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Global Affairs Blog

We Could All Be Agents of Tolerance

By: Suzanne Knijnenburg, L’18

In discussions of the global migration crisis, women have been portrayed as under threat from “dangerous” Muslim men—first in Europe, and now in the United States. President Donald Trump’s difficult relationship with women and Muslims has set the tone for his presidency. His so-called “Muslim Ban,”[i] released in the first weeks of his presidency, triggered a flood of international xenophobic messages on the internet. Messages on social media stated specifically that “rapefugees” should not be welcomed,[ii] and included that “[t]he Somalis are the most dangerous to women and children. #Rapefugees.”[iii] The hashtag ‘Rapefugees’ contains a long list of similar examples. This xenophobic trend that portrays women as being under threat by Muslim men is a dangerous one that Trump himself appears to agree with. Trump publically accused the father of a slain Muslim soldier who spoke at the Democratic National Convention of delivering a speech by himself because his wife was not allowed to speak, essentially casting her as a victim of her own culture.[iv] These statements undermine the dignity of both Muslim man and women and could ultimately lead to terrorism. An approach that instead empowers Muslim women could have the opposite effect and ultimately contribute to counterterrorism measures.

Xenophobic rhetoric in the current migration crisis is largely based on the assumption that society is moving toward Islamization. This assumption is encouraged by advocacy of politicians such as President Trump in the US, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France, who claim that the growing visibility of Muslim traditions and culture such as mosques, headscarves, burqas, and the poor treatment of women has a negative influence on society. Security fears fueled by terrorist attacks often find their roots in these long-held beliefs of an unbridgeable civilization gap between the Western and Islamic worlds.[v]

Xenophobic beliefs objectify people and undermine the dignity of victims, particularly in Muslim communities.[vi] Such beliefs result in discrimination and marginalization and often lead to social inequality in jobs, housing, and social services. Persons being suppressed and pushed to the margins of society are at greater risk of being drawn to revenge, making them easy targets for radicalization and recruitment into the ranks of extremist groups. This perpetuates a culture of “us” against “them.”[vii]

In much-needed efforts to prevent terrorism, society can play a part by rejecting xenophobia. Recent responses to immigration measures that focus on rape and women’s rights standards highlight the need to address the current xenophobic trend of portraying women as victims of an oppressive culture which makes them instruments to fuel xenophobia.

The most evident example of this trend is the thesis that Muslim women are being oppressed because of their appearance in veils or burqas. But also the fight against terrorism has by various sources been framed as a fight for the rights and dignity of women.[viii] President George W. Bush, for example, argued that the war on terrorism was in part waged to save “Muslim women from what many believe is oppression in their countries. As social scientist Lila Abu-Lughod argued, this implies that the U.S. believes Muslim culture is inferior to Western culture because Westerners believe women suffer if they are not like them.”[ix]

There is great risk in portraying women as victims of an oppressive culture. Generalizations that treat women as being on the receiving end of oppression fail to acknowledge their essential dignity. Depicting women as victims denies them political footing on their path to equality.[x] In addition, Muslim women are attacked on a much larger scale by xenophobic violence because of the stereotype that they are passive, which is often associated with what they wear.[xi] At the same time, portraying women as victims equally results in the rejection of dignity of the alleged “oppressor,” which can result in marginalization and the denial of basic human rights. Such xenophobic attitudes toward Muslim men drive radicalization. Both propositions—that Muslim women are victims and that Muslim men are oppressive—go hand in hand, and influence one another. History has shown that the marginalization of “oppressors” makes men feel emasculated.[xii] One way in which they regain their masculinity is to oppress women even more and reinforce the traditional norms of their own culture.[xiii] Therefore, xenophobic beliefs about “oppressors” should equally be addressed, for instance, through anti-hate speech legislation.

Portraying women as victims denies women’s valuable place in society as agents and as peacekeepers. A strong preventive strategy will start by making sure that women are no longer portrayed as victims of an oppressive culture. As a second step, through empowerment, women should be valued and encouraged to be agents for change.[xiv] Women bring great value as “contributors to the transition from the cult of war to the culture of peace.”[xv] In the role of transmitters of tolerance, women could play a crucial role in the rejection of xenophobia and the fight against terrorism and extremism.

