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On the Path to a Doctorate – Terrorism and Gender

At Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center
Photo : Public Domain
At Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center

Ever since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the United Nations (UN) has been dealing intensively with combatting and preventing terror. When political scientist Ann-Kathrin Rothermel was completing an internship at the UN Secretariat in New York after her master’s studies, she noticed that gender issues were repeatedly discussed in speeches and reports on terrorism. She wondered how gender and political violence were connected and decided to do a doctorate on this question.

Jihadist organizations such as ISIS or Al Qaeda and racially-motivated attacks such as in Christchurch, Halle, or Utoya – what these extremisms have in common is that they insist on rigid gender roles. This connection between gender and extremism has also increasingly received more attention at the UN in recent years and has led to a large number of projects and resolutions in which gender equality is linked to the prevention of extremism.

This was Rothermel’s starting point: She examined almost 500 UN documents issued between 2006 and 2021 to find out how women and gender are constructed in the context of the prevention of extremism. To do this, she worked her way into a completely new field: discourse analysis using natural language processing. She completed courses in data science and wrote an algorithm that enabled her to capture words such as “gender” and “women” in their respective semantic context. In her data analysis, she found that gender is addressed differently in the three UN pillars “Peace and Security”, “Sustainable Development”, and “Humanitarianism and Human Rights” in the context of terror.

The security discourse focuses on women as a particularly vulnerable group. When terrorist groups seize power, they are exposed to particularly despicable violence. According to Rothermel, the discourse works with stereotypes a lot, which assume that women are generally more peaceful and that more “female peacemakers” are needed. The discourse on development, on the other hand, regards women as an “untapped resource”. Female entrepreneurs could promote the economic development of their country, which would reduce the risk of terror. As mothers, (too) much responsibility is also ascribed to them, as they could supposedly counteract radicalization in their families. The third discourse assumes that the protection of human rights always also benefits women, as their human rights are particularly at risk from terrorist and anti-terrorist violence. Rothermel concludes that the different pillars of the UN are often not taken into account when linking gender and extremism, but that a uniform concept of gender is adopted. This ignores the fact that different assumptions about women, femininity, and masculinity can lead to contradictory recommendations for action. In order to shed light on the diversity of the links between gender and extremism, it is therefore important to include the various discourses on gender institutionalized in the UN more consciously.

The Researcher

Ann-Kathrin Rothermel is writing her doctoral thesis “Gender and the Governance of Terrorism and Violent Extremism” under the supervision of Prof. Andrea Liese at the University of Potsdam. Rothermel is also researching the anti-gender mobilization of right-wing parties in Europe at the University of Bern.
Email: arothermuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Eins 2024 „Bildung:digital“ (PDF).