This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2021
Terrorist groups have long recognised the importance of gender in their online propaganda and recruitment strategies. Yet, efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism online often fail to be gender-savvy. In many cases, these programmes themselves risk perpetuating gender stereotypes and inequality.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
ISIL provides a prime example of the skilful use and exploitation of gendered grievances and vulnerabilities for terrorist purposes. ISIL appealed to male recruits by glorifying violence against women
, offering them sex and sexual slavery as spoils of war. It was able to tap into male feelings of resentment and emasculation by constructing an idea of hyper-masculinity based on violence and the subjugation of women. ISIL also frequently used women and children in its propaganda
to shame male audiences for not stepping up to fight for the so-called caliphate. These narratives were adapted to a range of online mediums.
ISIL was able to tap into male feelings of resentment and emasculation by constructing an idea of hyper-masculinity based on violence and the subjugation of women.
Similarly, ISIL has been able to tailor its messaging to women in different local contexts. For example, ISIL’s English and French propaganda materials targeting Muslim women in the West
sought to project messages of female empowerment and a sense of purpose and belonging to those who felt marginalised in their communities and societies. Even if the promise of empowerment was a complete distortion of the reality that these women would find in the so-called caliphate, efforts to counter such narratives have not been equally adept at speaking to these gendered needs and desires. It is crucial for CVE responses to more meaningfully incorporate gender perspectives and address structural gender inequality as an essential part of prevention.
Extreme right-wing terrorism
Similar challenges confront us in addressing the threat of extreme right-wing terrorism (also referred to as racially and ethnically motivated terrorism). Extreme right-wing groups are sophisticated in their use of the Internet to recruit and radicalise. They use mainstream social media platforms to target new audiences outside the movement, and use non-mainstream platforms for in-group communication and radicalisation. Extreme right-wing terrorists have consistently adapted to new spaces
and new online tools and have often been “early adopters” of those tools.
Violent masculinity is seen as a response to fears that white men are losing power in an ever-changing, multicultural landscape and those fears are exploited by violent extremist groups in gendered propaganda and recruitment strategies.
Gender influences the ideology and discourse of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and other extreme right-wing groups and impacts how they operate both online and offline. These movements variously blend racist and anti-immigrant narratives around “the survival of the nation” and “the great replacement” with the subjugation of women and promotion of their roles as mothers and housewives, particularly in low birth-rate countries
. This rhetoric is often accompanied by the glorification or outright incitement to violence against women. These synergies allow misogynist groups in the so-called ‘manopshere’
to act as a gateway to violent extreme right-wing networks. Violent masculinity is seen as a response to fears that white men are losing power in an ever-changing, multicultural landscape and those fears are exploited by violent extremist groups in gendered propaganda and recruitment strategies.
Despite the deeply misogynistic ideology of the extreme right, women play an increasingly active role in these movements
, including in promoting rhetoric and as active supporters and proponents of their agenda. In the online space in particular, women are instrumental in normalising and adding a veneer of legitimacy to extremist views. That they are able to do so is itself the result of deeply entrenched gender stereotypes that paint women as inherently peaceful.
The impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen violent extremist actors adapt their narratives
to exploit the pandemic for recruitment and propaganda purposes. Social media analysis has also shown a rise in online misogyny and hate speech directed at women across different parts of the world. As people spend more and more time online as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns, digital platforms are being increasingly used to spread misogyny and hate speech against women, potentially provoking violence — online and offline. Research commissioned by UN Women in the Asia-Pacific region
has shown an increase in the volume of misogynistic online content, with many of those spreading this kind of content also displaying highly nationalistic sentiments and promoting various conspiracy theories.
As people spend more and more time online as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns, digital platforms are being increasingly used to spread misogyny and hate speech against women, potentially provoking violence — online and offline.
Use of new technologies
Terrorist groups have not only used the Internet and new technologies for propaganda and recruitment purposes. These tools have also enabled them to organise and facilitate criminal activities and to fundraise. Various social media platforms were used to enable ISIL’s trafficking of Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery
, bolstering funding and advancing the subjugation and attempted destruction of an entire community.
Yet, the gendered impacts of new technologies are not limited to their use by terrorist actors. The use of new technologies in counter-terrorism and CVE efforts has also been shown to carry distinct gendered risks. The use of surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, has clear gender and racial dimensions. Understanding how social biases inform these technologies
is crucial to responsible use and averting the particularly serious effects that breaches of privacy and other fundamental rights can have for women and various minority groups. While increasing diversity in the tech industry is seen as a key step in addressing bias, little progress has been achieved in this area so far.
The use of surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, has clear gender and racial dimensions.
And while technological innovation carries potential to more effectively counter violent extremism, access to such technologies and the advantages that they offer is not equal across different demographics. This digital divide risks perpetuating structural inequality across wealth, racial and gender lines.
It is high time to take the gender dimensions of violent extremism more seriously. This starts by ensuring better monitoring, research and analysis of the distinct ways in which terrorist groups appeal to men and women online, systematically collecting sex-disaggregated data and addressing underlying patterns of structural gender inequality. Regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of new technologies must place human rights at the centre and ensure that gender factors are considered, including more effectively addressing misogynistic hate speech online. Gender expertise is required in the design and development of online CVE interventions and such programmes must include robust monitoring and evaluation of their gendered impacts. All of these measures require cooperation between governments, the tech industry and civil society and must be accompanied by meaningful efforts to remedy the lack of diversity in this field.
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