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04. April 2010

Women as Counter Terrorism Activists

By Fahmia al-Fotih' / Yemen

Fahmia al-Fotih', the SAVE Yemen coordinator, wrote this essay to explain the role of SAVE Yemen in combating violent extremism in her country.

I always meet people who are skeptical about women’s role to stand 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 incorporate 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, who greatly help in capturing terrorists disguised in women's clothes.

However, when I explain SAVE's innovative goal  to counter terrorism via women (educated and uneducated alike) from their homes and their immediate surroundings through spreading peace, tolerance, and non-violence culture while raising up their offspring, a kind of relief can be seen on people's faces. The idea of women working from home and with children fits the mentality of the majority of Yemeni men who prefer not 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 the ability to discuss or comprehend the threats posed by terrorism and extremism. Yet having conversations with simple uneducated women proved that I was wrong!

Meeting with uneducated ordinary women, I have found that there are women who are well aware of extremism and terrorism as phenomenal threats to us. They are also aware of the ways that extremists utilize to trap very young people into their ideologies. Those women have explained the techniques of the extremists and their attraction to young people better than any counterterrorism expert could. They have highlighted the reasons why young people are vulnerable to falling 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 Yemeni public domain is confined to 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. The women hence have more opportunities to shape their kids’ attitudes, and can teach them values such as acceptance of the other, tolerance and rejection of 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 to enable them to adequately and effectively challenge extremist ideologies.

More importantly, due to the unique Yemeni social structure where social relations are remarkably strong, women have the ability to spread the foundations of peace and tolerance beyond the home. Women can freely move from one neighbor’s house to another, an advantage that Yemeni men do not have (in most population censuses, women are preferred to go and knock on the households’ doors for this very reason). For example, it is normal to see a crowd of women sitting in a 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 recognized the potential and the capabilities that women possess, which they could then effectively utilize in countering terrorism and uprooting its sources, they would save more money, time and energy in their efforts.

Last but not least, unquestionably no one competes with the mothers in their worries and fears about their kids. Hence, protecting and preventing the young people from travelling down the path of radicalization should be placed in the hands of these loving, committed mothers.


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