Using Gender to Understand Extremism: 47th Käte Hamburger Lecture with Elizabeth Pearson

Event Reports

Dr Elizabeth Pearson is a lecturer in Criminology with the Conflict, Violence and Terrorism Research Centre at Royal Holloway. On May 31st, she gave a Käte Hamburger Lecture about the interlinkages between extremist groups and masculinity at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research (KHK/GCR21). Primarily interested in gender, extremism and counter-extremism, Elizabeth Pearson presented the outcome of two-years of field research in the UK (2016-2018), during which she talked to a broad range of extremists, ranging from radical right and far-right groups to Islamist activists.

She first tackled the gender element of terrorism by calling for more awareness regarding gender-based violence. Indeed, the latter is too often understood as personal violence by governments and security studies scholars, thus denying gender-based violence its essential political component. By pointing to the recent research conducted by Joan Smith (2020) and Caron Gentry (2022) which discussed concepts such as misogynistic terrorism, Pearson invited the audience to rethink gender-based violence as a form of political violence which could be construed as terrorism.  

Through various examples, such as the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram, the abuse of Yazidi women by the Islamic State, and  the aggression against gay and trans people by extreme right-wing groups, Pearson also reflected on the intricate relationship between gender and extremism.

Dealing with misogyny, which she categorized as a ‘mechanism that is used to put sexism into practice through specific behaviours, such as the policing of women and their bodies, their clothing and more’ as based on the definition of Kate Manne (2017), Pearson discussed how the concept is a shared characteristic of most extremist groups. She reflected on the concept of hegemonic masculinity as defined by Connell (2005), and further argued that ‘misogyny is not only apparent in the objectification or victimization of women but also in the way men and women are together producing hierarchies and enable certain forms of it’.

Through attending various demonstrations and conducting interviews with members from extremist groups during her field research, Pearson observed the different ways in which masculinity was being articulated according to specific tropes. She showed that members of extreme right-wing groups wished to counter emasculation through a certain physicality that projected a capacity for violence in the radical milieu and how their identity as being white and male, which they usually considered as a privilege, was associated with the ownership of space and territoriality. On the other hand, among Islamist groups, she observed a different form of masculinity, which allowed more vulnerability. She provided examples of how men could express their sadness about the events that occurred in Syria and in Iraq, all the while engaging in more traditional forms of masculinity such as portraying men as martyrs and warriors, but also as scholars and/or protectors of women.

Dr. Aleksandra Dier, Regional Advisor for Women, Peace and Security, Regional Office for the Arab States (ROAS), UN Women, is also a counter-terrorism expert who previously worked for the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED). She commented on Elizabeth Pearson’s lecture with a policy perspective. After reflecting on the difficulties of including the gender dimension into counter-terrorism and counter-extremism in practice, she warned of the repercussions of counter-terrorist measures applied to violence against women and violent misogyny. She presented the risks of moving away from a survivor-centred approach to a rather counter-terrorist or counter-extremist approach which could prevent women from reporting cases of abuse and violence for fear of being associated with terrorism or extremism by the authorities. Dier also discussed the risks of employing counter-terrorist measures in cases of violence in the online space which could potentially lead to mass-surveillance. Finally, she called for more research on gender, masculinity, and misogyny, for such concepts are still new from a policy and practice point of view but are nonetheless fundamental for the advancement of human rights.

Victoria Derrien

Recording of the Lecture