Political extremism is a twisted mirror of elite failure

Author Nimmi Gowrinathan on the motivations of female militants and the origins of violent extremism
In July of 2014, Holly Fisher, a far-right Christian fundamentalist, inadvertently recreated a photo of Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian woman who blew herself up in a suicide bombing attack in Israel.

Episode Summary

As technology has given extremist movements a much greater ability to spread their views and carry out violence, researchers are studying radicalization now more than ever. But one area that hasn’t received enough attention is an examination of women who become militants.

Understanding radicalization is important in the United States as well, which is seeing the emergence of a far-right Christian tradition that has already carried out a number of violent acts.

What makes them want to risk their lives for a cause or become extreme? It’s a complex question with many answers for the different militant movements that have seen large numbers of female fighters, including some that seek to restrict women’s rights. Are there similarities among these women as well?

More importantly, what do the answers to these questions tell us about our own society?

In this episode, we feature Nimmi Gowrinathan. She’s the author of “Radicalizing Her,” a new book that provides a close look at the motivations of various women who have gotten involved in militant groups. She’s also the founder and director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative, a global research project examining the impact of rape on women’s political identities in extremist movements. She’s also a visiting professor at the City College of New York and the founder of Adi, a policy magazine that highlights the voices of marginalized people.

A video of the conversation is below. A lightly edited version of the audio follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Nimmi.

NIMMI GOWRINATHAN: Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: So your book is a very unconventional book I will say. And I liked that about it. And you can tell that from the very beginning with the cover art, which has this very detailed and intricate illustration of a woman kind of putting on a mask, and looking kind of scary. Tell us a little bit about the cover art and why you went with that.

GOWRINATHAN: Every aspect of the book was a political project and on its entirety, from the citations chosen, to the style, to the artwork; and the art was very important to me that it’d be by a Tamil artist.

Cover of 'Radicalizing Her,' featuring an illustration by Osheen SivaSo a young woman named Osheen Siva and she was given some of the text, and she designed it. That was her sort of curation after reading the text.

So the book tries, it talks about women who get into a variety of different movements.

So can we talk about what these different groups are that you’re examining first, and then maybe talk in detail about the the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka, because I think a lot of people are not familiar. What was happening there?

Yeah, the Tamil struggle and the Tigers are the primary focus of the book. It’s where most of my research is it’s where most of the time I spent was I have met and worked with women in the Harkin Colombia and spent some time with women in the Eritrean movement in 2006. And of course, in other places working with activists in Mexico so, really around the world, but the primary focus is really the women in the time.

SHEFFIELD: Before we get into the details of the book, let’s talk briefly first about the civil war in Sri Lanka and the Tamil people and some of the struggles that they had.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. It was a similar sort of post-colonial story as many other places where the British left and didn’t leave any protections for the ethnic minority communities on the island. And the Singhalese majority, Buddhist extremist parties took over when the British left and slowly that began a sort of narrative of the island being for Buddhists only, in it being a Buddhist nation. And the Tamils at that time, along with the Muslim population, were roughly 20% of the island. And people overlook that there were 20 years, 30 years of a peaceful protest.

But the Tamils were slowly pushed out of government life, of university life with language laws and voting laws. Till eventually they were pushed to the edges of society and the Tigers formed in resistance to that. Tigers weren’t the only movement that formed at that time. But they became the dominant force fighting for a separate state and the belief that there was a Tamil homeland on the island.

And there was a state that they won. They did control a state for a number of years before the end of the war.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So one of the things that happened was that the government passed a law in 1948 that restricted citizenship within the country. And so that made it essentially that you had hundreds of thousands of people who were not citizens of any country. And that took a long time for that law to be repealed.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah, that law. I Essentially, they created a stateless people. And then the sort of laws that came later further compounded this. The big one being the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was of course based on something that came from India and something that came from the west.

But the Prevention of Terrorism Act was the one that allowed the government to have these kinds of draconian, sweeping powers to have military control of a lot of these areas. To arrest and detain anybody who was Tamil, anybody who dissented politically. And to be clear, at that time, the government detained on both sides there, the Singhalese community and the Tamil community, anybody who was against the government.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And as you mentioned earlier, there were attempts to have non-violent resistance and protests including a guy who went on a hunger strike and he died before they, the Indians or the Singhalese government had met with him. And that kind of to some degree, as I understand, made it so that the people who eventually became the Tamil Tigers began to think there’s nothing we can do with this anymore to call attention to what’s happening to us.

