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Recruitment of women by violent ethnopolitical organizations explored in new study

Wednesday, June 03, 2020


LAWRENCE — Ethnopolitical organizations are routinely criticized for being inhospitable to women.

A new study examines such organizations’ recruitment strategies, revealing broader gender ideologies shape gender platforms.

“More violent organizations that employ violent tactics tend to be less gender-inclusive,” said Nazli Avdan, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Whereas those that provide some form of social benefits — such as access to health care or education — tend to be more gender-inclusive.”

Her article “Women Too: Explaining Gender Ideologies of Ethnopolitical Organizations” appears in the current issue of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

Avdan and co-authors Victor Asal and Nourah Shuaibi looked at 102 ethnic and ethnoreligious organizations in the Middle East and North Africa during a 25-year period. These represented 22 groups in 16 countries, ranging from ethnic factions such as Kurds to religious ones such as Shiites. They found state repression frequently compels organizations to adopt gender inclusivity.

“Sometimes the recruitment can conflict with the group goals, and that’s often the case with organizations that are based on other types of societal cleavages. For example, if it’s an ethnic or religious organization that is representing an ethnic minority, then the female recruitments tend to be a subsidiary or secondary goal or not important at all,” Avdan said.

Does that mean we are seeing more or less women joining ethnopolitical organizations now than in the past?

“I cannot 100% say that there’s been increasing enrollment of females. But there’s certainly been more attention paid to female recruitment,” she said.

The professor said the biggest revelation in her study involved how the social service provision affected data. Especially in weaker states, or sometimes in the case of failing or failed ones, sub-national groups come and step into the state role. They provide governance functions when these are lacking on the part of the state actor.

“You saw that with ISIS when they issued their own money and adopted a flag – these are the symbols and trappings of the state. But Hezbollah actually provides access to schooling, access to health care and benefits for women. They’re doing that to gain loyalty and to gain membership,” she said.

Groups successfully able to bestow social services also tend to be the most lethal.

“That’s because they have the capacity to do both,” Avdan said. “They can offset declining support by saying, ‘See, we’re fighting for you.’ It also depends on their tactics. If it’s a group that does not target civilians and provides social services, that’s sort of the best bang for the group’s buck.”

But Avdan is cautious about jumping to the conclusion that these repressive ensembles can be considered pro-feminist.

“Because they say such things in their platform doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to have any substantial impact. We don’t really show that tie between recruitment and what actual roles women have within the organization,” she said. “But even if it’s just symbolic or instrumental, it’s still going to have downstream positive consequences. Women are more likely to join gender-equal organizations, and once they do, they could use that as a platform to launch more inclusive agendas within society writ large.”

A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Avdan is now in her sixth year at KU. Her expertise is in international migration, transnational terrorism, human trafficking and organized crime, and the intersection of gender and security. The professor’s work has appeared previously in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, most recently with her article “V for Vendetta,” which examines the relationship between government atrocities and terrorist mobilization.

She is hoping “Women Too” induces more researchers to look at other types of grassroots organizations and their gender ideology or recruitment patterns.

“Instead of remaining just tethered to the idea that gender is something we have to look at as official channels, like the legislature, the executive branch or political parties, it’s interesting to take more seriously the tactics of groups,” she said. “Not just whether or not they employ violence, but what other engagements they have with the populace and whether that’s positive or negative.”

Top photo: Kurdish YPG (Peoples Protection Unit) fighters train for combat in Syria. (Kurdish Struggle photo). Credit: WikiCommons