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THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN FAR-RIGHT EXTREMISM

Jasmin Saarijärvi, Angeliki Siafaka, Behavior/Leadership (B/L) Team

Monday, July 12, 2021


Woman with the Proud Boys at a World Wide Rally[1]


As the threat posed by the extreme and radical right grows, the number of women in far-right extremist organizations has risen and women have become more susceptible to radicalization and political violence. Far-right extremist organizations aim to manipulate the concerns that women have about their safety to present themselves as the protectors of women and their extremist ideology as the solution to those threats. Women’s participation in far-right organizations is significant as it helps to present a cohesive collective identity, which likely makes the organization more powerful because it demonstrates that the group represents society as a whole. Women can have a unique role in advancing the far-right extremist ideology. Therefore, it is highly likely that far-right extremist groups will increasingly strive to radicalize women and that the participation of women in far-right organizations will continue to grow. While there is some recent movement to include more women in Prevent Violent Extremism programs following the notion that women’s participation in security can lead to a more peaceful society, very few programs focused on countering extremism and de-radicalizing women exist. Gender-specific counter-extremism and de-radicalization efforts could address gender issues and take into account the influential factors that contribute to women being targeted for radicalization by white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and anti-government groups. It is important to understand the gendered element of the growing threat of far-right extremism and the way that certain views on gender may make both men and women vulnerable to radicalization.


Women participate in far-right extremism at increasing rates even though the ideology is usually seen as masculine and male-dominated.[2] Due to the misogynistic and anti-feminist language, it seems contradictory that women are attracted to far-right extremism. However, hatred towards immigrants, the desire to protect one’s nation, and a sense of belonging render women vulnerable to the ideology.[3] The polarization of societies worldwide, particularly in the West, fosters support for anti-immigration sentiments and far-right ideologies. Increased immigration and the flow of refugees in the past decades seem to have intensified women’s motivation to take action on these matters.[4] Attacks and sexual violence against white women perpetrated by non-white men can be used as a tool to promote racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. This can be reinforced by religious extremism, mainly Christian values, which are often interpreted as advocating white supremacy. Extremely religious women can therefore be more prone to far-right extremist narratives as they already demonstrate susceptibility to extremist views. In this way, far-right extremist groups aim to manipulate women’s fears and existing susceptibility to gain support for their cause. This, in turn, makes women prone to join far-right extremist groups as they offer a medium for expressing their grievances and easing their fears.


Fears and existing susceptibility of women coupled with a sense of belonging that the groups can offer, women may find the rhetoric and goals of far-right extremism appealing as they can bring more meaning to their lives. This links particularly to childhood troubles and experiences of domestic or sexual abuse that some of the women might have experienced, which may lead them to grow resentful.[5] Following this, the fear of abuse and the subsequent disillusionment of feminism is likely to lead women to lean towards more traditional values. As far-right extremism embraces masculinity and patriarchy coupled with traditional values and gender roles, the ideology can tap into this desire to rebel against society and gain self-empowerment. In addition, the changing image of far-right extremism from traditional skinheads to more modern suburban mothers who spend a lot of time on social media is highly likely to broaden the appeal of the ideology. Consequently, it is highly likely that far-right extremist organizations will continue to manipulate the concerns that women have about their safety to present themselves as the protectors of women and their extremist ideology as the solution to the threats against the safety of women.


Women members of far-right organizations act as thinkers, violent actors, facilitators, promoters, activists, and exemplars promoting an image of the perfect woman.[6] However, gendered assumptions about women and violence predominately depict women as non-violent and can allow women to commit violent and terrorist acts, and act as organizers, facilitators, and recruiters more easily while going undetected as they do not fit the profile of a male. This can offer an advantage to far-right groups and is likely to give them more incentive to recruit women. Women are likely very important to right-wing extremism because they can help to construct the feminine identity and the proposed proper gendered behavior by demonstrating anti-feminism and promoting an idealized image of traditional womanhood, which is likely essential to far-right groups at a time when women’s empowerment and women’s rights have become significant. Women in far-right groups can offer an alternative by connecting the importance of women’s political agency to extremism and use women’s empowerment to justify hateful ideologies as a way to secure women’s safety while shaping the anti-feminist theory and the radical-right positions on gender and sexuality in a way that resonates with other women. Women’s participation in far-right organizations helps to present a cohesive collective identity, which likely makes the organization more powerful as it demonstrates that the group represents society as a whole. The increased representation of women likely allows far-right groups to expand their reach and promote the idea that the group can incorporate the whole of society.


