6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Women and Extremism: A Tale of Two Experiences

Webcast available

Event Co-sponsors

Webcast Recap

On January 28, 2016, the Women in Public Service Project and the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, co-hosted the event “Women and Extremism: A Tale of Two Experiences.” The event was moderated by Tara Sonenshine, Distinguished Fellow, George Washington University, School of Media and Public Affairs, and opening remarks were made by Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO of the Wilson Center. The panelists included Farah Pandith, Former first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US Department of State, Timothy Curry, Deputy Director of Counterterrorism Policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, Co-founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), and Fatima Sadiqi, Wilson Center Fellow.

Tara Sonenshine opened the discussion by referencing recent events in the US and abroad. Sadiqi responded by explaining that this surprise emanates from many sides. According to Sadiqi, the nexus lies in the nature and focus of our discourse. Sadiqi stated, "we are couched in a dualistic approach to extremism, so ISIS is either the true face of Islam, or ISIS is a spectacular backlash on Western imperialism or interventionist policies in the region… What is missing in this dualistic approach, is the voices of people inside the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Their voices are sidelined, so we are left with only religious language or geopolitical language.”

Anderlini added that when the voices of those most entrenched in this strife are silenced, we come to inaccurate conceptions of what extremism is. In reality, it is not simply a conflict of western ideals -- or "progressive sociocultural ideals" -- versus radical Islam. It is a conflict over Islam itself, and the ongoing struggle of women and men in the MENA region to fight extremists. Anderlini argues that if we give the local women, who have expert knowledge on how to fight these groups, the attention and platform to speak, we would not be shocked by some women’s extremist actions. She noted the larger problem at hand, saying, “What we do with women, is always put them in this …dichotomy. They are either victims or perpetrators.” Women, she said, have been at the forefront of extremism, fighting against such extremist groups locally. “They are super empowered already. Those women do not need me to empower them, they are much tougher than all of us. We need to listen to their voice.”

Following, Sonenshine moved the conversation from the shock factor to the general climate of intolerance. Farah Pandith insisted that increased significance be placed on the conflict over Islam itself and the global nature of this struggle. Calling it a “crisis of identity” that persists through the young Muslim generation, she said, “No matter where in the world I went…there was this feeling of crisis that sets up an Us vs. Them system.” However, she believes that young mothers can have a huge impact in changing this narrative, stating that "if they don’t have a way forward for their child to not inherit the “Us versus Them” story, they are failing.”

When asked by Sonenshine what is next in countering violent extremism (CVE), Curry referenced a new task force that will initially be headed by the Department of Homeland Security. According to Curry, the task force is a joint effort between many government agencies and departments, and will emphasize the Department's continued partnership with communities.  The goal, he says, is to ensure continued safety and counteract violent extremism, while protecting individuals' personal rights and liberties.

Sonenshine continued by asking the panel,“how do we give space to people and yet also engage them?” Pandith responded that the toxic environment is being mirrored around the world in various ways. There is a greater sense of global belonging, and it is difficult to navigate the complexity of one’s identity and to make sense of it. This is especially true for young Muslims who have seen their culture and religion make headlines for years. “It is hard for them to absorb all the things that are coming to them, and most unfortunately, the loudest voices are those of the extremists.”

Pandith further stated that what we should focus on the tactics utilized to recruit women and young girls into extremism, and the mothers and local communities are instrumental, not only in identifying these strategies, but in counteracting the extremists. In response, Curry pointed out that, while more needs to be done to look at the multitude of issues, if we look at the history of terrorism, the tactics used by these organizations have not changed. Given this repetition, Curry suggests that, "new research has to be on the shoulders of existing research, otherwise we are just reinventing ourselves.”

According to Anderlini, part of what allows the extremists’ voices to overcome all others may be the way we frame the conversation. After insisting that we not feed the media frenzy, and recognize that a very small minority are engaged in extremist acts, she describes what she calls “stealth sectarianism,” that is allowing extremism to go mainstream throughout the Middle East. The extremists have “a very round narrative of [what they are for]. They are out there selling a positive narrative. We don’t have that positive narrative. We have an identity crisis, of who are we and what do we stand for,” she stated. What we need, she argues, is to articulate a stronger narrative of why we are fighting, instead of just saying we are countering them.

Questions from the audience addressed the political agency of youth, conceptions of Muslim women as victims, and the motives for women in extremism. During the course of their answers, Pandith insisted we discard "cookie cutter" conceptions of Muslim women. Anderlini and Sadiqi maintain that we must allow women and youth in the MENA region greater agency in this fight. “The more we focus on ‘why women,’ the more we shape the discourse away from [the fact that] they're on the ground, they're fighting the militias, fighting for their own voices. Imagine if 40 people in the MENA region got together to talk extremism, their aspirations, their narrative…It is way more powerful than anything ISIS has to say.” Anderlini stated.

Also read Tara Sonenshine's article covering this event: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/international/267703-to-defeat-isis-listen-to-the-women


1-28-2016 Women & Extremism Event


  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Farah Pandith

    Former first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, US Department of State
  • Timothy B. Curry

    Deputy Director, Counterterrorism Policy, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • Sanam Naraghi Anderlini

    Co-Founder and Executive Director, International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
  • Fatima Sadiqi

    Senior Professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Morocco
  • Tara Sonenshine

    Distinguished Fellow, George Washington University, School of Media & Public Affairs