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Online Platforms as Gendered Sites: Why We Should Pay Attention to Women-Only Forums

Online Platforms as Gendered Sites: Why We Should Pay Attention to Women-Only Forums
26th November 2022 Dr Alexandra Phelan

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

Online social media platforms can be highly gendered spaces which afford women in extremist movements a unique opportunity to break, or push through, patriarchal gendered constraints that may hinder offline participation. An increasing body of scholarship has identified the importance of women’s participation in violent extremism and terrorism, including how gender dynamics can shape the participation of both women and men and influence their motivations for joining. This includes the acknowledgement that women and men play distinct roles in violent extremist and terrorist groups, both in the online and offline realms. However, less attention has been devoted to the more ‘boring’, ‘mundane’ and seemingly less ‘extreme’ side of participation in violent extremism specifically, the everyday discussions that take place within online forums amongst like-minded individuals, including topics such as relationships, cooking, shopping, and caregiving duties.

In our article in the European Journal of International Security, entitled Gendered Radicalisation and “Everyday Practices”: An Analysis of Extreme Right and Islamic State Women-Only Forums, we demonstrate how interactive forums and online spaces can 1) be highly gendered sites and 2) simultaneously influence women’s everyday practices within extremist movements. Specifically, we examined the Women’s Forum on Stormfront.org. and the Women Dawah, a Turkish-language pro-ISIS group chat on Telegram to compare similarities and differences between far-right and jihadist forums. We asked: can virtual communities serve as gendered spaces that influence women’s everyday practices within extremist groups, as well as safe spaces within violent milieus that are typically hostile towards women?

Ideological (Re)interpretation and the Assertion of Women’s Agency

Both the Women’s Forum and Women Dawah were selected as examples of gendered extremist virtual spaces that were women-only (explicitly enforced through moderation) and had an internal honour system. We applied a mixed method approach, and to detect and compare underlying gendered topics within both forums, we applied unsupervised machine learning in the form of topic modelling using the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) algorithm. The LDA identifies distinct topics in a large textual dataset and displays how different words are grouped together. LDA analysis allows a document to represent multiple topics, providing a deeper insight into the thematic structure of the corpus. This preliminary data analysis provides a quantification of gendered texts and establishes the presence of ‘everyday topics’ within the women’s forum, substantiating the presence of gendered content. 

Although both datasets were derived from women-only forums with enforced gender segregation, we found that the prominence of themes discussed within both sites differed. For example, while the topic of ‘relationships’ was discussed with similar frequency, ‘pregnancy’ and ‘appearance’ were discussed more within the far-right Women’s Forum, and ‘family’ and ‘violence’ were discussed more within the jihadist Women Dawah group. Furthermore, it appears that the focus of the jihadist forum was more on immediate issues, including family and violence, since during the time of analysis ISIS was engaging in direct conflict. On the other hand, the far-right forum was able to cover more non-conflict-related themes such as education, shopping, the household, and money. In short, active conflict dynamics can explain the greater amount of violence within jihadist conversations as opposed to those of the far right, as violence is part of daily life while conflict is ongoing.

However, we found that the presence of gendered discussions within these forums on the everyday realities faced by women in the movements not only enhanced their participation and membership within violent extremist movements but also allowed for the assertion of greater agency vis-à-vis patriarchal ideologies. Discussion among like-minded women facilitated a process of gendered interpretation through the consumption of extremist material, which in turn enables women to strengthen their understanding of the world in line with how the extremist ideology frames gender norms and identity. In other words, these online forums not only provided a space for women to discuss everyday realities such as dating, appearance, raising a family etc. but also how to pursue this in a way that adheres to far-right ideology. 

For example, when talking about physical appearance, those in the Women’s Forum shared their experiences:

‘Kate’: “Hi, to all the fellow lovely aryan women around the world. Have you ever been minding your own business out in public like doing some shopping, going to the nail salon etc and all of a sudden, you sense someone 0r better yet something is staring at you and you look over to find some black female giving you a nasty glare of envy? Just because you have pretty, long hair, beautiful eyes, slim body etc. There is an endless amount of beautiful white ladies everywhere in the world, so I know I am not the only white woman out in the world who has experienced the sherilla stare of envy”