Even though women have been found to be more susceptible to xenophobic, racist, and anti-Muslim attitudes than men and equally prone to ingroup-outgroup thinking, persistent gendered misconceptions lead to underestimating women’s contribution to far-right extremism.[7] The notion that women cannot be easily radicalized likely indicates to outsiders that the group has valid arguments and addresses reasonable concerns if women participate, which helps to provide legitimacy to the groups and can ultimately contribute to normalizing the hateful ideologies of the extreme and radical right. Due to the preconceptions surrounding gender expectations, the involvement of women in far-right extremist groups is very likely to bring much media attention to the groups helping them spread their message. The public image of female members can make the far-right groups more appealing to women which can offer them the opportunity to expand their pool of recruits and increase their numbers. Considering the unique role women can have in advancing far-right extremist ideology and the potential strategic advantage of the growing involvement of women, it is highly likely that far-right extremist groups will increasingly target women to radicalize and recruit them and that the participation of women in far-right organizations will continue to grow.


Even though women’s involvement in the extreme and radical right is not a new phenomenon and women have helped to advance groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the role of women in white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and anti-government groups has become increasingly significant in recent years. For example, the majority of QAnon’s followers are women and it is the women of QAnon that have played a crucial role in spreading the group’s messages and conspiracy theories.[8] QAnon is using child sex trafficking, a very sensitive and real problem, to shock people and attract attention. They then create conspiracy theories surrounding the problem. These conspiracy theories appeal to women in a unique way because QAnon is focusing on supposedly fighting the horrific abuse of children. However, the group is using the protection of children to build a deep anti-government sentiment before starting to push people towards extremism and political violence. The group has managed to manipulate women’s concerns about the safety of their children and exploit their fear of abuse to radicalize them. The QAnon women have infiltrated the parenting online space using parenting websites, blogs, and parenting influencers on Instagram and Facebook to promote conspiracy theories.[9] Radicalizing women and using them as propagators has offered QAnon the advantage of reaching people, especially women, that otherwise would not be regularly exposed to extremist propaganda, enabling them to infiltrate online spaces that are generally free of extremist content. QAnon aims to manipulate the maternal instincts of women and their maternal duty to protect their children and they present themselves as protectors of children to trap people into conspiratorial thinking which then makes it easier to radicalize them.


Women comprise at least 14% of the arrests related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.[10] Jessica Watkins, who is the leader of an Ohio militia group and member of the Oath Keepers, played an instrumental role in organizing, coordinating, and leading a group of 40 Oath Keepers’ members during the storming of the Capitol.[11] Two women who were charged in connection to the Capitol attack said that they were in the building looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they had planned to shoot her in the head.[12] The case of the Capitol attack highlights the front-line involvement of women in far-right and anti-government organizations and suggests that as the threat posed by the extreme and radical right grows, women become more susceptible to radicalization and political violence. Yet, there is a tendency to consider women’s participation in extremism and terrorism as isolated incidents rather than a developing trend, and women are more often than not portrayed as lacking agency. The failure to develop an understanding of women’s agency and take into consideration the gender dynamics within the extremist far-right movements is very likely to contribute to further violence and a rise in women’s involvement in domestic terrorism. Women rarely act as lone offenders terrorists.[13] However, the increased radicalization of women, in combination with the lack of gender-specific countermeasures, is highly likely to contribute to the creation of more female lone terrorists.


