Blind Spot Extremism: How a Feminist Foreign Policy Can Strengthen Extremism Prevention

By Ariane Wolf, Violence Prevention Network

In recent years, more and more states have acknowledged the relevance of gender-reflective policies by committing themselves to a feminist foreign policy (FFP). Germany is now following the example of Sweden, Canada, France, Mexico, Libya and other states in this concern. This is an important step for many reasons – not least because we know from peace and conflict research: Diversity-oriented participation in peace processes stabilises countries more sustainably and contributes to conflict prevention. Despite numerous thematic links between feminist foreign policy and the fight against extremist groups and attitudes, this complex of issues has received little attention in previous strategies. There is an urgent need to catch up, because the prevention of extremism, reflected in feminist terms, could be a meaningful component of feminist foreign policy.

What does feminist foreign policy have to do with preventing extremism?

„A feminist foreign policy opposes discriminatory, anti-human ideologies“. In doing so, it systematically opposes „any form of group-based misanthropy“,[1] writes the civil society Alliance 1325, which has been pooling expertise on the Women, Peace, Security agenda for years. It is precisely this commitment against any ideology of inequality that is also the core task of extremism prevention.

Right-wing extremist, Islamist and other extremist groups are based on ideologies of exclusion and devaluation. The distinction between a supposedly superior „us“ and an inferior „them“ is the foundation of a superior world view, the implementation of which can become the basis for legitimising violence. The „we“ embodies the „right“ ideology, way of life and more – it forms an outwardly delimited and inwardly closed, usually ethnically or religiously defined community.[2] Extremism researchers agree that this external delimitation of a group as well as the development of common enemy images and superiority narratives are central to the identity and cohesion of extremist groups.

Misogyny and the rejection of changing gender relations in the form of anti-feminism and queerphobia are a recurring, but underestimated, ideological element of extremist world and enemy images.[3] Right-wing extremist perpetrators such as those in Halle, Christchurch and Utøya postulated hatred of feminists and self-determined women in their manifestos and see feminism as a fundamental evil that they blame for declining birth rates and thus the decline of the white „people“. The perpetrators refer to each other, share anti-feminist agitation online. The shared hatred of feminists and other representatives of a changing gender order can be found in numerous extremist attitudes and, as in the case of misogynist incels[4] , an online subculture from which several terrorist attacks have emerged, can also condense into an independent, closed worldview.

Recent studies open up even more interfaces between misogyny and extremism. For example, Australian researcher Melissa Johnston has studied the characteristics and attitudes most common among supporters of violent extremism in Libya, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.[5] Aggressive sexism was found to be the strongest indicator of support for violent extremism among both men and women. The link was thus stronger than gender, age, social or educational background, etc. – in short, those characteristics that current extremism prevention strategies have so far placed at the centre of their work. In addition, a study from 2019 proves for the first time an observation that practitioners from women’s support systems and extremism prevention services have been pointing out for years: many violent extremist criminals had already committed physical violence against their partners before committing their acts.[6]

The desire for a return to a supposed „golden age“ of traditional gender roles, as well as the strict control of these norms, runs like a thread through folkish and fundamentalist groups. From our work with „IS“ returnees, we know that precisely these simple role promises proved very effective for recruitment. The implementation of draconian punishments for deviations from existing gender and family models is also characteristic of the accounts of experiences of „IS“ rule in parts of Syria and Iraq. It is by no means only men who advocate their implementation. A famous example of this is the „IS“ women’s brigade Al-Khansaa, which was responsible for „morality control“. A „rolling back“ of women’s and minority rights is also a visible manifestation of Taliban rule in the context of the current situation in Afghanistan.

The debate around anti-feminism embeds itself in the context of a broader social backlash regarding reproductive rights and bodily self-determination or anti-genderist mobilisation.[7] Anti-feminism serves here as a „symbolic glue“ that carries strategic relevance for new alliances.[8] This offers extremist actors a broad connectivity far beyond their usual supporters, as well as the possibility to co-determine and shape discourses.

Feminist guidelines for more effective extremism prevention

Improving gender analysis and programme guidelines, gender budgeting

Although women have always been an important part of extremist movements in various active roles, access to female target groups is much less developed than to their male co-actors; they are much less reached and often neglected. Outside of primary prevention work (e.g. at schools, political education work), there are hardly any offers specifically for extremist women. Many approaches are described as „gender-neutral“ interventions, but their structure, understanding of the problem and access routes are oriented towards reaching and supporting male target groups. For example, there are de facto no programmes explicitly designed for women in which they are addressed as perpetrators and ideologues. Some of the few existing programmes are either primarily preventive or address women primarily as peace builders and mothers. As perpetrators and political actors, they hardly find any offers of help to leave.

With reference to current international projects of work with extremist target groups, a strong orientation towards gender stereotypes can thus be observed. Contrary to the goals of a feminist foreign policy, extremism prevention programmes that address traditional role models can even weaken progressive actors through the monetary and structural incentives they provide. Furthermore, recent years have made it clear that experiences of stigmatisation through extremism prevention programmes can cause lasting damage to both the credibility of these programmes and the relationship between those affected and state institutions. For this reason, in addition to gender competences, analytical competences from anti-racist work, as well as other dimensions of disadvantage, must be included in an institutionalised way and programmes must not be set up without local experts.