But one of the other things from a research standpoint that was interesting about the Tamil Tiger movement is that it made a large use of women in their military force. Is that right?

GOWRINATHAN: They were one of the first. The Eritreans were certainly at the same time, the Palestinians they had been women involved for a very long time, and there were women involved in Peru and El Salvador. But it emerged around the same time.

I think El Salvador is probably very similar to the Tigers. And there’s a reason why it emerged around the same time. Growing numbers of women, because the movements were actually in conversation with each other. So how to incorporate women, when to incorporate women, all of that was a conversation happening between liberation movements at that time. Women were joining and not necessarily being used, but were joining around the world really at that time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. In the book you do also cover some women who were involved in various Islamic extremist movements. And that’s something that you see, even currently in, in various groups that there are women suicide bombers, and women who work with the Taliban to the extent they were allowed to. Can you talk a little bit about from what you have seen in your own research and your interviews? Westerners may have this more limited understanding of what women would want from politics. And I think your book is trying to push back on that to some degree. Is that right?

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. I I think that it’s recognizing that they’re not going to fit into the political boxes that you provide for them always. That they have distinctive politics. I think that the suicide bomber has always been this attached to the Tigers and to others as another way of really dismissing women’s politics, because it’s a sort of shock and awe moment, this woman blew herself up, in Paris and other places, and it makes it easy to condemn outright, what this woman is doing or who she is.

There is a larger story around her. I’ve worked with women refugees, I’ve worked with women sexual violence victims, and the number of women who say that their choice to join these movements, not necessarily to be a suicide bomber, is to have some control over the way that they die.

Over the way that they know that they’re going to die. So they want to have some control over that process. So the bigger question is not, oh my God, how could she be a suicide bomber? But why are there so many women who are suicidal? Who was driving that context where you have so many women who are suicidal?

And they find different outlets for that. Those could be groups that we agree or disagree with. But the question that we have to be addressing is why are they suicidal in the first place?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And in the United States, we’re seeing the rise of a radical movement in the United States with various white nationalist groups. And many of them have women in them, and some of them are very prominent. You don’t talk about them in your book, and I think it’s interesting and probably it was definitely a deliberate choice in the sense that there are a lot of profiles you see of various far-right, white nationalist, Christian supremacist people. These profiles that are looking at them and saying what made them be the way they are? And journalists are making these attempts to examine, why do these people have these ideas?

But they don’t seem to do that with a lot of the women that you are highlighting in your book?

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. I think that’s where the racial element is very clear to the analysis, right? That not only do you have a woman who is not nonviolent is not protesting in this way, that you want her to this, non-violent, standing in the streets with a sign kind of protest, but then you also have all of the sort of constructions of, is she a Muslim? Is she a brown woman that go on to Third World women on top of that. So all of these things are clouding your ability to see her, including sort of the racial prejudice there. And what I found striking in that in one of the pieces I wrote for the L.A. Review of Books, what I found striking about a book that was really well done actually about white women nationalists was the level of nuance offered to them and their life histories and their stories. You had one white nationals woman who had a bad divorce and another who went through a goth phase or whose parents were abusive.

But there’s this whole backstory to their participation and extremism participation. Many of the brown women who I’ve defended in court would never be given the opportunity to talk about it. They’re not talking about joining a movement because of a bad divorce. They’re talking about joining a movement because they saw their father blown up when they were a kid. Those backstories of these women, that space to understand them, to understand their politics is available to white women in a way that it’s not to women of color. It’s never been.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And you also talk about in the book, and in your day-to-day work about the role of rape as a political and military weapon slash war crime in radicalization of women. They feel that international organizations are not interested in what happened to them. Talk a little bit more about that please.

GOWRINATHAN: The way that we generally deal with sexual violence is to assume that this woman is affected. She feels some amount of shame. She’s sad, maybe economically deprived. And so we offer chickens and cows and sewing machines. And, we offer some form of empowerment.

My co-authors Dr. Cronin-Furman and Rafia Zakaria have written a paper about this called “Emissaries of Empowerment.” But essentially from my side of it is to say that you have this woman who was, let’s say raped by the army, and if she was in the movement and now the war’s over, she can’t go back to the village because the village will be under surveillance. She can’t go to community events because then she would be bad luck. She can’t exist in society comfortably because she is a Tamil. So she’s outside the state. She’s all the way out here on the kind of extreme outside of society. And what we say is, okay here’s a sewing machine or here is a bakery grant or pastry making, or somesuch thing to bring her all the way back in. And I think the real failure there outside the idiocy of these re-feminizing programs is that we’re not able to acknowledge that when a woman is raped, when a woman faces sexual violence, it fundamentally changes how she looks at the world, looks at her world and the world around her, and eventually will shift her politics.

