Gender, governance, and countering violent extremism (CVE) in the UK

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The paper draws upon ideas of decentred security, and governance and security assemblages, to explore the gendered nature of countering violent extremism. The paper focuses on the UK as an example of decentred CVE and concentrates on two areas. First, the paper looks at the evolution of modes of governing Muslim women in CVE initiatives. Second, the paper explores the tensions and frictions involved with the state and civil society using ‘formers’ (men who were previously involved in violent extremism) to engage in countering violent extremism community and de-radicalisation work. The paper finds that a decentred security governance approach to understanding CVE reveals how CVE is productive of MuslimWomen, of Muslim Communities and Violent Extremism. It also reveals CVE to operate not only according to formal documents and programmes but through an assemblage of beliefs, traditions and practices of everyday security.

Bibliographic note

Funding Information: This case study explores the production of the category ‘MuslimWoman’ in UK CVE. The continual remaking and recasting of the MuslimWoman is seen in the evolution of CVE – from a government-led National Muslim Women's Advisory Group which evolved into the less tangible Muslim Women's Network, and has then been side-lined in favour of discrete campaigns often run indirectly by third-sector organisations (albeit with influence and financing from Whitehall via ‘BreakThrough Media’). This is in many ways a classic example of movement towards decentred security governance - from overt government to informal nudge and influence campaigns. What is consistent is the stabilising of a particular kind of Muslim woman – one who needs empowering by ‘white knights’ and is lacking in agency. This rescue narrative serves as a tradition within security governance that, while amended as a result of the ‘ jihadi bride’ phenomenon, isn't easily overturned. The National Muslim Women's Advisory Group (NMWAG) was set up in 2007 to improve government engagement with Muslim women while politically empowering them. Its stated aim was to allow Muslim women to discuss, ‘difficult topics’, like forced marriage, cultural barriers, FGM and terrorism. NMWAG sought to have a variety of women on board who would act as ambassadors for Muslim women at the grass roots, provide positive role models, and dispel myths about Islam and Muslim women. It was also clearly linked to the overall government strategy of community cohesion to reduce ‘Islamic militancy’. Hazel Blears spoke at the time of its launch of how NMWAG would help the government in, “winning hearts and minds and tackling extremism,” ( DCLG 2007 ) and it is worth noting that the group was funded through Prevent. The anti-extremism agenda was not made clear on NWMAG material or in its activities. However, what is clear is that a limited range of Muslim women featured in NMWAG, namely those who have non-traditional jobs and careers and who haven't compromised on faith or culture (or at least performatively so in relation to social norms and stereotypes about secularization and westernisation). Allen and Guru (2012) note how NMWAG was made up of primarily middle-class Muslim women who were already well-placed to become ‘evidence’ of Muslim success under government policies (see also Brown, 2010 ). Recruitment to NMWAG was based entirely on those who were already ‘known’ to government and civil servants, and then getting recommendations from those women for others ( Rashid, 2013 , 2016 ). Although a second round of recruitment was initiated because those on NMWAG wanted a diversity of ethnic positions (but not necessarily of class or geography), it was an attempt to offset the appearance of the appointments, not because they thought it would make a material difference to the workings or objectives of the group. We can see how a particular vision of the MuslimWoman was promoted and built by side-lining Muslim women's and Asian women's organisations rooted in working-class concerns, who offered a more challenging critique of government empowerment agendas ( Allen and Guru, 2012 ). In 2010, NMWAG produced a website, (no longer available), ran a national road show and hosted events at six locations. The 'Our Choices' campaign focused on women role models who were to inspire young Muslim women to ignore particular community or traditional Islamic concerns about professional careers, marriage choices, and civic participation. The women with most leverage in NMWAG were those who were already working on forced marriages, FGM and honour killings, whereas those working on unemployment had less agency and a reduced profile thereby replicating a rescue paradigm ( Rashid, 2013 ). The concerns about Muslim women's employment were framed in relation to the statistical data and structural constraints relating to education and poverty, but attributed to culture and Muslim men's fears. During NMWAG's time we can also question its efficacy to influence government or further Muslim women's participation and engagement with