The second Fempower event of the year took place last week at the University Women’s Club in London, hosted by Rt. Hon. Hazel Blears and Quilliam’s Senior Researcher, Nikita Malik. Fempower is Quilliam’s outreach project seeking to empower women and girls against extremism. The aim of the event was to discuss the importance of women and young people in countering violent extremism, at both the policy and the grassroots levels.

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The Rt. Hon. Hazel Blears began the discussion, and spoke of her time as former Police and Counter-Terrorism Minister. Blears was responsible for counter-terrorism at the time of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, and during the discussion described how the attacks demonstrated an urgent need to develop a long term counter violent extremism strategy, that went beyond a standard legislative response. Following the attacks, Blears spent a year working within communities across the UK to understand the motivations behind violent extremism, and during the presentation explained these experiences informed her that “traditional community gatekeepers were socially conservative old men.” The discussion highlighted that too often policymakers speak to self-appointed male community leaders. Women and young people are increasingly seen as vulnerable to radicalisation, and for that reason their experiences and thoughts must be incorporated into counter extremism strategies to ensure an effective response. Involving more women and young people will facilitate more meaningful progresses in preventing radicalisation and countering violent extremism, thus aiding social cohesion by allowing a platform to air issues related to extremism.

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Nikita Malik, a Senior Researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, lead the discussion alongside Hazel. Malik is the head of the Fempower project, and one key aspect of the programme is to address the issue of gender extremism amongst women and girls. Gender inequality, and the acceptance of violence towards women, is in itself ‘extremist’. The Department for Education recently warned that children brought up in violent homes are more desensitized and accepting of violence, therefore more susceptible to radicalisation by charismatic organisations. There are hardly any violent extremist, terrorist or hate crime offenders who are not also sexist and homophobic, manifesting highly conflictive gender identity issues. Malik argued that violence against women and girls is an important factor when examining violent extremism, as gender issues are one of the driving forces behind violent extremist behaviour. One of the main recommendations by Quilliam was for a more multifaceted and nuanced approach to countering violent extremism. Current prevention and assistance programs tend to focus on one element of prevention – be it domestic violence or religious extremism – while failing to consider how these aspects, far from being mutually exclusive, tend to work together. Both Blears and Malik advocated for more community based programmes to provide confidence training workshops for mothers, teachers and other front line workers, where countering violent extremism and knowledge building on conflict situations are prioritised. Families, and in particular mothers, are an under-used strength in the fight against extremism. Vulnerable young people trust their mothers, and families are excellent support networks and messengers for counter- narratives.

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The discussion was very well received with an excellent level of audience participation following the presentation. The attendance of Rt. Hon. Dr. Julian Lewis from the Conservative party demonstrated that countering violent extremism is a non-partisan and inclusive effort. The concluding argument made by Rt. Hon. Hazel Blears was that countering violent extremism has been led by men for too long. As such, if women’s voices go unheard, efforts will be at least 50 percent inhibited. Tackling extremism is the responsibility of everyone, and will only be successful if there is a civil society led coalition against extremist ideologies.