Which is not to say all of a sudden, oh, I’m raped and now I’m a nationalist. That’s not how that works, but you do start to rethink the context of your life. Why did this happen to me and what you’ll hear over and over again is that it didn’t happen to me. Yes, I’m a woman, but it happened to me because I’m a Tamil. It happened to me because I’m a Sunni. It happened to me because I’m Palestinian. That identity is what is under threat. That rape is used as a way to access that identity to attack that identity.

If we see rape as a political tool, which we can see it as now, there is conversation about this. So if it’s a political act, then it has to have a political impact. And that’s the side that we’re not able to see how it sits in women, how it forms these political identities.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And just going back to something you just said about giving a sewing machine or something like that. The radicalization is basically the only thing they see. The violence, the fighting, that’s the only option they believe that they have because the international community can’t do anything else or it doesn’t want to do anything else beyond just giving them stuff. Have, did any of the women explicitly talk about that? You interviewed, what, hundreds of people in writing this book?

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. Even very recently, I was with one of the women of the FARC who was a senior commander, and she said they keep coming and offering us sewing machines. That’s not what the FARC wants, and she said, my women, the combatants that were under her are losing their politics. She sees it very clearly as, and I talk about in the book as a de-politicizing of women, because most donors are afraid that if you offer women the space to engage politically, and you say, okay, you can have your own political identity, then you might not agree with what comes out of that.

And the other thing that emerges is that we can’t track it. We can’t measure it. I can’t show you six little baby girl dresses at the end of the month that she made on the sewing machine. I can’t show you anything. If you’re mobilizing politically, if you’re giving women political space, what does it look like? How do you measure it? What’s the impact, all of that. So these sort of restrictive standards within which the donors in the international community exist also prevent them from being able to do any real political work.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it’s also the structures that they create. So, I thought one thing that was striking in your book was how you talk about, you stopped eventually asking women who had been victims of sexual violence to talk about what happened to them.

GOWRINATHAN: Because you’re in this and these are my people, and they were telling me their stories because they saw me as one of them, which was in itself, its own thing to move past, to know that I would never have been in that context. But then on top of that, I’m thinking, okay I’m asking you to tell me the worst thing that happened to you and this international organization I work for says that I have to get the details and then I have to triangulate it and I have to find a doctor and a witness and a family member.

And so you have to tell me all of the grotesque details of this moment, right? And with that information, what am I going to do? I’m going to compile a report. That’s maybe going to go to an intern at Hillary Clinton’s office. And maybe she’ll read it, and maybe she won’t. In the end, these stories are crushed into two lines of some report that goes to the State Department.

And then what? I’ve left you here with all this trauma hanging, and the reality is I don’t need to know your story. I know enough to know that rape happened at that moment. In 2009, there was mass rape. We know enough about past behaviors and military past behaviors of states that this will happen.

And so whether it was a version of that, whether it was sexual assault, I know something really terrible happened to you, so I don’t know that I need to get that information in order to make that have an impact elsewhere. Why do I have to put those details of your violence, of your trauma on the table in order for people to react?

I shouldn’t have to do that and I won’t do that anymore.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And you also noted that, the idea of somebody going and just making it all up entirely, why would they do that? That’s not a question that, that seems to be asked in these aid organizations. Because to say that you have been a victim Of sexual violence is to stigmatize you. And to, in some cases say that, if you’re in a culture that has, the honor killing type of idea, it can put you at risk to say these things.

GOWRINATHAN: In this culture, in America, it puts you at risk.

SHEFFIELD: And this is what I thought was interesting about your book is that you’re trying to break patterns of, conventional patterns of thinking in regards to assessing sexual violence as a political tactic. And you’re doing it with your book in a different way. So it’s not a conventional prose style book. You’ve interspersed it with lots of different techniques. Talk about a little bit, why you are doing it differently and because you wrote a PhD thesis on this very same topic. What made you decide to do things differently in this book?