So far, little research has been done on the question of how gender equality and gender norms could contribute to preventing violent extremism and terrorism. Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR) did, however, recognize women’s empowerment and gender equality as critical elements to peace and security and acknowledged the role of women as agents of change.[xvi] Moreover, Dutch research has indicated that empowering women in local Moroccan communities significantly influences the behavior of Moroccan men. It appears that young men behave in line with how they assume women expect them to behave. [xvii]

Although this example highlights a social experiment, its outcome could frame the foundation of the role of women in the rejection of xenophobia. If proven that the behavior of Muslim men in some countries could be shaped through the expectations of their female counterparts, the the empowerment of these women will need to play a significant role in transmitting certain norms and standards in culture. It is therefore important that a robust culture of empowerment forms part of the expectations of women in Muslim-majority communities. Instead of viewing women in Muslim communities as victims, the United States and countries in Europe, as well as local communities, should take active steps to reinforce the self-awareness of women and work to emancipate women from reductionist stereotypes. Women’s agency, and particularly that of Muslim women, is the most powerful tool to transmit norms and a culture of tolerance and has the potential of influencing society as a whole. The empowerment of women as such could serve “as a bulwark against extremism”.[xviii]

Instead of approaching differences with fear, we should all work to empower women and encourage women to be transmitters of culture and norms. The ban on Muslims that has gender components boiling under its service only fuels further xenophobia and bluntly misses its goal of protecting society. A more empowering narrative is needed and every single person in society can work to its achievement. The empowerment of women will lead to the rejection of xenophobia and could have a significant impact on the fight against terrorism and extremism.


[i] “Giuliani: Trump asked me how to do a Muslim ban ‘legally,” The Hill (Jan 29, 2017) available through



[iv] Donald Trump Criticizes Muslim Family of Slain U.S. Soldier, Drawing Ire, New York Times (July 30, 2016) available through

[v] Raymond Taras, Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe 4 (Edinburgh University Press, 1st ed. 2012).

[vi] Xenophobia is one common form of bias-motivated discrimination which refugees and migrants are exposed to. They may also be exposed to other forms of discrimination such as racial discrimination, racism and related intolerance. These forms of bias can be deeply connected and sometimes difficult to separate. Xenophobia can therefore best be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy that seeks to address all these forms.

[vii] Kerstin Rosenow-Williams, Organizing Muslims and Integrating Islam in Germany: New Development in the 21st Century 131 (Koninklijke Brill NV 2012).

[viii] US Government 2002.

[ix] Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural

Relativism and Its Others, 104 American Anthropologist, 3, 783-790 (2002).

[x] Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, a former UN undersecretary general and high representative, during discussion at USIP (Jul. 2015),

[xi] Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Sara Zeiger, Rafia Bhulai, A Man’s World? Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism, (Hedayah and The Global Center on Cooperative Security 2016), See on xenophobic attacks: See on British attacks–ZyMe0b1MhFx and on Dutch attacks noting that 90% of the attacks were perpetrated against women: I. Abbaaziz, Meld Islamophobie, available at, in France attacks reached an ultimate high of four hundred incidents in 2015 available at

[xii] L. Ahmed, Discourse of the Veil, in Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate 144-168 (Yale University Press 1992).

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Fred Strasser, Women and Violent Extremism: A Growing Threat Demands Concerted Action (Aug. 3, 2015)

[xv] Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, a former UN undersecretary general and high representative, during discussion at USIP (Jul. 2015),

[xvi] UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) [on women and peace and security], 31 October 2000, S/RES/1325 (2000),

[xvii] Eindrapportage project Meiden voor Meiden (2016), report on file with the Dutch Ministry of Justice, available upon request. The Public Prosecution Service started this research project recognizing that traditional measures of punishing criminal behavior of Dutch-Moroccan boys is not sufficient to solve the problem and intended to localize the road to a solution. Against this background the Public Prosecution Service focused its attention on the role gender could play in a more preventive strategy.

[xviii] Radhika Coomaraswamy, Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice Securing Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, 229 (New York: UN Women, 2015).

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