“There is an increasing fear in front of Allah that I feel; fear due to my deeds and sins. It feels like it’s high time to do something, leave this life and follow the inner voice.”
These were the words of a 19-year-old in Kara-Balta in Northern Kyrgyzstan, echoing the feelings of some of the 2,000-4,000 Central Asians that have been recruited as foreign fighters in violent extremist groups. Out of the 811 victims of extremist recruiters that were identified as of October 2016, 25% were women, illuminating the centrality of Kyrgyz women to the issue of violent extremism.
Young women in Kyrgyzstan, particularly those from southern regions, typically known to be more religious but also more socio-economically vulnerable, have been captured at Osh airport on their way to Syria, frequently explaining their decisions as fueled by access to “halal husbands” and “free diapers,” as well as the opportunity to play empowering functions like “medical nurses and snipers.”
Even though women are actively being recruited and travelling to fight with terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS), they are frequently not engaged in prevention or deradicalization strategies and programs, as many don’t see young women as a threat to security or stability. This exclusion means that not only women can become more susceptible to recruitment, but their unique perspectives, experiences, and skills are missing from these critical discussions.
As part of our project, “Social Media for Deradicalization in Kyrgyzstan: A Model for Central Asia,” we are consulting with youth to design effective social media campaigns that provide powerful alternative narratives to those of violent extremist groups. By speaking with a diverse cross section of Kyrgyzstan’s young people, we are able to learn more about the drivers of radicalization and create more resonant messaging to prevent further recruitment.
Including women in this type of programming not only decreases their susceptibility to recruitment, but it also empowers them to lead the process of prevention and deradicalization in their own families and communities. We found through our research that violent extremist messaging is much more effective when sent from a trusted source – most likely a relative, acquaintance, or online friend. Deradicalizaiton messages must then come from these same sources. This is encouraged through the empowerment of mothers, daughters, and female friends both to not send this messaging, and to speak frankly about the dangers of this violent rhetoric with friends and family.
A young woman from Aravan now sees her own potential to act as a security agent after participating in our Youth Workshop in Osh. In fact, although culturally and religiously expected to be reserved (as a sign of “higher” moral principles), Aziza (name was changed) opened up when speaking to a group of other women after participating.
“Although I or we can’t talk to men directly, there is always a way to convey messages of protecting oneself from joining ‘bad’ (VE) groups,” she said. “After completing madrasah, I teach younger people Islamic literacy. Only knowledgeable and (critically) thinking people are able to stand against the bad (VE) things happening in the world.”
Through working in a collaborative and participatory fashion with young people, both male and female, we are actively learning about what is driving young people to violent extremist organizations as well as the most effective narratives to prevent their recruitment and participation in violence. Our engagement of a diverse group of young people and constant reflection on the best way to work with vulnerable groups like women makes us confident of our ability to affect real change on online violent extremist recruitment in Kyrgyzstan.