An estimated 64,000 women and children with links to Da’esh foreign fighters remain in the Al Hol and Roj camps in northeast Syria, where deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions make them vulnerable to abuse, violence, exploitation, and deprivation. With many global governments on the fence about repatriation despite international human rights law, exposure to the difficult conditions in the camps only serves to reinforce the grievances and injustices that were used by Da’esh to recruit adherents in the first place. For those who are eventually repatriated, the lack of holistic strategy by national governments and focus on securitized approaches serves as a barrier to their successful rehabilitation and reintegration. With the underlying root causes of recruitment still present in host communities, including socio political and economic grievances and marginalization, there is a deep need for community-based approaches to ensure the broad inclusion of returning foreign terrorist fighters (RFTFs) and create concrete alternative pathways to a new life.
Transformative Peace has supported the development of evidence-based, holistic rehabilitation and reintegration programs around the world, from Morocco to the Maldives.
Partnership and collaboration between civil society and government institutions on rehabilitation and reintegration is direly needed. Incorporating the do no harm principle, rehabilitation and reintegration programs must ensure they do not further perpetuate and/or re-victimize those that have faced profound suffering and trauma.
A Gender-Sensitive Approach to Rehabilitation and Reintegration
While women joining violent extremist organizations is not a new phenomenon, it continues to be considered as exceptional. Women returning from VEOs tend to be portrayed as victims, brainwashed, or exploited. This is despite the fact that many women joined Da’esh of their own accord, driven by challenges in their communities of origin such as unemployment and gender inequality, and in many contexts they were just as likely as men to have participated in and witnessed violence. As a result, their specific needs go unrecognized, despite the fact that they are more likely than male combatants to experience distress as a result of perpetrating or being a victim of violence. Their complex set of experiences must be recognized in the rehabilitation and reintegration process.
A gender-sensitive approach to rehabilitation and reintegration requires the recognition that women have agency. In fact, many of them may have experienced greater agency within Da’esh and are now struggling to adjust to more marginalized social roles.
Women should be encouraged to explore different aspects of their identity beyond the constraints typically imposed on them, connect with female role models in their community, and be supported to transcend stereotypes about her gender if that’s something she desires.
Rehabilitation and reintegration programs must recognize and address the distinct social stigma faced by women returnees, as women’s participation in armed groups is typically viewed as a violation of conventional social norms. Finally, programs must recognize and address the gender-specific traumas women may have experienced, such as rape and assault.
Ultimately, the return of foreign terrorist fighters and their families offers an opportunity not only for the rehabilitation and reintegration of the individual, but also for the social transformation of structural dynamics that made these individuals vulnerable to recruitment in the first place. Transformative Peace advocates for a human rights-based approach to rehabilitation and reintegration that recognizes the inherent dignity of all.
Transformative Peace is committed to supporting global communities' pursuits of peace, justice, and liberation. Our approach acknowledges that conflict transformation is more likely when peacebuilding tools are contextualized within local beliefs and ideologies.
To this end, on May 27, Transformative Peace hosted its fifth Transformative Conversation, Religious Peacebuilding: Challenges and Opportunities for Transformative Peace. The event featured Manal Omar, founder and CEO of Across Red Lines, a pioneering organization that focuses on a holistic approach to building inclusive and diverse societies through its investment in women leaders; Rev. Dr. Fatimah S. Salleh, founder of A Certain Work, an organization dedicated to educating on the intersection of issues in faith, diversity, equity, and inclusion. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Houda Abadi, Founder and Executive Director of Transformative Peace.
Dr. Abadi launched the conversation with a poignant example from the Afghan peace process, where it was laws framed within an Islamic context that were most successful at bringing parties to the negotiating table. Throughout the discussion, the panelists offered powerful insights about the dangers of religious reductionism, the role of governments in instrumentalizing religion for political aims, intra-religious dialogue as a tool to foster women's inclusion in faith-based peacebuilding, and how congregations are being challenged by social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Speaking about the complexity of the role of religion in global conflict, Ms. Omar quoted Pope Francis that just "as dangerous as religious extremism is religious reductionism." Ms. Omar said, "Religion holds incredible moral authority. When we take religion from the public square, when we reduce it, and we usually do this as part of the effort to fight extremism... then it becomes defined by extremism." Ms. Omar also shared approaches for using religion as a tool for advancing women's inclusion in peacebuilding efforts. She explained that traditional male religious leaders often block new language and movements out of concern for the erasure of their legacies, and it is necessary to acknowledge these legacies in order for them to let them go. "It's not nice to include women--it's absolutely necessary."
Rev. Dr. Salleh commented on governments' use of religious oppression to achieve political aims. "The fact that religion can be used to mobilize a government against believers of other religious faiths is probably one of the biggest spiritual abuses there are." She also spoke about how social movements such as Black Lives Matter have played a crucial role, not only in elevating issues of racial justice to the top of congregations' agendas where they were previously considered too political, but also in forcing Black churches to reconcile with the intersectionality of liberation and justice movements when it comes to the LGBTQ community. "The church as a whole, as far as Christianity and what it's doing on American soil, is actually facing some of its deepest prejudices...whether they want to talk about it or not."
Throughout the conversation, both speakers expressed hope for the future of religious peacebuilding, citing their inspiration by youth movements. "What's up for grabs is the social contract. The social contract that was based on fear and scarcity is falling apart. Things that my generation was scared of but worked around, the next generation is working through. We need to negotiate religion within this new social contract, which is based on abundance and the power of love," Ms. Omar said. Rev. Dr. Salleh added, "My hope for religious peacebuilding is a reimagining that is deeply liberating, and that breaks the bounds and the confines that we have placed on what I think is a wild and untamed God...I'm hoping these young folks come with a reimagining of the divine that sets us free....maybe we've been imagining who God loves and how we do love all wrong, maybe we've been setting up barriers that never needed to exist...and that is what religious peacebuilding is. It's a reimagining of what religion can be and how it sees the divine."
Welcoming Victoria Friedlander - Transformative Peace Summer 2021 Intern
Transformative Peace is pleased to announce that Victoria Friedlander will be joining our team as a summer intern. Victoria will support the work of Transformative Peace by contributing to conflict analysis, research, and grant-writing; content development for social media outlets; and assisting in capacity building and execution of community conflict transformation programs. Please read more about Victoria in her short bio below. Welcome, Victoria!
Victoria Friedlander recently completed her MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London where she focused on religious persecution and Middle Eastern studies. Prior to joining Transformative Peace she held internships at two British think-tanks focusing on Middle East security as well as countering violent extremism..
Victoria also holds a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in both Peace, War, and Defense and Philosophy and minored in Islamic Studies.