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Gender Empowerment in Interreligious Peacebuilding Through DM&E

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by Lila O'Brien-Milne

One element common to violent religious extremist movements of all faiths is advocating for strict adherence to traditional gender roles that tend to disempower women. However, it can be difficult to incorporate women’s empowerment, and women themselves, into religious peacebuilding, as religious leaders may be resistant to women’s inclusion. Ultimately, we know that women’s inclusion in peacebuilding interventions is necessary for success - women as mothers and wives can be powerful deradicalizing forces, and research has shown that states with higher levels of gender equality are less prone to experiencing religious violence. So the question arises: how can women be empowered through the design, monitoring, and evaluation of interreligious peacebuilding?

Even in contexts where women’s rights have been curtailed significantly, peacebuilding programming should recognize the ways in which women are able to exercise agency, and potentially use that agency to commit and perpetuate violence. Women in areas affected by religious extremism and violence are often viewed as victims (even when they actively commit violence) or, when their agency is acknowledged, the focus is on women’s use of “soft power” as agents of peace in traditional societal roles. In this context, women’s role in perpetuating violent conflict is often overlooked.   A global study of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace, and Security found that women who join ISIS and other extremist movements are often portrayed as brainwashed “jihadi brides” as opposed to women making conscious decisions. Some women make this choice for the same reasons as men, experienced in different ways: women members of ISIS surveyed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue cited the oppression of Muslims worldwide, desire to contribute to statebuilding, and individual duty or identity. Women who are victims of violence or discrimination may feel that public space has been militarized by conflict to the extent that they have no non-violent options to express their grievances. They may be drawn to extremist groups by restrictions on their religious practices; for example, religious women and girls tend to bear the brunt of Islamophobia in the West, particularly regarding religious clothing. Finally, where women’s agency is severely restricted by their families in accordance with strict interpretations of religion, joining violent extremist groups may offer a kind of “liminal agency” - a freedom from their families, but within a strict hierarchy of men.

Women who don’t participate directly in violent movements can still perpetuate violence through their roles as wives and mothers. Recent research by MercyCorps showed that for Jordanian men who go to fight in Syria, social networks - including family - were a major factor in determining whether men stayed in Jordan or went to Syria. Additionally, most men cited the protection of Sunni women and children as a main motivator in their urge to join the fighting.   Gender sensitivity in religious conflict analysis should include women’s roles in perpetuating violence, not just in building peace or as victims of violence (though those roles are also important). Conflict analysis is the basis for programming in that it asks what is fueling the conflict and what form conflict is taking, informing the theory of change and program design. Factors that draw women to violent conflict, both as combatants and as perpetrators of violent extremist sentiment, will not be addressed by gender-blind solutions where they differ from the experiences of men.

On the flip side, women’s inclusion in religious peacebuilding frequently hinges on their identities as mothers. The role of “mother” has been identified by peacebuilding and security actors alike as an inroad to counter forces of radicalisation. Projects like “mother’s schools” teach women to recognize signs of radicalization and extremism among their children and counter those forces. These programs can have great success in their stated goals; however, the Global Study of UNSCR 1325 notes that these and similar projects also reinforce traditional gender roles and can disempower women in the long run.

Take, for example, the Jordanian men in the MercyCorps research. They go to fight in Syria to protect Sunni women and children, but in doing so, leave the women and children depending on them vulnerable. It is tempting to use this narrative to encourage men not to join the fighting by emphasizing the need of their female relatives. In the long run, however, this will only reinforce the narrative of women’s dependency upon, and thus subservience to, men. This disempowers women and may serve to encourage them to join extremist movements - recall that women were drawn to the independence that such movements offered from their families. Additionally, such programs do not address the underlying gendered motivation of fighters, and the reproduction of a violent masculinity where fighters are seen as “real men.”

Design and evaluation of such programs must consider the balance between making use of the influence mothers and wives have in society and contributing to harmful gender roles and the marginalization of women to spaces of soft power. Including gender in the theory of change and evaluations of a program will help to ensure that religious peacebuilding programs are not inadvertently harming women participants, and are addressing the gendered motivators for violence.   Finally, as more gender sensitive evaluations are completed, they may empower women in and of themselves. Evidence of the benefits of including women in religious peacebuilding interventions may convince leaders who would otherwise be against women’s participation to reconsider by showing empirically that, for instance, mother’s schools that include an empowerment component are better attended and thus more effective than those that don’t. This, in turn, may allow more local women to be able to step into positions of leadership within religious peacebuilding initiatives and pave the way for community empowerment and leadership for women.