GOWRINATHAN: Because I had given by that time, a number of lectures around the world, around the country. And I found that it was very difficult for people still to understand women taking up arms. And there was these things that were these entrenched prejudices. First was the attachment to the idea of non-violence as a kind of righteous form of resistance? As the only righteous form of resistance, really. And the other was the belief that women were more peaceful than men inherently. And so I was coming up against these two entrenched prejudices and people are simply not able to go further than that. To go further than simply condoning or condemning violence. And to write in sort of a straight forward, let’s say a policy paper, an academic paper, and this black and white way. This is why you’re wrong. This is why I’m right.

It’s not effective as a mobilizing tool. So it comes back to why you write . Am I writing to get tenure or am I writing to shift consciousness? Right. If I’m writing to shift consciousness, then I need to find a way that you’re not fully, immediately on guard against these ideas.

And I can enter into these crevices in your mind and excavate these things that are barriers to your understanding this. And the form of writing for me becomes that way into entering the people’s brains and doing the work of excavating without them necessarily feeling that they’re being immediately challenged.

And that is how you shift political consciousness. So each chapter of the book is written in a way around creative nonfiction. That one doesn’t see it as a polemic or as a lecturing you on why you should feel bad about how you thought about things. But simply revealing a different aspect, a different way of looking at something that you might be open to when it’s written in this way.

The chapter on rape is probably the best example for me. That was written around the idea of the stage. And written performatively in that way, and I wrote each piece of that, each fragment of that as a performance, because to me, there is the act of being raped. But what I was trying to expose there was that the women also have to perform rape, to perform rape, to uphold how international community standards view them, view the conflict to get resources, to get money, to be seen as a victim in a particular way. Why do they have to perform rape in this way? So the stage became a much more useful way to write about this than a straightforward sort of graphic chapter on mass rape.

SHEFFIELD: And yeah, and just to underline it, the asking for such graphic details in a lot of ways is making this horrible moment in somebody’s life. You’re making them relive it over and over in public and doing it in a way that, stamps it as their identity. And that’s who they are is a rape victim and nothing else. Because they have to keep talking about it over and over and meet with bureaucrat after bureaucrat and to what end?

GOWRINATHAN: And that’s, in itself that construction of the sexualized victim is, I think, calculated. Because once you see someone as a sexualized victim, you’ll never see her as a political actor. This sad woman in the Congo who has been gang raped. Or through sex trafficking. Once you apply these sort of sexual crimes and sexual violence constructions, to these women, you no longer see them as capable of political action, right? And that in itself is calculated.

And I think the form also gives you a way to reveal the absurdities of the system that we’re operating in. The policy world, the academy, the human rights world, but, in a piece like “Of Monsters and Women,” which is a piece I wrote for my female fighter series at Guernica magazine. It’s about a conference on counter-terrorism, but it’s written through the Bride of Frankenstein because to me, what you were doing was constructing the monster that you then wanted to defeat.

You didn’t know anything about her, but you just constructed this woman, this monster and that became who we were fighting against. So to write it through the Bride of Frankenstein gave me a way of highlighting the absurdity of the conversations around women and extremism.

SHEFFIELD: In terms of the construction of your book, it’s also called Radicalizing Her. And you do talk a little bit about some of your own personal experiences, but not as much. And we talked earlier a little bit before the show about, your decision to do it in that way. Let’s maybe circle back to that discussion for everybody listening and watching today. You yourself come from a Tamil family background. Your parents moved the family to the United States. And there’s, I think there’s a, there is a temptation in a lot of publishing and journalism to think that audiences don’t care about larger systemic narratives and only want to hear a personal story, an autobiography.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. I think all of us, particularly if you’re an author of color, are pushed into a kind of memoir space. And to me, my first sort of reaction to that is, comes from inside the movement. That one should be acting, thinking of the collective and not the individual. And that by centering the individual, it’s antithetical to movement building. That being said, what I tried to navigate and it was difficult to navigate in the book was being honest about your own positioning and your own privilege in this story.

The more important than the tiny sort of details of your childhood are how conscious you are of your positioning in relation to these women. And so being able to reveal that, being able to be critical of myself through the parts that I have revealed in the book in that kind of raw honesty while at the same time, being able to ascribe meaning elsewhere. Not here, but meaning to the experiences of others. And to keep that meeting out there with those women and their stories and not have it gravitate back to me.

SHEFFIELD: Because you didn’t have that experience. ,

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. Which is the least interesting. I’m the least interesting of any of the women I’ve ever met.

