In the Malaysian jungles in the mid-1950s, it would have been conceivable for a Malayan Communist Party insurgent – battling the Malayan government and British counter-insurgency forces – to hear the voice of his mother. During 1956, over “600 separate voice messages were recorded and more than 2,200 flights were made by aircraft broadcasting” messages to insurgents calling on them to surrender. Often, the wives or mothers of insurgents recorded these messages. Years later, in 1985 “the first female suicide bomber, a seventeen-year-old Lebanese girl named Sana’a Mehaydali, was sent by the Syrian Socialist National Party…to blow herself up near an Israeli convoy in Lebanon,” leading to the death of five Israeli soldiers. These disparate events reveal the long and often forgotten history of women’s engagement with violent extremism – a history that can provide key lessons for current attempts to formulate and enact countering violent extremism (CVE) policies.
Over the past decade, CVE has become a key component of broader counterterrorism initiatives, and, increasingly, of academic research agendas. As Owen Frazier and Christian Nunlist point out, “The idea underpinning CVE is that violent extremists should not be fought exclusively with intelligence, police, and military means. The structural causes of violent extremism must also be tackled, including intolerance, government failure, and political, economic, and social marginalization.” Yet the roles women play in relation to CVE have been vastly overlooked and understudied. Most research in this area focuses heavily on the most recent examples of political violence and terrorism and few focus on women’s roles specifically. Indeed, while CVE as a distinct tool of policy and research is recent, political violence, terrorism, and efforts to combat these forces are not.
This study engages with historical case studies of political violence and terrorism and their concurrent counter-insurgency and CVE programs to bring a grounded historical perspective into CVE policy-making. This study aims to better understand how women participate in, counteract, and prevent violent extremism by examining the historical evidence for how they have previously done so. Ultimately, this study seeks to find ways for those working on CVE to use historical evidence in their work in order to create more effective CVE policies.