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10. July 2013

Mothers of Extremists: The Unlikely Allies for a New Female Security Paradigm

By Edit Schlaffer - Published in "The Huffington Post", 21.05.2013

In the aftermath of the Boston attacks, the whole world struggled to put together the pieces in the hope of uncovering what placed the Tsarnaev brothers on a road of radicalization and ultimate destruction.

While both the high profile terrorist Ajmal Kasab, the only captured perpetrator of the Mumbai attacks, and the Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev turned their backs on humanity, they called their mothers in the most decisive moment of their lives. The mothers of these perpetrators were fast to assert that they were unaware of their children's path.

Even if they had known, what would have been their course of action? What support is provided for mothers who fear to lose their sons and daughters to extremism? Addressing their worries openly could bring shame on their family; reporting their concerns to the police might be tantamount to treachery. So when we think of security, the last thing that comes to mind are women.

Talking to women across the West Bank and Pakistan, especially mothers who lost their sons, instilled me with a fresh sense of hope. Mothers like Samira, a community leader from Nablus, spread an important message and sense of duty: 'When they come to recruit our sons we must rebel! A mother will gain nothing; her son is more important to her than anything else, and if you promise me the whole world or even heaven I wouldn't change it for the life of my son.'

Her neighbor, reinforcing Samira's statement, has a similar message for boys in danger of being lured into extremist networks: 'Think twice before you commit yourself. Sure you can run off and destroy airplanes, but think how your mother's heart will burn. If you destroy an airplane, people will die but your mother will be also devastated. And what will you get for destroying an airplane? Nothing.'

Another mother, Laila, with two passionate, restless unemployed boys, devised her own strategy when they went out to join demonstrations that she felt would turn violent. She often followed them when she couldn't keep them to stay at home. She remembers one particular incident during a demonstration very clearly: Ahmed turned around and saw his mother in the crowds, and shouted, 'This is risky: you have to leave immediately', but when she responded, 'Not without my son!', he was embarrassed enough to come to his senses and leave the danger zone. With a strong sense of regret, Laila concludes, 'But the day when he got killed I wasn't there to stop him.'

Another group of brave women whom I interviewed discuss on camera how their children's' choices destroyed their families' lives. These women send a strong message to mothers around the globe. They are convinced that if other young people turn to their mothers and understand that acts of terrorism do not lead to glory (but rather to the devastation of their loved ones), they would think twice.

A growing number of women in communities at risk are indeed ready to overcome cultural expectations and speak out. They herald a new era of female diplomacy, where women are able find alternative, human solutions that balance traditional security measures. In my recent trip to Kashmir, I met mothers eager to talk, many of whom are afraid that their children might join the insurgents. Yet these women feel isolated and burdened with their anxieties since such worries are taboo and never openly discussed. Safira revealed, 'Just sitting with you now and sharing my story makes my heart feel lighter.'

Safira is one of the many mothers with whom I have spoken to in crisis areas around the world who consistently assert their desire to protect their children and families. Parenting skills need to broadened and redefined particularly in these volatile regions. Women must be sensitized to the early warning signals of disorientation in their children; they should feel confident enough to voice their concerns and be equipped to respond in a competent way. SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) is the first female counterterrorism platform that has created a model -- the 'Mothers Schools' -- to fill this knowledge gap. Community leaders

in Tajikistan are the frontrunners, agreeing that peace starts at home, and that dialogue and understanding are critical tools to build family and community cohesion. Mothers in India are already adopting their Tajik sister's model: they are meeting in informal community settings to learn new skills and create the necessary space to recognize as well as react to the signs of potential radicalization. In India the voices of these women will be broadcast through a community radio station that has a listenership of 500,000. Preparations for more Mothers Schools are on underway in Somalia, Nigeria, Zanzibar and Pakistan.

These female-led, community-based efforts will enable women to become agents of positive change in the security sphere. Safira, in the Kashmir Valley puts this possibility into very poetic words, 'During the day I am weaving carpets, but with the mothers we will weave our stories together and find solutions.'

Motherhood is highly respected in all societies around the world, and is frequently viewed as an achievement--not a limitation. SAVE has found that addressing mothers must be part of any serious counter-terrorism strategy. It presents itself as a new way forward, strengthening families and introducing concepts of grassroots security, particularly in countries that retain highly patriarchal power structures.

Security is one of the last bastions of male dominance with the main focus being intelligence, military operations and law enforcement. Yet mothers are strategically located at the core of their families and are therefore typically the first to deal with their children's fear, resignation, frustration and anger. They need to be the recognized ally for security in the home and beyond.

Dr. Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist, activist, and founder of Women without Borders in Vienna, Austria. Schlaffer created the global SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) campaign. Women's eNews included her as one of the '21 Leaders for the 21st Century' in 2010, and she was named one of Newsweeks' 150 Movers and Shakers in 2011.


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