Protesters take part in a demonstration against the draft of the "Al-Jafaari" Personal Status Law during International Women's Day in Baghdad, March 2014.
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the draft of the "Al-Jafaari" Personal Status Law during International Women's Day in Baghdad, March 2014.
Thaier al-Sudani / REUTERS

Long before the Islamic State (ISIS) was a fixture in world news, Syrian women were warning about the spread of extremism among the displaced and refugee population of their county. In 2012, still the early days of the war, one peace activist told me, “Our kids need schools, but the international community is absent. Instead,” she continued, “the Saudis are introducing their curricula to our communities.” Syrian children, she implied, were suddenly being exposed to materials that condoned intolerance and bigotry as the “true” Islam.

“Groups like Al Nusra offer money, bread, and protection,” said another woman, now based in Lebanon. She noted how desperate families were accepting money in exchange for sending off their boys to fight. Although the number of recruits is not available, since 2011, Human Rights Watch and others have been documenting such cases. Many of the same families were marrying off their girls in the hope that an older man would bring greater protection than the insecurity of a refugee camp would. Comprehensive data are unavailable given that local sheikhs conduct many of the “marriages,” which are not always registered with state authorities. But in Zataari refugee camp alone, the number of just the registered marriages of children to older men jumped from 42 in 2011 to 737 by 2013.

Syrian women have not been alone in raising the alarm. As the dust settled on the 2011 Arab revolutions, women’s rights and democracy activists from Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were among the first to see and speak out about the sudden emergence of extremist forces in their midst. No wonder: among the movements that were coming to power—from the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood to the more recent Salafi groups—control of women in public and private spheres was a core tenet. Such groups associated women’s rights with the state feminism of toppled dictatorial regimes. And so, they targeted new laws protecting women straight away. In Libya, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the leader of the National Transitional Council, ended a ban on polygamy in his maiden speech to the country. The Salafis also made their ideology clear. “First they came after the dead,” said a female engineer turned peace activist, referencing the Salafis’ desecration of ancient Islamic and Christian shrines. “Then, they came after women, and it was these same groups that attacked the U.S. compound in Benghazi.” 

Women’s rights and democracy activists from Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were among the first to see and speak out about the sudden emergence of extremist forces in their midst.

Iraq too was another place where the warning signs were clear. Despite the trillions spent in the country, by 2012, the United States seemed to have all but forgotten about it. Funding for development work had dried up. The myriad American organizations that had run programs in Iraq were gone. And as the International Civil Society Action Network noted in its 2013 report, “Picking up the Pieces, Iraqi Women in the Aftermath of War and Occupation” there were already signs that al Qaeda and other extremists were spreading across Iraq. And with sectarian violence on the rise, women were already feeling the repression and reporting on the anger festering in Sunni areas that felt marginalized. The changes these women noted ranged from men harassing women on the streets with impunity to the police allowing club- and knife-wielding men to assault unarmed protesters in Baghdad in 2011 and the adoption of laws that curtailed civil liberties. But these warnings were not heeded. ISIS’ 2014 invasion of parts of Iraq took the world by surprise.

A similar story played out in Afghanistan. When Kunduz fell to the Taliban in September 2015, it came as no surprise to Afghan women. “We warned that the local police hadn’t been paid in six months; they weren’t putting up a fight” said one prominent woman peace and security expert at an event in Washington, DC in November 2015. “We heard from women how the Talibs were slipping into the town, and the police were melting away.” The depth of the problem was noted in an audit by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that described “the ALP [Afghan local police] as a black hole for American aid, with equipment routinely going missing and cops going without pay.”

Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s two-and-half­-year rule has been characterized by arrests of political opponents, journalists, and civil rights advocates. Egyptian women activists have spoken out, but they are being muted. In February 2017, the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, which provides psychological care and rehabilitation to torture victims, was shut down. Leading civil rights advocates and journalists, including women’s human rights defenders, have had their personal bank accounts frozen and have been banned from travel. Activists have attempted to publicize the fact that the government is leading the country into further crisis, but the world prefers to ignore them.

In international security circles, intelligence and early warnings are valuable commodities. Many of us working in the field of women, peace, and security have long pointed out that so-called gendered early warning signals can offer an even earlier early warning. The term gendered warnings typically refers to three things. First, specific changes in the lives of women and men can be harbingers of the rise of conflict, crisis, and extremism. For example, increased pressures on young men to join militias or state militaries are generally indicative of rising militarism. The sale of women’s jewelry in contexts where their gold is a primary asset may likewise suggest rising economic tensions or the signs of preparations to flee impending violence. 

Second, gendered early warning can also refer to explicit threats to women or men in the event of a conflict breaking out. The most haunting case is Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide, when Hutu extremists broadcast publicly that Tutsis were cockroaches and that their women—especially those of childbearing age—deserved to be raped. It should not have been a surprise when the extremists acted out their threats with impunity.

Finally, the term can relate to the specific knowledge that various groups may have. In this regard, female activists are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, as they are often the first to see and understand the implications of changes on the ground because oppression of women is a common feature of most regressive and extremist movements. The rollback of the rights of half the population also indicates a lack of democratic intentions. In other words, discrimination against women should not be squared away or accepted as a matter of culture or tradition. It is a matter of politics and power and can have profound implications for national security. 

In the aftermath of the 2003 occupation of Iraq for example, women’s rights and peace activists were horrified that the new U.S.-drafted constitution would replace the civic code on matters such as marriage, divorce, and child custody with a provision that different religious groups and sects could determine such matters according to the edict of their religious leaders. The activists argued that such a change would put Iraqis at the mercy of self-styled religious leaders and create myriad forms of discrimination and fragmentation across their diverse society. They were right. Today, a girl born into a Shia family, in principle, can be married off at the age of nine or 13 depending on what Shia clerics determined. Her Sunni neighbor faces other rules. Their Christian neighbor might be forbidden to divorce. The inconsistency deepened the rifts between sects and communities.

It seems reasonable to believe that if information were known and shared in a timely manner, it would prompt early action, which in turn could prevent the outbreak of conflict or violence. Yet history is littered with horrific cases in which the information was available, yet nothing was done. Still, if such information continues to be ignored, the problem could spread, metastasize, and threaten not only the entire country but also the world.

Women who dare to be peace, democracy, and rights activists have deep expertise in their own societies—and the courage to speak out and struggle for a peaceful, secure future. They raise uncomfortable truths and challenge the status quo. They call out major powers that turn a blind eye to the excesses of authoritarian regimes for short-term security gains and warn of the longer-term consequences of the crises that will erupt. The question is, what will it take for the international community to heed these warnings early enough? The world cannot afford or withstand another massive conflict with the resulting refugees. The root causes of the problems in Egypt or elsewhere will not disappear overnight, but plenty can be done to mitigate the tensions. 

In the United States, for example, the mechanisms already exist. Congress can evoke the Leahy Law, which prohibits the State Department or Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity. The United Nations and individual member states can commit publicly to ensuring a safe and open space for the development of vibrant and independent civil society. They can participate and support the newly formed Global Solutions Exchange (GSX), which is meant for structured interactions between civil society and states to collectively address and resolve violence, extremism, and repression. At a minimum, it is time to recognize that nongovernmental organizations and the media should be valued for their moderate and constructive critique of the state and society. If that space is shut down, dissent goes underground and is more prone to becoming radicalized and violent.  We know this. The task now is to prevent it.

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