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Countering the caliphate in North Africa: three expert views on gender and the need for collective action


Written by Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, Rachel George, Melanie Pinet

Hero image description: Alaa Murabit, of NGO Voice of Libyan Women at UN Security Council Debate on Women, Peace and Security, 2015. Photo: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

While the transnational nature of violent extremism across North Africa is becoming increasingly clear, international and national prevention remains restricted by state borders and often overlooks the role of gender.

Based on our experiences of developing a network of government and civil society leaders across North Africa with UN Women and the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, here are three key insights into why and how greater regional engagement that adopts a gendered lens can succeed in countering violent extremism.

Frequently asked questions

Sherine El Taraboulsi–McCarthy: policies, programmes and shared interests in North Africa

In designing Countering Violent Extremism and Preventing Violent Extremism (C/PVE) programmes, practitioners often overlook how North African countries not only share borders and problems but also history.

A United States Institute of Peace study on peace-building in Libya from 2016 points out that examining cross-border transactions is necessary when designing peace-building interventions.

The existence of cross-border networks rooted in historical and communal ties presents both opportunities and challenges. For instance, cross-border transactions include arms smuggling but also civil society exchanges that help shape the Libyan political and civic landscape. More can be done between states to ensure they build on one another’s strengths and comparative advantages.

In Morocco, the government has introduced several programmes that are part of a ‘softer’ approach in countering violent extremism as well as re-radicalisation. The Mourchidat programme launched in 2015 delivers religious training, including to female preachers, to help promote an ‘authentic, tolerant and open Islam’ as part of an approach to gender and C/PVE. The Musalaha (reconciliation) programme (link in Arabic) involves the Directorate of Prisons and National Council for Human Rights and other experts to address reconciliation of imprisoned former extremists, including through religious education.

Tunisia has also introduced programmes that train some 280 female preachers alongside the development of a National Strategy for Countering Extremism and Terrorism in 2015, focusing on four pillars: prevention, protection, prosecution and response.

Egypt’s approach is based primarily on new counterterrorism laws and large-scale policing to identify suspected terrorists. This differs both in its framing of the issue and the stakeholders it engages.

In all of these cases, a more robust exchange of best practice and lessons learned can help address the threat of violent extremism more effectively.

Frequently asked questions

Melanie Pinet: collective responses to violent extremism from Europe

Networked responses to violent extremism are on the rise. The EU-led Mothers for Life is a global pro-bono network of mothers who have experienced radicalisation in their own families. The network uses digital media and public events to promote counter-narratives challenging violent extremism and provides counsel to families going through the same issues themselves.

The Women and Extremism network brings together female policy-makers, academics and activists to address the phenomenon of women in extremism. In the summer of 2017, the first euro-Mediterranean conference hosted by associations from French social enterprise GROUPE SOS convened local and national authorities, civil society, researchers and practitioners from both sides of the Mediterranean to identify concrete actions to tackle radicalisation. This was followed by a series of similar conferences hosted by both EuroMed and the Center for Mediterranean Integration.

Overall, whilst efforts towards more coherent action have been made, a consistent, gender-based and multi-disciplinary approach going beyond immediate responses to security threats would bring greater impact.

Frequently asked questions

Rachel George: a regional approach as a way forward

Future efforts should consider new framing for the region based on shared priorities and global lesson-learning. One path ahead is to capitalise on the ongoing Women, Peace and Security agenda, which at the  recent 18th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 acknowledged gender as a key aspect of international conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.

Understanding the social dimensions of violent extremism, including the roles of women in society, the nature of harmful masculinity and social drivers of violence, remains an important lens through which future efforts can be galvanised to bring in new actors and approaches shut out by the predominant securitised approach.

A new way ahead should capitalise on these global conversations and contribute to them through more robust regional collaboration across North Africa, where overall goals are aligned and lessons are ready to be shared across the region.