Prevent. Government documents show that only 9% of the original ‘pathfinder projects’ (early community-based CVE programmes in the UK) addressed women specifically, and despite 57% saying they addressed men and women as beneficiaries, they did not include gender-sensitive material ( Kellard et al., 2008 ). Just two years after it was founded the chair, Shaista Gohir, resigned, arguing that it was a political fad, a tick-box exercise that let to women being sidelined and ghettoised. She continued to work on Muslim women's engagement but focused on her previously established Muslim Women's Network. By 2012 NMWAG was no longer operating. It was not formally replaced; instead, we see government and government agents' prioritising their attempts to participate in direct community engagement rather than rely on national intermediaries. Here, we see the creation of ‘invited spaces’ to formalise and institutionalise relationships between local authority organisations and Muslim civil society spaces. Government was explicit in its invitation to Muslim women. As a former Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government suggested in the foreword to a government brochure showcasing government initiatives for ‘Empowering Muslim women’ ( DCLG 2008 ), Muslim women often, “don't have the confidence or skills to speak up in forums dominated by men,” and are largely excluded from mosques and other community institutions. Indeed, many Muslim women, “took up the state's offer to be ‘empowered’ through the Prevent programme,” because it enabled them to overcome, “the political strictures imposed by male community leaders,” and redress their exclusion from mainstream institutions ( Wadia, 2015 , pp.97–98). This was the justification for the Muslimah project in High Wycombe, which ran for one year in 2007 following CT raids in 2006. One of the ‘pathfinder projects’, it aimed to create ‘active citizens’, and educate Muslim women and girls about their rights, duties and roles in light of Islamic history – but it remains rare for women to deliver counter-radicalisation programmes or lead projects or training ( Brown, 2019 ). Some argue that, as in the USA and in the UK women represent just 10–13% of police forces and counter-radicalisation activities are police-led, this is only a reflection of broader policing activities. Given many programmes and projects are delivered by third-party providers from civil society however, the defence rings hollow. In many ways, these local initiatives replicated the government's earlier approach as ‘top-down’ and with limited inclusion despite local variance – seen as a mode of getting consent from those who are ‘included’ in the already-determined ‘good Muslim’ category and have successfully ‘soul-trained’ ( Quarashi, 2018 ). One example of this is ‘Building the Bridge’, in Bristol ( Lewicki and O'Toole, 2017 ). Building the Bridge sought to bring together local government actors, with Muslim communities, and included a steering group of Muslim women. It worked to campaign against FGM and towards inclusive Mosques. The tensions brought by the Prevent agenda that led to Building the Bridge's foundation and the women's claims for greater empowerment and civic agency are examples of ‘glocalised’ struggles of negotiation ( Lewicki and O'Toole, 2017 ). Nevertheless, initiatives like the NMWAG and Building the Bridge were most successful when affirming a ‘rescue narrative’. The invitation issued by government and local authorities also tended to ignore examples of Muslim women's leadership in a variety of areas, such as the environment, the media, and the charity sector, that didn't fit the predetermined ideas of the MuslimWoman and the problem she's presumed to face ( Jones et al., 2014 ; Massoumi, 2015 ). These CVE efforts of building consultative processes were seen as attempts to recast and make anew pre-existing moulds of Muslim activism and networking but in a form more acceptable and palatable to government. However, in the process they lost legitimacy and effectiveness in the very communities they sought to influence. Work in Bradford and Leeds shows how division and mistrust built up within Muslim communities based on mere suspicion of co-option into the Prevent agenda, leading to the breakdown of community cohesion and the closure of successful projects ( Abbas, 2018 ). O'Toole et al. (2016) show that in Birmingham, the secondment of a CT police officer to work in the city council's Equalities Division undermined the Division's work with youth inclusion projects, and diverted equality and diversity agendas to a security agenda of deradicalisation. As Prevent was implemented and practiced, it did not cohere with the aims of government and, as these examples show, tended to undermine the objective of improving security. This shows how the beliefs and traditions of local actors – ‘street bureaucrats’ – shape and influence policy, but not in ways entirely of their own choosing. It is a process of adaptation and creative reinterpretation of agendas, but not always a successful one, as they face competing security dilemmas. Following the trajectory towards decentred and less