SHEFFIELD: So you’ve worked on these matters for like 20 years or so roughly. What kind of reactions have you gotten from people when you try to get them to see a bigger picture for women who are getting involved in extremist movements.

GOWRINATHAN: First is always, are you condoning violence? And I think that’s the most common and it comes from that kind of belief that liberal America has that it’s anchored in this sort of self perception of being nonviolent resisters without considering the extreme levels of violence of the state that we live in.

It’s a really hypocritical position to have. And for me, I’m very careful to not be put in that position, to have to condone or condemn violence, because it doesn’t actually matter what my opinion is. For the women that I talked to, the women I engaged in, whose stories I present to you, violence is simply a political reality. And for me to condone or condemn it, does nothing in their lives.

SHEFFIELD: Regardless of what you say about them.

GOWRINATHAN: What anybody says. I remember meeting a diplomat at the state department or UN or somewhere. “I really hate the Tigers.” OK. You know that doesn’t— the belief that your opinion here in the West really matters in the lives of people who are fighting for self-determination in the jungle is in itself a kind of arrogance. And I think the second question that’s related from that becomes, and again, gets at the second aspect of the sort of liberal, the liberal self-perception is, are you arguing that violence is empowering for women?

And that again becomes, our notion of what empowerment is. And also, this idea that women should be peaceful. Women should not be violent. And that they are the peacemakers and the peace builders. And, we invest a lot of money in women being peacebuilders all around the world. And again, I’m not in a position to comment on what makes individual or collectives of women feel powerful. But I do know that they didn’t, take up arms in what you believe to be empowerment, which is this kind of transfer of power from the West to the Third World, using chickens and cows and sewing machines. I do think that concept doesn’t apply to these women at all.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s a difficult concept to explore because a lot of people, they’ve been acculturated to this idea that there are no circumstances, ever, that women should do that because, there’s just this default that men, if they do that there’s nothing wrong with them doing that morally. They have the right to do that intrinsically. In other words, they have the moral status, or their ability to do it isn’t questioned. Whereas for women yeah, as you said, that there’s this expectation women will not do violence. They cannot do it. And

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah, and the aggression is biologically ascribed to male or to men in the same way that peace is biologically ascribed to women. But you wouldn’t have had 30% of many movements be women from cultures that we typically think of as conservative on gender. If that weren’t completely false, like there is no biological sort of barrier to being violent.

SHEFFIELD: Imperative. Yeah. And it doesn’t mean that you condone those choices by simply stating that women have the, individual capacity and the ability to choose to become violent. That doesn’t mean that you’re endorsing them.

GOWRINATHAN: No, it doesn’t. I think the only way to end violence is to understand it, to understand its intimacy is to understand how it works, how it affects people, how it changes them.

The end goal for everybody is the same. To not have violence. But you can’t get there by simply pretending it doesn’t exist. It does exist.

There’s a reason why women have joined these movements, and for most people, it’s a very difficult conversation to have. I got to have recently a conversation with a good friend who has a really beautiful book called Epidemic Empire, where we’re able to have a deeper conversation about violence.

And she asked me, what is the work you think violence is doing for these women? Which is a question I never get asked because people are so afraid to be condoning violence. My answer to it would be, I think for them, for the fighters, it was a kind of reclaiming of humanity in its entirety. The creative and destructive side of it. But it was a reclamation of their own humanity, right? It was the beginning of self-determination, of being able to take back yourself from the dehumanizing forces of the state.

SHEFFIELD: Let’s talk about it in the Islamic fundamentalist context here for a bit. So you have several different groups that actively want to remove civil rights for women. But they also do have female fighters in their ranks. How does that work for these women? How do they think about that?

GOWRINATHAN: I think that people, again, by keeping this narrow view on one movement and one kind of extreme moment— The reality is that there’s not a political movement, there’s not a political struggle, there’s not even a political party that puts women’s rights on the same level as their political agenda, whether you’re talking about a nationalist movement, a Marxist movement, we’ve never seen that. A racial justice movement. So there is no movement that can say that it equally addresses the question of gender alongside the overtly political.

Obviously gender is political, alongside the ideology of nationalism or Marxism. So there have always been women in movements that are not entirely evolved in how they perceive gender. But the difference for me becomes what line pushes women to fight? So you may be difficult to be a woman in certain conservative parts of Sri Lanka, or conservative parts of Iraq, or conservative parts of Pakistan.