Decades of work by feminists have clearly shown that there are no gender-neutral budgets. Nevertheless, most programmes have neither explicit guidelines nor incentives or funds to carry out a gender analysis and include the relevant expertise. The same applies to the prevention of stigmatisation, marginalisation, and epistemic violence through extremism prevention programmes. In addition to a gender analysis of budgets, the treatment of misogyny within extremism must also be taken seriously. This requires further research and funding of pilot projects, for example on misogyny and extremism, as well as further case analyses with reference to public and intimate partner violence, among others.

Capacity building and networks

For implementation, those responsible must be empowered to conduct meaningful feminist analyses. Such mainstreaming requires training and broad networks between feminist experts and other disciplines. Only in this way can programmes prevent unintended negative effects and implement the concept of human security in the necessary complexity. Another important step in this direction would be the creation of spaces in which gender experts and actors from the Women, Peace, Security (WPS) agenda can exchange ideas with experts in the field of extremism prevention. Such spaces are currently lacking internationally, with the result that too little current feminist expertise is transferred to this field.

 Strengthening civil society and enabling long-term cooperation at eye level

Civil society work is an important building block in the implementation of the concept of human security. The field of extremism prevention is traditionally strongly dominated by state understandings of security; important offers such as accompanying exit work, social services, civil society support are not yet a matter of course. A feminist foreign policy must oppose the securitisation of the field of extremism prevention and strengthen civil society actors in this field. For this, framework conditions must be created in such a way that they enable long-term work on an equal footing in a spirit of partnership, in which knowledge transfer is sought in both directions. Only when work on extremist ideologies is developed together with national stakeholders can it be sustainably transferred into practice.

For this, a foreign feminist policy should focus more on cooperation and coordination. Needs assessments of local structures and civil society actors should serve as the basis for long-term cooperation projects. Coordination between ongoing projects and programmes in the field of extremism prevention with other donors should also be strengthened in order to avoid duplication and to enable a needs-oriented use of funds.

Coherence between domestic and foreign policy, democratic values and focus on human rights

Feminist politics need to work coherently in domestic and foreign policy across different contexts against anti-feminism. This includes the knowledge that women’s rights, those of LGBTQI+ people and other disadvantaged groups are by no means secure – especially where people face multiple discrimination. Ultimately, international extremism prevention can only work credibly through such a foreign and domestic policy commitment to democratic values. Thus, Germany’s commitment to the implementation of judicial processes and an implementation of prison sentences oriented towards international standards in the context of „IS“ is welcome. Violent extremist crimes must not go unseen. Further progress must be made, for example, in the repatriation of „IS“ deportees and their children, who live in inhumane conditions in northern Syrian camps. At the same time, support must not only be given to perpetrators, but also to the interests of the people and regions affected by extremism.


The road to a convincingly feminist foreign policy will be a long one. It is therefore all the more important to set the right course now and to clearly identify blind spots and difficulties in implementation. It would be simplistic to believe that an FFP is the panacea for complex problems such as the increasing polarisation of our societies and the growing global political influence of extremist actors. However, it is clear that gender-reflective and diversity-oriented extremism prevention can have a positive impact on the implementation of a feminist foreign policy. Both feminist foreign policy and extremism prevention aim to work against any ideology of inequality. Current data suggests that a closer look at this interface could lead us to more effective programmes in P/CVE as a building block of a feminist foreign policy.

[1] Bündnis 1325: Annäherung an eine feministische Außenpolitik Deutschlands. P. 4. Available at: deutschlands-e-paper-buendnis-1325 (as of 03.10.2022).

[2] Cf. Meiering, David / Drizi, Aziz / Foroutan, Naika (2018): Brückennarrative – Verbindende Elemente für die Radikalisierung von Gruppen. In PRIF Report No. 7, Frankfurt (with Simon Teune, Esther Lehnert, Marwan Abou- Taam).

[3] Cf. Dhaliwal, Dr Sukhwant / Kelly, Prof. Liz (2020): Literature Review: The Links between Radicalisation and Violence against Women and Girls. London Metropolitan University, Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit. Available online at: against-women/ (as of 12.11.2021).

[4] An abbreviation for involuntary celibate. Members call for, among other things, overthrow „oppressive feminist systems“. Attacks took place in Isla Vista, California, Toronto and other cities. Canada then changed its classification system for extremist groups in order to be able to punish such acts as extremist violence.

[5] Johnston, Melissa / True, Jacqui (2019): Misogyny & Violent Extremism: Implications for Preventing Violent Extremism. Monash University / UN Women. Available online at: brief_ve_and_vaw_v6_compressed.pdf?la=en&vs=1624 (as of 10/09/2021).

[6] Smith, Joan (2019): Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men into Terrorists. London: riverrun Publishing.

[7] Violence Prevention Network / Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (2021): How anti-feminist and anti-gender ideologies contribute to violent extremism- and what we can do about it. Available at: https://violence- [as of 30.09.2022].

[8] Schmincke, Imke (2018): „Frauenfeindlich, Sexistisch, Antifeministisch? Begriffe und Phänomene bis zum aktuellen Antigenderismus“. In: (Anti-)ApuZ 2018(17), p. 33