To reduce women’s appeal to far-right extremism and deter them from joining far-right groups, the motivations and the role of women need to be accounted for. This includes understanding radicalization through a gender lens and grasping that women are drawn to far-right extremism sometimes in a different way than men.[14] Counter-extremism efforts could include more gender-specific approaches by utilizing existing research on gender. This can be supplemented by understanding the personal and societal motivations of historically prevalent female far-right leaders and first-movers. It would be highly beneficial to educate social workers, who work with domestic and/or sexual abuse cases, about radicalization and far-right extremism. This would increase the possibility of detecting signs of far-right radicalization among abused women at an early stage. As with nearly all types of extremism, tackling the social media influence and online radicalization would be useful in redirecting vulnerable women away from the ideology. This could be realized by creating counter-narratives and avenues for women to express their frustration or resentment in a different way.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue its efforts to monitor the developments of far-right extremism and analyze the role of women in the ideology regionally as well as, internationally. The CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers work to develop a broad understanding of the current and past trends of far-right extremism, which enables strong analysis and relevant reports on the topic. Additionally, CTG’s Threat Hunters support the W.A.T.C.H. Officers and contribute to an even deeper understanding of ongoing threats. The Behavior/Leadership Team continues to specialize in tracking far-right radicalization and incorporates a gender lens in its activities. This contributes to a more thorough analysis and grasp of the behavioral trends regarding women and their role in far-right extremism. Further, the regional teams monitor changes and trends in far-right extremist groups in their respective regions which offers a comprehensive understanding across the globe.

________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Proud Boys at World Wide Rally in Raleigh (2021 Mar)” by Anthony Crider, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] The Woman Paradox: Misogyny and Women In the Far-Right, Australian Institute of International Affairs, April 2021, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-woman-paradox-misogyny-and-women-in-the-far-right/

[3] Tackling Women’s Support of Far-right Extremism: Experiences from Germany, Resolve Network, February 2021, https://www.resolvenet.org/system/files/2021-02/RSVE_REMVESeries_PN_deLeede_February2021.pdf

[4] Why are women joining far-right movements, and why are we so surprised?, openDemocracy, January 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/women-far-right-movements-why-are-we-surprised/

[5] Tackling Women’s Support of Far-right Extremism: Experiences from Germany, Resolve Network, February 2021, https://www.resolvenet.org/system/files/2021-02/RSVE_REMVESeries_PN_deLeede_February2021.pdf

[6] “Women in the Extreme and Radical Right: Forms of Participation and Their Implications,” Social Sciences, 2020, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/9/9/149/htm

[7] “How Women Advance the Internationalization of the Far-Right,” GW Program on Extremism, 2019, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/How%20Women%20Advance%20the%20Internationalization%20of%20the%20Far-Right.pdf

[8] The women of QAnon—and where they go from here, Politico, February 2021, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/women-rule/2021/02/26/the-women-of-qanonand-where-they-go-from-here-491921

[9] The Birth of QAmom, Rolling Stone, September 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/qanon-mom-conspiracy-theory-parents-sex-trafficking-qamom-1048921/

[10] 'We did our part': The overlooked role women played in the Capitol riot, ABC News, April 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/US/part-overlooked-role-women-played-capitol-riot/story?id=76924779

[11] Oath Keepers: How a militia group mobilized in plain sight for the assault on the Capitol, CBS News, April 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-capitol-riots-oath-keepers-militia-2021-04-18/

[12] 2 women charged in Capitol riot said they were 'looking' for Pelosi 'to shoot her in the friggin' brain', Insider, January 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/women-charged-capitol-riot-shoot-nancy-pelosi-2021-1

[13] “Lone Offender: A Study Of Lone Offender Terrorism In The United States,” National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/lone-offender-terrorism-report-111319.pdf/view

[14] Gender and Right-Wing Extremism in America: Why Understanding Women’s Roles is Key to Preventing Future Acts of Domestic Terrorism, Just Security, March 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75068/gender-and-right-wing-extremism-in-america-why-understanding-womens-roles-is-key-to-preventing-future-acts-of-domestic-terrorism/


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