By Ayesha Kabir
Nov 20, 2018
Back in the seventies there was a young woman whose name became a sensation overnight, venerated by some, vilified by other. Many of the younger generation today may not have heard the name of this woman - Leila Khaled. She was the bold Palestinian young woman who hijacked a plane en route to Tel Aviv from Rome and diverted it to Damascus. The point here is not to say that she was radicalised or a fanatic or an ‘Islamist’ or extremist. It is not to judge her at all. It is just to point out that even back then, with no Internet, no online news portals, no Smartphones or social media sites, she became an internationally known woman overnight.
It was the media - the television, radio and the newspapers—that took her and her cause to the rest of the world. To some, especially young girls at the time, she was a role model, perhaps the most famous Palestinian after Yasser Arafat. Such is the power of the media. It can make or break you. Or it can cleverly be used as a means to an end. Or, more ideally speaking, it gives the facts and assists in making informed choices.
Coming to the topic of discussion—female radicalisation and the role of media. A woman, even in the most patriarchal society, is the pivotal point in a family. She is the centre. In South Asian society, whether she works at home or outside of the home, in most cases it is the woman who remains at the centre. It is she who nurtures and tends to the needs of each and every family member, from the elderly to the infants. Whether it is her husband, her children, her own parents, her on-laws, the domestic staff, her office colleagues and friends, there is a tendency for the woman to be the one who cares and shares. It is not that men are any less or that all women are like this, nor even that this is an ideal role for a woman. It is just that this is how traditionally women are in such communities. Roles are changing, admittedly.
Anyway, this position gives women more proximity to individuals in the family unit and also in the community. It also gives her a lot of influence. She may seem to be an invisible factor, but she can have more impact than her male counterpart who, in conventional and conservative communities, plays more of an outside role as a provider.
If a man is radicalised, he can force the rest of his family to be radicalised too as his word is law. But if a woman is radicalised, she can convince her family more comprehensively about the radical ideology which she upholds. Her influence is more convincing, far reaching and more sustainable.
NGOs in the eighties recognised the power of women and their programmes, whether microcredit, advocacy or other such development tools, all targeted women. If a woman was given a microloan, they realised, it would trickle down to benefit the entire family - husband, children and everyone. Similarly, radicals realise if they can influence a woman with their beliefs, she will, in turn, influence the rest of the family and extended family.
On the flip side, a woman is also an influential agent of counter radicalisation or counter violent extremism or preventing violent extremism. She can use that clout of hers to neutralise extremist viewpoints, but in a subtle manner, wielding her influence in an effective and invisible manner. Being at the centre of the family unit, she can detect early warning signs of any family member or friend becoming radicalised.
Coming to the role of media, while media has focus on radicalisation and violent extremism, it often fails to focus on female radicalisation. If it does, it mostly portrays women as victims, as being utilised by the male counterpart. This is true, but only partially. The active direct role of women in radicalisation also needs to be revealed and highlighted as this invisible force is deadlier than perceived.
If we look at the role of the media and female radicalisation, here too we see a constructive and positive role of media, both in prevention of radicalisation as well as in deradicalisation.
Media is a strong determinant of role models. Media hands out a lot of images that women have a tendency to emulate. There is the long-suffering glamorous housewife of the Hindi serials who is carries the weight of oppressive in-laws and tons of gold jewellery, or you can have the strong minded woman of strong personality and a clear idea of integrity. There are so many other images and role models the media can portray. Even advertisements can shape the image and role of a woman. That is why the media needs to be responsible.
Some may then say a ‘secular’ media is the best media. That, of course, is a matter of opinion. Then again, what about the women with a religious bent of mind? Surely they need an intellectual input from the media. That is where media plays a responsible role, with accurate and informed knowledge and understanding of religion, in the present day context of ours we would be referring to Islam, so as to portray the woman of Islamic values. It can differentiate between an Islamic woman and an extremist or radicalised woman or, as the west tends to term it, an Islamist. If the media can offer positive and constructive images, experiences and examples to show that even the most pious Islamic woman as part of the mainstream, regardless of gender, them the more extremist fanatics will not be able to use their propaganda material and interpretations to draw them into the radical sphere. If media simply bashes religion and religious beliefs to appear ‘progressive’, this can be counterproductive.
In general, when we come to women who are already radicalised, there is a tendency to perceive such a woman as a victim of extremism, forced into joining outfits like IS where they are to serve men and produce more men, more ‘jihadists’. [Closer home, Rohingya women in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, have a tendency to have one child after the other, some saying they want more sons to fight back against their oppressors. This vengeance can turn into terrorist action.] In Syria, they were seen to remain behind the scenes, cooking, cleaning and reproducing. But that is not the entire picture.
As extremists, women are more active than perceived. They are often facilitators of extremism, financiers, intelligence sources, mentors, messengers, propaganda agents, and more. They are often the ones that influence the men folk into joining radical outfits like ISIS, Al Qaeda, or closer to home, JMB and the like.
Women can also constructively be projected by the media as agents of deradicalisation, as powerful forces to counter violent extremism. Mothers, sisters, friends, daughters, can use their heart and their mind to bring back their loved ones to the right track from the path of extremism. Is that an easy task? Certainly not. But when has a women’s tasks been easy?
When it comes to projecting women’s images, the example of women garments workers comes to mind. One section of media pointed out that these women streaming to work every morning, all have their heads covered, and so are becoming fundamentalists. But another section of the media points out that previously these women wouldn’t even leave their homes. They would be restricted to the four walls of their home, tending to their family needs and that’s it. Now they are out of their homes, marching confidently to work, earning a living and also becoming decision makers in their families.
Media no longer plays a role of simply meting out information. Given growing extremism and violent radicalisation, the media is more and more committed to use its reach as a tool to uncover such malevolence. If radicalisation has gone global, so has media. So with the growing pace of female radicalisation, the media must keep up and overtake, proving itself to be an effective tool here.
After all, the extremist outfits have their media networks too. Examples are Inspire, the Al Qaeda news magazine, AMAQ of ISIS, Khilafah of Hizbut Tahrir, etc.
Whether it is hard news, features, interviews, TV, plays, stories, cinema, journals, and all facets of media must stand behind women. It must work towards curbing radicalisation of the community as a whole.
Women who are working in the media can play a vital role here as not only have they more access to other women, but also understand more the sentiments and psyche of women, are sensitive to their sensitivities. There are more and more women in the media and they, along with their male counterparts, can actively play a role in deradicalisation. Whether they are producing a play, acting in a film, writing a report or a feature, whatever, they have scope to counter extremism in a long-term manner.
Apart from ‘mainstream’ media, there is an equally powerful or even more powerful tool - social media. This is used by the extremists for recruitment, radicalisation, operations and more. There are ISIS and Al Qaeda sites where much is said and seen, even beheading people. Social media can also be used as a tool for counter radicalisation. Then again, why should the people on the side of good, positive values, people against terrorism, have to counter extremism? The first task would be to promote moderate and positive and constructive values and come up with a narrative. It is up to the extremists try to counter that narrative. We should be ahead in the race, but also equipped with enough intellectual and moral ammunition to counter them too.
Women radicalisation can be a focal point of further research. Awareness of female radicalisation must remain within us so we keep our eyes and ears open. The world is not an easy place to live in anymore and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can make take pragmatic and effective action to make it an easier and safer place to live.