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Women’s Work

The UN wants to conscript women into the War on Terror

Around the time the world was about to shut down in early March 2020, a much-anticipated meeting of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women died a premature death. The CSW64/Beijing+25 was going to mark the passage of twenty-five years since a conference that had taken place in Beijing. It was meant to take stock, to see how far the world’s women had progressed in the quarter century. But while the session was not held in its entirety, given the continued constraints of a global pandemic, the UN’s affiliate entity UN Women has continued to put out reports and training manuals and other similar products that we have come to expect of the organization, which defines itself as the “global champion for gender equality.”

One of these, released this month, is a training manual on “Women in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.” UN Women seems to have decided that championing global gender equality requires training women to fight terrorism, where terrorism is “militant jihadist violent extremism in Europe and Central Asia.” Of the five modules in the training, three “provide specific ways to identify signs of violent extremism and how women can counter them in various roles.” Women’s empowerment and equality are thus allotted a new task: serving as informants to catch “militant jihadist violent extremists” with whose apprehension the Western world has busied itself for the past two decades.

It is a slick move, this conflation of catching terrorists and being empowered a la UN Women. Who, after all, would oppose the apprehension of violent extremists? Here again, then, is the deployment of the crude logic of the War on Terror—George Bush’s infamous “You’re either with us or against us”—which eschews nuance and eliminates complexity. The idea is to send out UN workers to run workshops that can teach women who belong to communities in which terrorists are found (and we know this means Muslim women) to screen and scan and tell on the men they know and love. That this prescription replicates the particular worldview and prejudices of a neo-imperialist and expansionist West is not a concern for UN Women.

One module in the UN’s training manual sets up a true-and-false game that brings the necessity of empowered terror-fighting home by handing out imperative truths such as: women suffer the most from the actions of terrorists; women follow husbands and other family members into terror groups; radicalized men are prone to domestic violence.

The other modules do not get much better. As a native of a country where UN aid workers regularly rounded up people to attend trainings, I can just see the women awkwardly seated around tables as the UN trainer demands this or that from them. In one “warm-up activity” outlined in the second module, the participants must walk up to a white sheet of paper and mark their favorite responses, while in others they can anonymously vote and rank them.

The “factors to consider” provided in the manual for this would-be audience are even more bizarre and poorly documented. For instance, a section called “romance” insists that “men joining ISIS in the hope of finding a pure Muslim wife” is “well-documented,” but provides no documentation for that claim.  The assertion that follows—“many women joined ISIS in the hope of finding a pure Muslim husband and the excitement of marrying a jihadi fighter”—does have a footnote, but one that simply cites an essay written by the author of the manual herself. On the issue of migrants, the report asserts that “a recent study on migrant vulnerabilities in Central Asia found a positive relationship between migrant vulnerabilities . . . and radicalization,” while conceding that “more research is warranted.” Finally, we are told that “traumatic life events” also “drive an individual toward radicalization,” and yet we are never provided with any reference to how this conclusion has been reached.

Perhaps the truth does not matter when the audience is made up of people being indoctrinated in the flawed logic of the War on Terror.

Through structure and content, the training manual demeans and infantilizes. The puerile come-up-to-the-front-and-mark-your-answers activities have a distinct schoolchildren quality to them, situating the “trainees” not as equals in the conversation but as individuals who can be told what to do. Then again, what they’re being told—that “romance” is a pull factor for terror and that migrants are predisposed to joining terror groups—is completely unsubstantiated. Perhaps the truth does not matter when the audience is made up of people being indoctrinated in the flawed logic of the War on Terror. It makes sense; the metrics of the success of such trainings and workshops is the number who are rounded up to attend, rather than the usefulness or accuracy of the information that is shared.

As a feminist who once believed in the work of UN Women, I was disturbed by the training manual and its contents. The vast ambit of the War on Terror and its capacity to infect everything is well-known, but this manual proves that even women’s empowerment must be defined in the securitized lingo of this never-ending conflict. Then there is the racism woven into the content; despite the fact that this report is produced by UN Women Europe and Central Asia, there is no mention at all of the white supremacist terror that is growing at an alarming rate.

Aligning women’s empowerment with a security-state agenda connected to fighting terror ignores the latter’s political dimensions. Opposition to that agenda immediately becomes opposition to women’s empowerment. International women’s rights organizations are thus made vehicles for propagating the strategic agendas of powerful countries. If the War on Terror signifies neo-colonialist expansion into the public spaces of foreign countries, the connection of romance or personal trauma to inclinations toward terror represents a colonization of private space. Women who inhabit and dominate these private spaces are therefore being dragged into the CVE program. UN Women, once the champion of global gender equality, has become an instrument that disguises this attempted colonization of private space in the lingo of gender mainstreaming and women’s participation.

The disappointing content of this training manual produced by UN Women suggests that the cancellation of the historic meeting in March of 2020 was not the worst thing in the world. The UN bureaucracy, with its complicated divisions and teams and casts of insiders, has spent too many years holding “historic” conferences, then other conferences to commemorate those conferences, all of them events that rarely mark some actual achievement, deeming themselves historic for the simple reason that they occurred. The characters who show up to them, who are invited to travel and granted per diems, are usually the same familiar faces. Those from poor countries are hosted by richer donor countries, which naturally ensures the continuation of hierarchies and a hesitation to criticize the slide shows and programmatic directions and training manuals produced by the white and the Western.

In a world where human connection across vast distances was difficult, the necessity of transnational institutions was more integral to provide essential platforms for even basic exchanges on issues of rights and human uplift. In this moment, where the performative kumbaya of a fancy conference in New York is not worth much, UN Women needs to rethink its own role and its own hierarchies. A world of equality for all women means that white and Western women must not be permitted to treat everyone else like schoolgirls and feed them information whose insidious agenda has not been critically evaluated.

“Women in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism” is just one of scores of reports and manuals and policy papers that the UN Women machine spews out. At the same time, it illustrates much that is wrong with it; the hierarchies among women, the naïve alignment with security agendas masked as empowerment strategies, the thick and indolent bureaucracies that are committed singularly to their own survival can all be glimpsed here. And all of it poses the central question that no one at UN Women appears to be grappling with: UN Women; what is it good for?