explicit involvement in communities, engagement with Muslim women has also diversified and became less direct since 2016. Moreover, we see increased utilisation of narrative-based approaches and nudge technologies. For example Moonshot, an anti-violent extremism NGO who disrupt search engine results, premise their counter-radicalisation work on the idea of using ‘nudge’ technology to influence peoples' attitudes by interrupting algorithms based on a constantly evolving database of extremist lexicon and redirecting searchers to alternative content and websites. In relation to how Muslim women are engaged in Prevent, we also can see this through Inspire's ‘Making A Stand’ Campaign. Originally promoted by the Sun newspaper, the campaign was seen as a civil society activity led by well-known activist, Sara Khan. This campaign specifically targeted Muslim women because, according to the Inspire website, “women are the first defence against radicalisers in our communities. So as women in our communities we will declare our abhorrence of extremism and take the lead in stopping radicalisers preying on our children and grooming them for violence.” Like the Muslimah project NWMAG, ‘Making A Stand’ assumed that knowledge and the provision of role models would sufficiently empower Muslim women to engage in counter-radicalisation and become ‘active citizens’. By focusing on empowerment as educating Muslim women about their rights and about Islam as a force for good, radicalisation and Islam are reduced to debates of ideology and narratives rather than embodied practices within specific material conditions. It is worth noting that Sara Khan became the chair for the UK government's independent commission on countering extremism in 2017. The challenges facing Sara Khan are many, but she is also subject to a range of explicitly gendered criticisms – predominantly, because she doesn't wear a hijab, which is interpreted as a sign that she is not ‘independent’ enough, although there are many other ‘signs’ of her possible lack of independence. She has been criticised as a ‘native informant’ ( Spivak, 1988 ) who offers the mainstream an authentic glimpse into Muslim communities ( Forte, 2018 ). Until 2016, it was constantly claimed that she was entirely independent of government; however Sabin Khan, her sister, was the head of RICU, which also funded BreakThrough Media (this organisation is now called Zinc Network). A core objective of BreakThrough Media was, “to transmit counter-extremism messages into communities and hard-to-reach audiences,” and it transpired in 2016 that BreakThrough Media were heavily involved in Inspire's campaign – and that the co-director of BreakThrough helped Sarah Khan write her book on Islam in the UK. RICU documents submitted in evidence to the Home Affairs Select committee reveal that its aim in working with Inspire was to create, “a national network of British Muslim women across Prevent priority areas who will be able to transmit Her Majesty's Government's counter-extremism messages into communities and hard-to-reach audiences including workplaces, community institutions, schools, higher education and mosques.” (cited in Middle East Eye, 2016 ) The, “target audience,” of the project was, “250,000 female Muslims aged 15–39 in 30 Prevent priority areas from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, and Somali backgrounds,” while it lists resources required for the campaign as, “access to women's civil society groups.” Per the evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Committee, the funding Inspire received from the Home Office was retrospectively added to their website. It resulted in limited viewing – YouTube stats show about 100 views, whereas Inspire claim much higher online viewing (800,000, perhaps direct from their website). BreakThrough Media have been involved in the counter-messaging of a range of organisations, including: Families Against Stress and Trauma (FAST), in the ‘Families Matter’ campaign; the Foundation for Peace (‘My Former Life’ campaign); the NSPCC (‘It might be something, it might be nothing’); and, the Ministries of Education and Defence (‘Educate Against Hate’ and ‘Faith on the Frontline’ respectively). FAST is particularly interesting as it offers counselling services, and engages in awareness-raising of the vulnerabilities to radicalisation and online grooming. With FAST, we see women spearheading the organisation and presenting themselves both as ‘victims’ (traumatised by sons who have joined extremist groups) and ‘empowered’ (motivated to seek counselling and participate in awareness raising work). Sabir (2017) sees the initiative as blurring the lines between military counter-insurgency psy-ops and CVE work. A second process of decentring emerges in the Prevent duty as it morphs towards a language of vulnerability and safeguarding. In the slippage between extremism and radicalisation, we see linkages between those ‘vulnerable’ to radicalisation resulting in the opposition to ‘British Values’ ( Dresser, 2018 ). A shift has occurred in the front-line responsibility for countering radicalisation, which now exists in ‘caring’ and ‘service