It is difficult. The culture is difficult. I know. I’m from that culture, it is restrictive. So it is difficult to be a woman. But you aren’t going to die on the basis of being a woman. You will die on the basis of being a Tamil and being in a Tamil area or being a Sunni, and being in a Sunni mosque, or being a Palestinian and being in a part of the Strip where settlers are entering.

So that aspect of your identity is not under threat, what’s under threat. It’s not awesome, but it’s not under threat. What’s under threat is the other identity. So if you have these multiple identities and you will obviously choose to fight along the lines of the identity that’s under threat. And you can say that you’re talking about nationalist women in the U.S., or you’re talking about women in the Tigers.

SHEFFIELD: There are in the Proud Boys group, for instance, there are a number of Hispanic and African-American and Asian people who are in that group. A lot of people who aren’t familiar with these groups, it’s hard for them to understand why they would be a part of that, of a white nationalist movement and they’re not white. And so that, that’s what I’m driving at here in terms of with these women what do they say when you have talked to them? Do they think they can work from the inside? Like what is their motive?

GOWRINATHAN: I do, I do think that there’s some misconception to say, and I’ve seen it happen a lot, particularly with women in the Tigers that, these women are participating in a project that’s not feminist. You can’t judge them on the basis of something they didn’t aspire to.

They didn’t join a women’s rights movement. They joined a nationalist movement. But it is a mistake to assume that they’re not aware of the patriarchal contradictions inside the movement. They absolutely are. From women in Eritrea to women in the FARC. They all talk about moments in which they were slighted in terms for another management, the leadership moments in which they saw patriarchy working.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but th these are a little different though. FARC and the Tigers, they’re well, so,

GOWRINATHAN: So that’s the kind of movement that you’re talking about. So you’re talking about a movement that’s trying to establish a kind of identity, a national identity or religious identity, right? And in order to do that, to have a kind of cohesiveness to that, you have to have what it means to be that.

What does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to be Tamil? And then what anchors that is always gender roles. Gender roles will anchor what a cultural identity is that you’re fighting to protect. So we had situations where you would see women in the Tigers who would go around, in their combat boots, telling other women, like you should be wearing a skirt. You should be wearing long earrings, and if you actually wearing earrings or, your hair is tied back, all of the cultural sort of norms for women. And if you ask them, they don’t see it as a contradiction because they will say, what are we fighting for, if not to protect Tamil values?

This is what it is to be a Tamil, and this is what we’re protecting. And I think, I’m not an expert on the Islamic state or Islamic movements, but I do see a similar trend then. They are trying to protect what they see as a cultural identity under threat and gender roles become a part of that.

So they’re participating in a movement to protect the entirety of that identity, which includes the positioning of women, which again, we can talk about it later, but it happens in the white nationalist movement as well. The white nationalist women believe that, women should be at home should be mothers.

SHEFFIELD: Within the American and European white nationalist movements, several prominent individuals are women and and I do feel like though that despite the fact that there have been people willing to try to look at the backstory for some of these women, journalists they’re not familiar with religion in that context. And they don’t understand that, for these women, religion is what motivates them. That Christian nationalism, Christian supremacism, that’s why they’re doing it.

So for them, a woman’s place in society is not as important as societies place with regard to Christianity or their particular viewpoint of it. You think there is some similarity there with some of these other Islamic fundamentalist women, is that what you’re saying?

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. I I think that essentially you’re offering them the space to create their own hierarchy of sort of political ideology. That what they feel that one thing is more important than the other. One thing is more under threat than the other, in terms of their own politics. In terms of how they see the world.

And that is a space that’s not often offered to Muslim women, to women of color in general, it’s more, what I hear all the time is that they were brainwashed or they were manipulated by a man or, they were drawn to pictures on Instagram. And I was like, all of these things, assuming that women are these sort of untethered apolitical creatures. That’s really the mistake, whether you’re talking about Christian fundamentalists or Muslim fundamentalists.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And you talk about there’s four oppressive myths in your book about women. I’ll just quote here. Four oppressive myths: “Women are more peaceful than men by nature. Women are brainwashed into militant movements, women join movements because of the men in their lives, and empowerment programming can save the female fighter. Can we talk about that, that last one a little bit?

GOWRINATHAN: This belief that, if you gave them a little bit of money to start a small-scale business, that they’ll probably be in debt for years and years, because they can’t make up the same kind of money. They could, that they would have an option other than choosing that. That’s not going to work.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So are you talking in terms of those micro loans that were all the rage in liberal circles, is that what you’re thinking?

