In conflict, women are often understood to have passive roles: as victims, of rape, of violence, as widows or as grieving the loss of their children. This stereotype is why the phenomenon of 'jihad brides' leaving their comfortable, Western lives to join the Islamic State, receives so much attention. This media focus shouldn't blind us to the fact that it is a minority trend: the majority of individuals travelling towards Iraq and Syria are men from the Middle East and North Africa, not women and girls from Luton and Bradford.
The proportion of women attracted to the Islamic State is likely to be less than that in other militant organisations, such as the Tamil Tigers, the PKK and the IRA. Undoubtedly, their roles within the Islamic State are much more confined by the rigid gender divisions under their ultraconservative rulings. While IS have roles for women as mothers and sex slaves, the ideal of gender segregation grossly limits women's ability to participate in a social order in which men are warriors and leaders. They may be repeatedly married and widowed, charged with the task of rearing more sons for an imagined intergenerational territorial war. While the Islamic State has executed over 10,000 people in just a year, they reserve particular ire for educated and professional women, such as women's human rights activists who protest their actions.
The depiction of women in Muslim world within the Western media can be just as limited, in which women are again depicted as victims of male aggression, or as the handmaidens of violent militants, with an occasional exception for the valiant women of the Kurdish peshmerga. However women in the Muslim world have been resisting extremism on the ground for decades - as community members, as family members, as professionals and as activists (which they often do at grave personal risk) - and as those with the most to lose from the rise of extremist religion. Often, the first we hear about such brave women is when they are assassinated, and it is too late to support them.
So far, the predominant Western responses to violent extremism are reactionary, based in a 'hard' macho politics of securitisation and militarisation. For long term peace, we need to go beyond this towards a softer, creative politics which confronts underlying political, psychological and social problems. This cannot be achieved without harnessing the formidable but latent power of women's capability.
Morocco, for instance, is described as having one of the most successful strategies for countering violent extremism. Due to its particularly woman-friendly interpretation of family law, women have a comparatively high level of economic and legal power. Further, since the attack on Casablanca in 2003, the King developed a social strategy, which included the training of a force of mourchidates (ie, female preachers), to work in communities, mosques and prisons. Krista London Couture, writing for the Brookings Institute, reports that these women act as social workers, solving everyday problems that could have nudged individuals towards extremism.
The important factors to learn are twofold: firstly, that empowering women within the family is crucial to increasing their credibility. Women with education, skills, and independent sources of income are more able to withstand the pressures of the patriarchal family and more able to express their opinions, and to move freely within their communities. Secondly, women's influence can be supported within a legitimising framework, in order to provide 'soft' preventative and non-violent interventions to extremism. Their linkages into families and communities provide valuable routes for information and influence. Women's empowerment, whether through legal, financial or cultural routes, will tend to increase their agency, and their ability to take part in activism.
Yet this is a strategy that remains underdeveloped. Increasingly, states are asking women to play a role in the detection of potential extremism, but this is often limited to their family roles - as concerned mothers and sisters, reporting suspicions to supportive agencies. Often, elder males are still treated as the locus of power, whether on geo-political or community stages: a strategy that only serves to prop up patriarchal gender roles at a time at which they are becoming increasingly challenged. Women's issues have in the past been treated cynically, to give a human rights gloss to militaristic action with little action thereafter to support women. If we value human rights, they should be at the core of the project against violent extremism, and women a key part of our imagined future.
As Sanam Anderlini-Naraghi, Executive Director of International Civil Society Network says: "women's rights activists are the longest-standing, socially rooted, transnational groups mobilizing for peace, countering rising extremism, and providing an alternate vision for the future." They are a resource that needs to be cultivated in order to bring a truly pluralist, tolerant and just world into being.