30 January 2016

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Last Saturday, Quilliam launched its first Fempower event at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), a charity organisation supporting Afghans in the UK by providing education, encouraging dialogue, giving advice, and promoting equality.

Nikita Malik is the initiator and head of Fempower, a unique project seeking to address gender extremism at the political and grassroots levels. We accompanied her to Lewisham to support and document her first workshop at the ACAA.

After being warmly welcomed by the workshop hosts, Nikita introduced Quilliam’s and especially Fempower’s counter-extremism work in an interactive discussion that also addressed preconceptions among participants.

After this brief introduction, Nikita started to explain the relationship between identity and extremism. For this purpose, she conducted an interactive exercise with the participants, asking them to write down the main element that defines their identity. In a second step, the participants had to ascribe characteristics to their partners. This exercise aimed at demonstrating the multi-faceted nature of identity. Nikita then showed the #RejectISIS video “Who am I?”, which features 17-year-old Aouda Ketrouchi talking about her search for identity.

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Following this, insights were given on the impact that identity crises can have on an individual’s vulnerability to extremist narratives and radicalisation. She gave a definition of radicalisation and opened a debate on what it meant to be an extremist with the participants. The discussion was focused on gender-related vulnerability to radicalisation and the role of women in extremist organisations. Nikita also addressed recruiting strategies of Islamic State, referring to her recently published report “Caliphettes: Women and the appeal of Islamic State”.

The second half of the workshop focused on ‘gender extremism’, an area of research within the FemPower project. Nikita began by defining what is meant by ‘gender extremism’, and that violence towards women and girls is in itself extremist. Nikita then went on to discuss how violence against women and girls is an important factor when examining violent extremism, as gender issues are the key driving forces of violent extremist behaviour. The focus was on honour-based violence, a form of domestic abuse which occurs across all cultures, nationalities, faith groups and communities. Honour-based violence is a collection of practices that are used to control behaviour to preserve perceived cultural or religious beliefs and/or honour, of which women are predominantly the victims.

To demonstrate the effects and reality of honour-based violence, Nikita conducted another interactive exercise called ‘Unpacking ‘Honour’’. Participants were given a worksheet with a number of behaviours, for example ‘being seen as modern’, and were encouraged to answer whether this would be honourable or dishonourable within their community, and to consider the responses for both a woman and a man. The discussion following this was very interesting, with some participants sharing their personal experiences. After a group discussion the participants agreed that a number of behaviours would be dishonourable for a women, but not so for their male counterparts. Examples of this were moving away from the community to study or entering into a relationship outside the community.

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The discussions following this exercise highlighted the fact that a number of societal issues with regards to the rights of women and girls are due to embedded patriarchy, and are not a part of any cultural or religious belief. This is important when tackling extremist ideologies, as perpetrators of gender extremism often use culture and religion as a justification for their actions, and it is important for women and girls suffering such practices to understand that they are victims of abuse.

At the end of the workshop we asked participants to fill in an evaluation to measure the success of the workshop, and the results were very promising.

100% of the participants responded that they learnt something new about radicalisation and extremism. One participant wrote ‘it was very informative’ and made her want join ‘all workshops and Quilliam conferences’. 60% of participants responded that the workshop changed their view on radicalisation/extremism, with one writing it made her feel ‘more optimistic in challenging extremist views’. Most encouraging of all was the participant who felt the Fempower workshop enabled her to spread what she and the other participants had learned to others.

We look forward to continuing to build relationships with women and spreading the education of gender extremism to all communities.

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