GOWRINATHAN: I think they’re still very active in Sri Lanka, the ones that are 11, 12% interest that the women get caught in this cycle of debt.

But it’s also demeaning in its assumption that joining the movement was just something to do. That they were bored, or they didn’t have a job. Many of these women were university educated. They thought a lot about nationalism, about the project of nationalism. Who saw this as the most meaningful thing they could do with their lives, offering them a pastry cart is not suitable alternative to that. A suitable alternative is to offer them a real conversation about a political solution.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And It’s something in my own research and writing about white nationalism in the United States, that I’ve tried to bring people back to the, sort of the origins of why people are doing this stuff. And it’s difficult that I’ve found that a lot of journalists or policymakers, they don’t care about what the origins are for these ideas. So like in the case of a lot of radical far-right people in the United States, they’re taking these actions in part because the Republican Party, the party that’s supposed to be, taking care of its voters, doesn’t care about them.

And so, you’ve got these people who live in these rural towns, small cities, that had employers, and their employers were allowed to outsource and, or cut wages, and fire people and close shops. The Republican Party said it would protect them. It didn’t protect them.

And so now, the one political ally that they thought they had has revealed itself to be fake. And now they’re angry about everything and then you meld that with this sort of apocalyptic fundamentalist, Christian worldview that many of them have. It’s no wonder that a lot of people are wanting to just burn everything to the ground.

It doesn’t mean that you think it’s okay though.

GOWRINATHAN: No, but it’s being able to understand that when you frame something as extreme, which is usually means something that’s outside the state, where else are people to go for basic needs for resources? Once the faith in the state has been broken, once the state proves itself to be violent. Then what choice do you have in turn exist in a space that’s always been described as extreme? And I think absolutely that’s as true for rural communities in this country, as it is for, really any sort of any marginalized community in the world.

They are the same frustration, it has to be because it’s the failure of the state to put the needs of people above imperialist ambitions and capitalist exploitations over and over again.

I think that I mentioned earlier, but that we’ve just published at Adi magazine, which is my magazine an issue on climate change. And it called Unpeopled Terrain. It comes largely from indigenous voices around the world, and it is a kind of damning exposé of capitalist greed and its destruction.

It’s destruction everywhere and how it’s felt. And then once, in fighting against that, then their only opportunity is to work with people like the UN or the World Bank, which they’ve seen to be as much the enemy as the state.

And how does one operate even non-violently in ways that— you can be outside of all of these structures that are complicit in violence in different ways?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah it’s an understanding that there are much bigger underlying issues than just conventional, day-to-day political disputes. That acknowledging their existence is terrifying, do you think for people who are in charge of the present system, because it means that they have failed and they don’t want to contemplate that.

GOWRINATHAN: I don’t know if they care that they failed, but I think that it holds them accountable. So I think power will do anything to not be held accountable. And so there’s, particularly with gender, there’s lots of different ways that people get out of accountability. They can say this is just their culture. Or they can say, there’s terrorism. And so that’s why we did X, Y, and Z. And there’s all of these things that allow people to not be seen as perpetrators of this violence.

And I think that’s what power is actually afraid of is that their complicity in everything will be revealed. That once you allow political mobilizing outside formal structures, that everything will be seen.

SHEFFIELD: Well, it shows their own failure to respond to the needs people have. And it’s a conversation that it’s difficult. Some people probably are afraid of what you’re talking about, aren’t they?

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah, of course. It’s also, it’s a difficult subject already because you’re trying to not only work against individual and sort of cultural prejudices, but then you add this sort of terrorist label on top of it, and so then everything you’re saying can be seen as condoning terrorism. And people are afraid of that. Of course there, but what you find is— the more and more people I talk to, even in this country, when you look at, the number of black women taking up arms or trans folks thinking about taking up arms, is that violence is a conversation that people are having.

Obviously they’re afraid of that, but violence is something that in any political struggle, people come to over and over again. They decide on different things like, where did black Panthers emerge from the broader racial justice movement, how did those decisions happen?

But violence is something as a form of protection as a form of political struggle that most resistance movements have had a conversation about or are still having conversations about. And it’s important that we know why are they thinking about using violence.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I’m just going to read a portion here that kind of talks about that. So you’re talking to a former Tamil Tiger woman who had fought there and she talked about why she had joined it:

And she said that “her father left to fight in the struggle, my job was to raise my siblings. Life as a child was divided into categories of challenges, a small home, no running water.

