WASHINGTON DC: Violent extremism is the topic du jour, as government officials are busy developing plans of action on “preventing or countering violent extremism” (P/CVE). In these plans there is dutiful reference to engaging “women”. The more progressive mention gender sensitivity.

But scratch the surface, and it is clear there is widespread misunderstanding of what this means or how to do it. So they tend to slide back into an age-old axiom: women are victims, perpetrators, or mothers.

But this perception misses some of the most important women involved in P/CVE: women human rights defenders and peace activists working in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria not only countering extremism but providing positive alternatives and challenging state actions.

The simplification of women to victims and perpetrators is akin to the virgin/prostitute dichotomy that has littered history for centuries. The Yazidi girls epitomize the horrendous victimhood of women, while the teenagers in the UK joining ISIS, and the girls implicated as Boko Haram ‘suicide’ bombers, personify the perpetrator. It seems that, in the male-dominated world of security experts, men determine which women matter.

Their real fascination is with the women fighters especially ‘jihadis’. They are either evil because they have transgressed unsaid but deeply riven norms of femininity and joined ISIS. Or they are the ultimate symbols of self-empowerment, brave enough to fight, and heroic, like the women in the Kurdish militias. Yet women becoming fighters is neither news nor shocking.

Throughout history, a minority of women have joined armed liberation movements (and national armies). Like many men, they are attracted by the larger cause or vision, or for revenge and justice (as with some Kurds and now Yazidis), to feel the sense of belonging and protection. Daesh promises respect, agency and responsibility for women feeling stifled in traditional homes.

There is little discussion of the complexity of women’s experiences who may be simultaneously victims and perpetrators. For example, research on young women (many under 18) traveling to Syria, reveals a strong dose of online sexual grooming in the communications between them and their recruiters.

The media’s labeling of Boko Haram female ‘suicide bombers’ obscures the fact that many are young girls, who may have been brain washed or had no power to stop bombs being strapped to their small bodies.

Female victims are finally being recognized because it would be downright indecent if they were ignored. But as with victims everywhere, they are spoken about, but not given the chance to speak for themselves or provided with the necessary care to cope with the trauma or given the opportunity to continue with their lives.

The results are plain to see. Some Yazidi girls were subjected to virginity tests by Kurdish authorities. Many are committing suicide. It is as if the label of ‘rape victims’ is etched into their foreheads in perpetuity.

Reference to mothers as the panacea against extremism is the latest trend. Mothers, we are told, wield enormous influence. They can hold back their children and inform the police. Their influence is indeed noticeable but they can wield it both directions. In Pakistan, for example, an extremist radio-sheikh railing against state corruption and sympathetic to women’s concerns offered a vision of a purer Islamic society, and successfully targeted rural mothers, who sent their gold bangles to pay, and their boys to fight for the Taliban.

Now policy makers in Washington, London, Baghdad and New York want to mobilize an army of mothers to fight their cause. But they want mothers who do not challenge them. The motherhood paradigm packages women in apolitical and non-threatening ways according to traditional, and even biological norms of femininity — it is the image of the lioness protecting her cubs.

Of course there is overlap between the concerns of parents and those of the state. But by pressing them to act as frontline whistleblowers, governments are using women. As one Iraqi woman notes, “the government wants women to mop up their mess.” Not surprisingly from England to Iraq, many mothers find the overtures of governments offensive.

The simplification of women, excludes one critical group: women who become civic activists fighting for rights, peace and justice. They may be mothers, but their motivations and actions are not limited to their own children. They understand that extremism is growing because of deeper socio-economic and political problems. They see firsthand, how poor governance and state oppression fuel grievances and radicalization, especially when moderate civic activism and dissent are quashed.

They also know that simply ‘countering’ extremism is not enough: What is needed is a positive alternative to address the grievances and aspirations of those most vulnerable to the lure of extremist movements. From Pakistan to Nigeria, they are doing it. Many are working in their communities, developing tailored approaches to engage youth and religious leaders, not just women.

They address the wider ecosystem, combining religious teachings rooted in co-existence and non-violence, critical thinking, economic skills and socio-cultural activities. Among young men, they generate a sense of personal pride, offer belonging to groups that contribute to improving their community.

Women activists also understand the interconnectivity between the local, national and international levels. They provide acute analysis and uncomfortable truths of the impact of Western military policies on their communities. They bear witness to the consequences – good and bad- of US and European training of their police and military forces. They have the courage to criticize bad national and international policies, and the creativity to offer an alternative vision for their societies.

In fighting for their vision, they put themselves at profound risk. As the Iraqi woman notes, “When we try to mobilize civilians to hold the state accountable or transform our communities, the government accuses us of regime change.”

Do women’s peace and rights activists raise uncomfortable truths? Of course they do; because they are committed to eradicating the intolerance and violence in their communities – whether it is perpetrated by non-state extremists or by states. They are in it for the long haul, for a simple reason: The threats they face are existential to their way of life.

The international community stands at an important juncture. As the P/CVE action plans and policies are being developed, policymakers can limit them to victims, perpetrators or mothers, or they can recognize the agency, vision, and leadership of women who are courageously taking a stand against these ideologies.

This would require not only listening to women, but also heeding their advice gleaned from the experience of working and living in their own communities for decades. For many policy makers, this may be just too threatening.

(INTER PRESS SERVICE) (Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is co-Founder & Executive Director, International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN))