WomEx: Women and Girls as Mediators against Extremism?

The Berlin-based association ‘cultures interactive’ works on the topic of ‘Women, Gender and Extremism’. The results of this research project were released recently. It focusses on the relationship between gender and extremism. Aylin Yavas met with Silke Baer, who runs the project to learn about the roles of women in extremist movements and about the similarities between gender roles and gender-specific issues in Islamism and right-wing extremism.

What is ‘cultures interactive’ and what can you tell me about ‘WomEx’?


Silke Baer ist pädagogisch-wissenschaftliche Leiterin des Vereins cultures interactive e.V. Seit 2002 ist sie in der Rechtsextremismus- und Gewaltprävention tätig. Um Jugendliche aus allen Milieus zu erreichen, entwickelte sie den jugendkulturellen Ansatz in der politischen Bildungsarbeit.

‘Cultures interactive’ is an association dedicated to inter-cultural education and violence prevention. Using a youth culture oriented approach, we try to reach young people who would tend to be less interested in conventional civic education formats. Above all, we do youth culture work. ‘WomEx’ is a 2-year project that has recently ended. We are now presenting the project results regarding ‘gender-aware practical approaches’. We have created profiles of groups that have offered gender-aware prevention work in the area of right-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism. These profiles can be found on our website where they are updated on a continual basis.

The idea of WomEx came up when the NSU (National Socialist Underground, an extreme right terror organization in Germany) was exposed. Two men and one woman were involved in the group, which showed that women often play an important role in extremism that is much too often neglected. We were interested in investigating the gender-specific phenomena: What perceptions of femininity and masculinity exist in the respective scenes? What do these perceptions have to do with the appeal they exercise on men and women or girls and boys? What is the gender-specific attraction or motivation to join? Parallels between right-wing extremism and Islamism can be found here.

The second major question was: What phenomena and types of girls/women can we find in extremist groups? Both right-wing extremism and militant Islamism offer traditional, pre-modern gender roles. Do women become involved in these movements because they don’t feel comfortable with the challenges and freedoms that come with modern gender roles? Or do they find some kind of emancipation there? Looking at the young women who get involved with IS this seems to be very clear: I can easily imagine that girls who don’t feel appreciated in our society because of their Muslim background feel ‘upgraded’ by joining militant jihad – also in their role as women. At least initially, the terrorist network stands for the message: Come join us, we have a mission for you!

Accordingly, turning to IS means more than ‘to do something’ or ‘be a follower’. The same also applies to right-wing extremism: Women don’t join this scene to let themselves be oppressed; they find a form of empowerment and they improve their situation vis-à-vis their previous life.

What was your methodical approach? And what was the objective?

We did intervention research: Our concern was to get an overview, to describe the phenomena and list the access points we found. We exchanged expertise, attended conferences and conducted interviews with social workers and practitioners in the prevention field. Furthermore, we carried out an analysis of news articles and of scientific literature. We collected all this information and analyzed it in order to get hold of the gender-specific phenomena with all the relevant aspects. That’s how we came to the conclusion that extremist groups are not always about oppression and subordination. Indeed, they can also be about self-empowerment.

One goal was to find prevention projects that work in a gender-aware way. Very quickly it became clear that there are not many and we started to work on concepts how to introduce the gender aspect into the prevention work. We looked at various areas of social work. At mother-and-child shelters, for instance, where we found young mothers who are involved in violent movements – and who are also willing to talk about it. But there is (practically) no one there to listen; there are no support structures to help them through exit processes. These women return to their social environments without any support.

In the brochure that summarizes our results, we list agencies that can be approached and also outline gender-specific recommendations. One striking example. Only 3 to 10 percent of the girls/women we asked had been in touch with a violence prevention program.

What do I need to keep in mind if I want to address this subject?

One thing that should be considered is that women carry out violence differently from men. They are more likely to incite violence and carry out verbal violence, although they are certainly capable of exercising real violence as well. It appears that the police force and the criminal justice system do not have this on their radar and it’s time for change. We still stick to the idea that women are the gentle sex – and this is exploited mercilessly by these movements. In right-wing extremism, for example, women are encouraged to join parent councils at schools, for example, so that they can later use them as a platform to promulgate their ideology.

Inwiefern können Rechtsextremismus und Islamismus zusammengedacht werden?

Ich habe da nicht so große Berührungsängste, trotzdem braucht es unterschiedliches Fachwissen. Es gibt die Vorstellung, dass die Diskriminierungserfahrungen von muslimischen Kids einen wichtigen Unterschied ausmachen. Wahr ist, dass das eine aus einer Minderheitengruppe und das andere aus einer vermeintlichen Mehrheitsgruppe entsteht. Wenn man individuell schaut, stellt man fest, dass rechtsextreme Kids häufig genauso das Gefühl haben, Verlierer zu sein, ausgegrenzt und nichts mehr wert zu sein. Man spricht da von einer persönlich wahrgenommenen Benachteiligung. Und das finden wir auf beiden Seiten. Eine weitere Parallele – auch besonders für die Mädels – ist, dass sich aus der Zugehörigkeit zu der Gruppe eine Verbesserung ergibt. Es gibt ja wie gesagt die Vorstellung, dass Mädchen, die sich der rechten Szene anschließen, sexuell ausgenutzte Anhängsel wären – das gibt es auch, aber in der Mehrheit sind das selbstbestimmte Wege. Die Mädchen haben ebenso wie Jungen eigenständige politische Motive und teilen die zentralen Ideologien der Ungleichwertigkeit, die diese Szene ausmachen.
Another project objective was to offer political consultation. We want our findings to be considered in EU strategies on the prevention of – and fight against –terrorism.

What are the parallels between the women who are active in Islamist and in right-wing extremist movements?

One similarity is the emphasis placed on traditional, pre-modern role models and the rejection of homosexuality. Right-wing extremism opposes, both politically and ideologically, gender mainstreaming and feminism, which are frowned upon as contrary to nature and they call them ‘European style re-education programs’. Their argumentation is as follows: ‘Policy makers in Brussels say we now have to turn gay’ or ‘We, as mothers, are no longer allowed to stay at home and raise our children; it’s almost like some kind of a directive from above’.

Another thing they have in common are multiple and sub-cultural role proposals for women. Women don’t go to Syria to become the oppressed second wife of a combatant. Instead, they are given opportunities to become politically and ideologically engaged for their cause. The roles they play are different from the roles of men – but they are exclusively responsible for housekeeping and child-rearing. They are involved in a sub-cultural struggle: The girls do public relations work, translate texts and fill right-wing extremist websites with content; discussion forums are organized by women.

To what extent is there a convergence between right-wing extremism and Islamism?

Often the argument is raised, that the experience of discrimination and racism made by Muslim youths constitutes a critical difference between the two groups and sure, Muslims come from a minority group and the extreme-right from an alleged majority group. But: If you look at each case individually, you will see that kids associated with right-wing extremists often also have this sense of being a loser. This is what can be called ‘self-perceived disadvantage’. A further parallel – especially when it comes to the girls – is that merely belonging to the group is seen as an improvement. As previously noted, there is the view that girls who become a part of the right-wing extremist scene are sexually exploited appendages and, although this can be the case, the majority follows self-determined paths. Girls as well as boys have their own political motivations and share the central ideology of inequality that defines this movement.

What other functions do women in Islamist and right-wing extremist scenes assume?

They do in fact also get involved in the fighting – in violence; especially in the right-wing scene. Females fight in a more gender-specific way, that is, they prefer attacks against other females who are affiliated with ‘enemy groups’ (‘Leftists’, ‘foreigners’). And being that women tend to be overlooked by security officials, they are deployed for the transport of explosives and weapons. Women also get involved in discussions in their local communities, in schools and in mosques: ‘Sisters, consider for a moment whether or not you are on the right path’. In another parallel between right-wing extremism and militant Islamism, they ‘harmlessly’ initiate dialog in this way.

A very important function of women is the stabilization of the scene from within. In the past, women were the number one factor in inducing ‘their’ men to drop out of right-wing extremism. Due to the fact that there were so few women involved in the scene, extremists were forced to look for girlfriends outside the group. And these women, at one point, would grow tired of a boyfriend who spends all his free time involved in heavy bouts of drinking and brutal excesses: they would exert all their influence to get them to exit this scene. With more women and girls joining the movement, it gets much easier to pair up and establish families. One problem that will have to be addressed in the coming years is the children who are being raised in right-wing extremist families. How, for example, will we deal with child custody matter after couples separate or leave the movement?

The recruiting strategy used by IS shows that they are keen to stabilize their terrorist community. They recruit in a gender-specific way. Girls are approached with the promise of marriage to martyrs and the opportunity to support jihad by starting families. Boys are recruited with videos that promise several women in marriage.

Where can the prevention and intervention efforts that are geared at girls/women hook into?

With girls and women, the approach must be different from the work with boys or men: Prevention and distancing bids targeted at females must offer girl-specific motivations. The perceived discrimination of young women can, for example, be addressed in ‘girl power’ workshops. Youth work should provide comprehensive programs that are designed in a gender-specific way and include ‘gender irritating’ offers. Issues that foster interest among pupils in right-wing extremist or militant Islamist propositions should be addressed in civic education programs at school (they must definitely not be ignored). Exit assistance for women should be offered by well-trained, qualified personnel and should be available at locations as shelters for women and at mother-child facilities as well.

Thank you for this interview!

Please refer to the brochure for more detailed information on this project, as well as the recommendations for action regarding gender-specific prevention work and intervention projects.