyes and ears on the ground, reporting and analyzing the drivers of political violence.

They are, in fact, our first line of defense. Let’s take them more seriously.