People were always sick. She points to her missing fingers. I was cooking for my siblings when the stove exploded.”

A small taste of what people are having to deal with the reality. And that wasn’t even a particular act of violence or anything like that against her.

GOWRINATHAN: No.

SHEFFIELD: But her circumstance—

GOWRINATHAN: But that is a life in poverty. And I think that story is stands out for me because she was always harassed because she was missing a finger. They assumed she was a fighter. And she was a fighter, but that was much later, and so it shows that you’re misreading something, like you’re misreading this missing finger, it’s not her as a threat, as a participant, as a militant, it’s that part of her life, that story of the challenges of living in a, a space where the state has forgotten about you and trying to exist and trying to keep your family and life and what that struggle does to you.

And that’s what the missing finger is, right? That’s the part that we’re not willing to hear. We just want to look at whether she’s a threat and why she chose violence. But why was she in that position? What has the state done to deprive this community of any sort of basic food and livelihood?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And you talked a little bit about in the United States women, black women, getting into purchasing firearms. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about a lot, because again, the conventional mainstream media tends to think of gun culture as this sort of rural white thing. But that’s not really how it is. Tell us a little about that.

GOWRINATHAN: No, I think that there’s a real recognition for black women, for trans folks, that their lives are under threat in this country. And the state is speaking to them. Last summer revealed what we already knew, which is at the state speaks to certain communities through violence only. Through police violence, through incarceration, through, immigrant communities. Black communities, trans communities, that’s how the state is speaking to you.

So eventually, that will be the mode you choose to speak back, right? And they’re not yet organized. I don’t think there’s a lot of black women militant groups forming, but there is the individual and sometimes community level decision that we should be protected, that we have to protect our lives—

SHEFFIELD: We’re the only ones that we can count on.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Is that ultimately—

GOWRINATHAN: For Guernica magazine called up in arms with Kimberly Crenshaw that I did. And she points to things like the Emmanuel church shooting. And she says, when everybody’s talking about forgiveness, who’s talking about how we’re going to protect our lives? And not lose lives in this way?

So it is something that has entered into the consciousness of communities under threat in this country.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it’s something that’s happening whether people in the mainstream press are talking about it or not.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Did your thinking change after you finished your manuscript on any points at all? Or was there something that you felt like you wish you could have put in, but you didn’t have time or something like that.

GOWRINATHAN: In this text? Umm.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

GOWRINATHAN: Yeah. I think there is, there’s a bigger conversation about why women kill. And I think it’s one that connects the United States in important ways, women who kill their abusers. But I think the density of the text, it is a short text, but it’s purposely so, because the material is already so dense. So I think particularly when you’re talking about trying to shift people’s consciousness, you cannot keep layering on thing after thing. You want them to be able to take away a few things or to leave with some questions, so I think with future work, I would look a little bit closer at the connections in terms of why women kill here and abroad.

SHEFFIELD: And was there anything where, when you were finished, where you thought, oh, maybe I wasn’t quite right, or you missed a part.

GOWRINATHAN: I think there was a part where I spoke about a number of the sort of white folks who I had encountered and how they how they frame this question, and what you’re constantly up against. And it was a decision whether to include it or not. And I wasn’t actually interested in including it as degenerating into this attack on individuals, but rather to be able to provide some solace for the younger women of color I know who are still operating in these worlds in policy, in the academy.

And to know that there’s somebody else who experienced this, who was in that place who heard this from somebody and felt that same discomfort and anger and even rage. And so that was a question whether or not to include that, whether it was, in the big political ideological picture, was it too small to include? But I think that it was the right decision to do that, because anytime you can make the younger activist feel less lonely, that’s what you should do. Even if there is some pushback for it.

SHEFFIELD: Because there’s so much systemic pressure to do nothing. And to give up.

GOWRINATHAN: You start to feel crazy, right? In those moments, when someone’s saying something to you that you’re like, really, you think that women joined movements because they saw pastel colors on Tumblr? And you feel crazy, because the discourse is so far outside anything you know or understand.

And I know that there have been, there still are young women, particularly young women of color who feel that in policy conversations at the State Department at the UN. Ideologically, the rest of us are there with you. Now we’re standing with you.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So it’s been a great conversation. I appreciate you being here today.

GOWRINATHAN: Of course. Thanks for reading the book and sharing it.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.