‘Jenny’: “I’m in the same boat. I hear all the time about how tans are “healthy looking”, but they just make me feel dirty looking. I’ve been trying to get outside and exercise more in the fresh air, so I’ve gotten a lovely farmers tan a few months back myself. It looked like I’d been bicep deep in dust. Ultimately, there’s very little we can do, though. Cucumber soap is supposed to help lighten the skin, but I have not seen it have any affect [sic] on my tans. I don’t know if there is a difference between the melanin released reactive to sun exposure and the melanin we see in the darker races, or how it is used…”

Although seemingly mundane compared to other far-right activities (including violent activities), discussions such as these serve to demonstrate a clear nexus between online and offline life, reinforcing ideological and identity-based approaches to daily activities among peers who share a similar worldview. Yet amongst both patriarchal and misogynistic ideologies, both forums facilitate women’s agency through discussion, ideological engagement with like-minded peers, and the interpretation of daily activities in the context of ideology. 

But we found that they also differ in one key regard: the Women Dawah group appeared to be more prescriptive in outlining the ‘appropriate’ manner for women to carry out daily activities in line with the movement’s ideology, and, at times, in terms of how certain activities are legitimised for men. That is to say, while participants in the Women’s Forum were negotiating degrees of individualism within the movement, Women Dawah members were more active in conforming with and validating the group.For example, when discussing the permissibility of contraception in the context of the group’s jihadist ideology, Women Dawah members advised against the use of birth control:

‘Elif’: “It is not religiously permissible for a woman, even if she doesn’t want a child, to use birth control methods without her husband’s permission”

‘Halime’: “[…] birth control should be in a way that will not harm the woman and the baby in case of a possible pregnancy in the future. It is not permissible even with the permission of the husband!”

‘Ezel’: “The expression ‘Search for what Allah has written for you…’ in the verse requires entering a relationship with the desire for a child. For this reason, the husband has a duty, not the right to ask for children”

Through their active engagement in the online space, participants in Women Dawah and the Women’s Forum are able to interpret their daily reality through the lens of their ideology. However, they are also able to reinterpret ideology through forums that provide women with a safe space to do so. For example, when questioning physical and aesthetic characteristics proscribed for women, a member of the Women’s Forum stated that:

“I see that a lot of newly red-pilled males are encouraged to lift weights, eat healthily etc. which is great. But in this same scenario [sic], I do not see any encouragement aimed at females. They’re just referred to as fat or ugly and that’s the end of it. Shouldn’t we be encouraging both sexes to be the best they can be? I come from a very poor working class family. My family has eaten the typical British diet for about 2 generations (in other words sugar and stodge) I am working on improving my health and appearance through diet and exercise. Are there any other women who are attempting to do this? Any tips?”

Our study revealed that these online forums serve as gendered sites that not only facilitate gendered practices by allowing women to share everyday experiences and engage in ideological debates but also serve as an important mechanism for women to navigate these gender-specific issues within the extremist movement.

Birth Control, Dating and Beauty: Why Does This Matter for Policymakers?

Online forums, and indeed women-only forums, transcend state boundaries and facilitate the participation of diverse individuals from around the world, brought together by a perceived common identity and ideology, who share views and experiences and (re)interpret participation within extremist groups. Although these everyday discussions in both the far-right Women’s Forum and jihadist Women Dawah seem uneventful, the reinforcement of these gendered everyday practices by the virtual communities in turn strengthens a sense of meaning and purpose in the violent movement, despite the discussions being ideologically confined to the private sphere in many ways.

Our study has two key implications for policymakers and practitioners, particularly when considering how to make P/CVE strategies more gender-responsive. First, these online gendered sites where women can actively discuss everyday experiences play a role in consolidating a sense of meaning and purpose within the movement, which further has implications for the offline space.  These forums are important for the social well-being of these women and offer a venue for them to express their agency amidst otherwise patriarchal, ideological power structures espoused by the extremist group. Any P/CVE programme must therefore be gender-sensitive and, importantly, compensate for the loss of social and peer support networks that women would derive from their participation in the movement. 

Second, these women-only forums and the seemingly mundane conversations that take place within them should not be dismissed as harmless and can be integral to women’s radicalisation and the factors that sustain their involvement. As a result, it is crucial to include gender-sensitive risk factors and account for the distinct experiences of women within violent extremism, including how they obtain their support through participation. This should include responding to the highly gendered push and pull factors that are also often discussed within these forums. 

Without taking these conversations seriously, or thinking critically about how gender power relations, identity and ideology are interpreted, reinforced and questioned within such groups, women-only extremist spaces will continue to serve as a potential vector for entry into such movements, as well as help to retain and support existing members.