Insecurity, gender and violent extremism in the era of Covid-19

Sofia PatelBy Sofia Patel, guest contributor

Sofia Patel is a PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies at King's College London, focusing on gender and counterterrorism. For the past eight years, Sofia has worked at a number of leading defence and security think tanks in both the UK and Australia and is a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Sofia holds a BA in Arabic and Spanish from the University of Manchester and an MA in Middle Eastern Politics from SOAS University of London.


Feminist security scholars argue that social security – or, human security – is inextricably related to, and essential for creating safe, secure and peaceful societies, that are resilient against extremism(s). During the Covid-19 pandemic, social security has become the overarching security discourse, with a renewed emphasis on how healthcare, employment, housing, access to food and public services, are issues that have tangible effects on an individual and a family’s security, or insecurity. This marks a shift in the focus of security discourse which has traditionally been understood and practiced in a ‘hard security’ sense, with much of government budgets being allocated to traditional security arbiters such as law enforcement or the military to tackle well-trodden security threats such as cyber security, nuclear deterrence, terrorism and violent extremism. These security challenges have not vanished, but we have had to reframe our ideas of national security in the face of a global health security pandemic.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that all forms of security – and insecurity – are gendered. Living in a gendered world, men and women experience insecurity in vastly different ways. This is why taking a ‘human security’ approach to understanding insecurity must consider gender. An interrogation of the socially constructed concepts of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ and how these concepts interact with questions of security and insecurity is essential especially as they have become inextricably linked to our social experiences as men and women; we assume and perform certain roles behaviours and conform to certain social rules as dictated for them by gendered norms that have become attached to sex. If we are to work towards creating a more secure and resilient society overall, tracing the gendered narratives of insecurities during crises such as the covid-19 pandemic provides a useful framework. This approach allows for security to be analysed through a gender lens which will ultimately help us understand some of the different gendered security requirements and vulnerabilities that violent extremists can potentially exploit for their own recruitment purposes.

Gender norms thus have an impact on every action and interaction, every experience and situation – including how we understand and experience security and insecurity. Men and women have been affected by Covid-19 and pandemic lockdown policies in different and distinct ways, and gender-blind government responses and policies have had specific impacts on the insecurity of men and women. Generating a sex-disaggregated data set with different socio-cultural and ethnic markers, will be very important to our understanding the impacts of the virus from both medical and social security perspectives.

Data (from the USA and UK) has shown that men – especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds – appear to be more likely to die from the virus than women. Women appear to be more financially and socially vulnerable. A spike in men perpetrating gender-based violence against women across the world as a result of lockdown policies, which have been exacerbated by widescale unemployment and cramped living conditions, highlights the disproportionate risks to women during this time. Women – and specifically minority and migrant women – remain some of the most socially vulnerable individuals due to their overrepresentation in low-paid, frontline jobs which make them especially high risk. Although men and women differ in their childcare responsibilities, studies have shown that much of the burden of childcare and home-schooling has been left to women, often simultaneously trying to hold down jobs – whether in locked down areas or on the frontline. Furthermore, research carried out by Sanam Naraghi Anderlini MBE, (CEO of ICAN, a network of international women peacebuilders) has found that women comprise 70% of the global health care workforce and they are the principal actors in community and social work as well as civil society and peacebuilding sectors. Women-led civil society groups have mobilised internationally in response to Covid-19 security challenges to provide basic welfare and services to communities worldwide when formal government channels have failed. Their work has also been important in stemming and preventing the spread and influence of violent extremism in certain communities.

Despite the fact that men and women often cite the same reasons for joining violent extremist movements, it is clear that organisations have employed gendered recruitment strategies which exploit gendered insecurities experienced by men and women in everyday life. These organisations use binary notions of preconceived gender norms and behaviours rooted in achieving heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. They present a warped reality of ‘empowerment’ of the sexes which is ultimately rooted in misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. Islamist extremist and terrorist organisations such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Shabab in particular have been known to use and manipulate gendered insecurities. Examples include offering female victims of gender-based violence a way out of their situation by reclaiming their honour and power, or offering young men employment who would otherwise not be able to provide for their family. Added to that, they often also step into patronage roles in the absence of state infrastructure and provide basic welfare to struggling families as well as educational opportunities for both men and women, thus offering them a more ‘meaningful’ and purposeful stake in society through employment and education.

In conclusion, while overt recruitment amongst terrorist groups hasn’t been in the spotlight, it would be naïve to assume that they have pressed pause. Given their commitment to upholding and promoting gender norms and behaviours rooted in preconceived notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, we know that violent extremist groups employ gendered recruitment strategies. Thus, it is fair to say that an understanding of how crises such as Covid-19 have created gendered insecurities which leave some men and women vulnerable to the narratives of violent extremists is useful if we are to work towards creating a more secure and resilient society overall. If we do not refocus our attention towards understanding insecurity, and specifically the gendered aspects of insecurity, we are unlikely to be able to understand how to create safe, secure and resilient societies in the long term.