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13. April 2010

Women as Counterterrorism Agents

By Fahmia al-Fotih'

Fahmia al-Fotih', the SAVE Yemen coordinator, wrote this essay to explain the role of SAVE Yemen in combating violent extremism in her country. Even though Yemen has recently received international criticism for its high rate of child brides, Fahmia sees women, and especially women as mothers, as vital agents against radicalization in the home. For more information, email the SAVE Global team at

I always meet people who are skeptical about women’s role in standing against violent extremism, and they cannot comprehend the mission of SAVE: having women combat terrorism and extremism thinking. The first thought that comes to most of them is that SAVE aims to have combatants or women in the military to fight terrorists on the ground. In fact, the Yemeni government already has a Counter-Terrorism unit that consists of a number of qualified female soldiers, which greatly help in capturing terrorists who are disguised in women's clothes.

However, when I explain the innovative idea of SAVE to counter terrorism via women (educated and uneducated alike) from their homes and their immediate surroundings through spreading peace, tolerance, and a culture of non-violence while raising their offspring, a kind of relief can be seen on their faces. The idea of working from home and with children just fits the mentality of the majority of Yemeni men who do not prefer to see women working in public life. Therefore, many have already expressed their readiness to join and support SAVE's work in Yemen.

Keeping in mind that Yemeni women might not discuss politics much, and their attitudes and opinions might be greatly shaped by the male figures in their lives (like their fathers, husbands, or brothers) as well as the fact that the majority of them are illiterate (which in turn excludes them from the public domain), I myself was skeptical about talking to uneducated mothers who might not have an ability to discuss terrorism and extremism or comprehend the threats posed by extremism and terrorism. Yet having conversations with simple uneducated women proved that I was wrong!

Meeting with uneducated ordinary women, I have found out that there are women who are well aware of extremism and terrorism as a phenomenal threat to us and the ways that extremists utilize to trap very young people into their ideologies. Better than any counterterrorism expert, those women have explained well the techniques of the extremists and the attractions they offer, and those women have highlighted the reasons that cause vulnerable young people to fall into their hands.

Needless to say, a mother is usually the closest person to her kids, which enables her to have a great influence on them. She is the one who can first closely observe the early warning signals of change in her kids’ behavior that might result in traveling down the path of extremism and terrorism. If we aim to nip extremist thinking in the bud, it would be very wise and essential to empower and work with those uneducated Yemeni mothers.

It is true that the public domain is confined to Yemeni men, yet women have a lot to do in their private sphere. Here in Yemen, the majority of women are full-time housewives whose work centers basically around household chores and taking care of their children. Unlike fathers, who are either emigrants or spend a lot of time working outside, mothers have the chance to spend more time with their kids and have more influence too. Hence the women have more opportunities to shape their kids’ attitudes, including the value of acceptance of others, tolerance and rejecting violence and terrorism. Yet, more support and empowerment should be provided for these women in order to arm them with the necessary skills and knowledge that enable them to adequately and effectively challenge extremist ideologies.

More importantly, due to the unique Yemeni social structure where social relations are remarkably very strong, women have an ability to spread the foundations of peace and tolerance beyond their homes. They can freely move from one neighbor’s house to another, an advantage that a Yemeni man does not have (this is why, for instance, in most population census women are chosen to go and knock on the households’ doors). For example, it is normal to see a daily crowd of women sitting in one house chatting, chewing Qat, or attending a religious lecture, wedding party, or any social occasion.

To put it in a nutshell, if the counterterrorism experts just recognized the potential and the capabilities that women possess, which then could be effectively utilized in countering terrorism, uprooting, and drying its sources, they would save more money, time and energy in their efforts.

Last but not least, it is without doubt that no one competes with mothers in their worries and fears about their kids. Hence, protecting and preventing young people from travelling down the path of radicalization is placed in the hands of these loving, committed mothers.


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