delivery’ spaces, with the police and security agencies providing oversight and eventual enforcement. This has lead to ‘women-washing’ of CVE policies ( Ni Aoláin and Huckerby, 2018 ). ‘Women-washing’ refers to a process which makes otherwise unpalatable state policies and scrutiny of everyday lives acceptable and tolerated by the general public because women are carrying out the activities. Specifically, current Prevent regulations include requirements to train public-facing ‘front line’ staff by requiring them to attend ‘Workshops to Raise Awareness of Prevent’ (WRAP), and to report any signs of radicalisation in those they encounter while carrying out their work. By 2016, over 450,000 frontline workers were ‘trained’ in spotting signs of radicalisation through government funding. Mostly uncommented upon is that the majority of these individuals are women – GPs, teachers, nursery workers, social workers, nurses, and health workers. Women-washing is possible because it stems from widely held stereotypes about women and mothers. Stereotypes about peaceful mothers and responsible fathers factor in countries' anti-radicalisation programmes, regardless of their cultural framings. Women are presumed to be able to spot the ‘signs of radicalisation’ in youth more easily because of their caring roles in society. We see this in NSPCC (a UK NGO), media campaigns designed by BreakThrough Media, and others accepting CVE as simply an extension of pre-existing ‘child safeguarding’ mechanisms. Women are seen as natural supporters of counter-radicalisation initiatives because it is assumed that such initiatives benefit ‘naturally peaceful’ mothers and ‘moderate’ women. In December 2018, BBC news reporting, the BBC Asian Network, and the Victoria Derbyshire Show made a feature of a ‘new’ initiative to ‘train mothers’ to spot the signs of radicalisation, where a man delivered the training. The highlighted components of the pieces to camera were that the women were there voluntarily to, “learn more,” that they'd not been referred and their children were not, “at risk,” but also that, “as mothers,” they, “want to do what's right,” and that if they should spot the signs of radicalisation they would report their child to the police, “if only for safeguarding” them ( BBC News, 2018 ). It is assumed that these ‘women-washing’ initiatives and activities will automatically lead to a liberalisation or moderation of the communities, and that this is assumed to bring about more guarantees and securities for women and their rights. This is because the MuslimWoman relies upon rescue narratives, and counter-radicalisation initiatives frequently conflate political terrorism and conservative gender practices with ‘extremist values’. We are seeing a ‘muscular liberalism’ (as advocated by David Cameron during his time as Prime Minister - particularly expressed during his Munich Security Conference Speech 2011 ) that relies on the assumption that misogyny in Muslim communities prevents Muslim women from speaking out about extremism and women's rights ( Ortbals and Poloni-Staudinger, 2018 ). The evidence for this is unclear however, and fails to consider how policies of government might compound the challenges facing Muslim women in the UK ( Brown, 2008 ; O'Toole et al., 2016 ). Additionally, it shows how counter-radicalisation in so far as it focuses on the category of the MuslimWoman is used not only to govern this new community/identity but also ‘the Muslim community’ as a whole, through claims about women's empowerment, equality and women's rights. The consequence is that it has “collated together all women who are Muslim, a disparate and multiply-differentiated group and de facto attributed any problematic issues to religious affiliation. As well as perpetuating anti-Muslim rhetoric, such policy discourses, focused on religious affiliation alone, also obscure continuities with earlier racisms as well as other axes of social division in society, such as class and regional inequalities which also affect non-Muslims.” ( Rashid, 2016 p.175 p.175) While the long-established NGO Women Against Fundamentalism spoke out against government moves to define communities solely according to ‘faith’ and challenge those giving funding to religious organisations to provide services to ‘their’ communities on behalf of central and local government ( Rozario, 1996 ; Brown, 2008 ), they have largely lost the battle against such conflation. Additionally, while there are local adaptations, moves of activism, citizenship and agency, these are shown to be curtailed by large national and transnational discourses that limit who can be successfully ‘included’ in governance processes. 5 Funding Information: The research was supported by the British Academy (grant award SG171830 ) and in part by the UK Extremism Commission. Publisher Copyright: © 2019 Copyright: Copyright 2019 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


Original languageEnglish
Article number100371
JournalInternational Journal of Law, Crime and Justice
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019


  • Community, Counter-terrorism, Gender, Islam, Violent extremism