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Women, Counter Terrorism and NATO - An interview with Juliette Bird

13.05.2014 | 00:06

  Eleni Panayiotou
It is perhaps difficult for some of us to accept or even to acknowledge that today in our societies, women still remain underrepresented in political and economic power structures. This reaction is perfectly normal if one takes into account that in western societies women today can apply themselves to anything they choose to. However gender still plays an important role to jobs associated with masculinity and as a result the integration of women into organisations which have been traditionally dominated by men has been slow to say the least. It was only at the beginning of the 70s that western armies began to admit women in a way that that broke away from tradition. Nevertheless by the beginning of the 21st century most NATO countries have admitted and increased the amount of women in their armed forces; in 2000 280,000 women were serving in NATO forces. The role of women in the military began to progressively change through a wider access to a variety of positions and functions.


The role of women in military organisations is only one side of this as it is also becoming clear that women’s participation in terrorism is increasing. Traditionally women and warfare or violent death are not associated with one another and the notion of women as militants, terrorists or suicide bombers goes against core beliefs of many culture’s prevalent concepts of femininity. Further to this, actual assumptions made on the motivation which may exist behind acts of terror initiated by women are not necessarily a reflection of reality. For example the actions of female operatives in Chechnya and Russia are used to construct the conflict’s narrative through propaganda without however providing the true reasons behind their motives.
According to research, gender is at least theoretically necessary for defining security and war, important in analysing causes and predicting outcomes and essential to solutions to violent conflict in global politics.
If this then is the case then it is absolutely necessary that women should be included in the peace building effort and consequently play a more significant role in organisations such as NATO, which has benefited from further reforms on the inclusion of women in its own operations*.

Juliette Bird, Head, Counter-Terrorism Section, Emerging Security Challenges Division at NATO (in the second of three interviews dedicated to “Women and NATO”) spared a few moments of her time to answer some crucial questions which surround the role of women in the peace keeping effort and more specifically, because of her role as Head of Counter-Terrorism, to shed some light on the much debated question of the role of gender in terrorism.

  • High ranking positions in the security sector are rarely held by women. Did you encounter many challenges as a woman and do you believe that the integration of women in this sector and at NATO has still a long way to go?

The majority of challenges in my career to date have been unrelated to gender. Challenges generally come through a continuous process of education coupled with adaptation to different and taxing environments, topics and perceptions. My more recent challenges have related to adapting to military mindsets, national behaviours and deciphering military documents. Figures show a serious underrepresentation of women on NATO’s staff. But that is not the whole truth as we have one Assistant Secretary General (number 3 in NATO’s hierarchy) and one Deputy Assistant Secretary General (for Operations) out of a total of 13 posts at these two levels. Coincidentally I notice that the current UK Cabinet is in a virtually identical position as 3 of 22 posts are held by women. When I started my working life such statistics, both for government and for NATO, would have been inconceivable so progress is being made but yes it is slow and, perhaps more worryingly, it could be easily reversed unless continuously championed. I feel strongly that NATO is missing out through this lack of senior women because a female approach is usually cooperative and cross sectoral. Especially as resource cuts bite, NATO needs the collaboration with imagination at which women excel.

  • Is it as easy for a woman to join the CT field as it is for a man? Do you think that a preconceived idea of what women "may and should want" is to blame for the low turnout of women in the security sector (and subsequently CT)?

The ‘CT field’ is a huge spectrum of tasks with openings everywhere for women. It includes policy, policing, prevention and extends to education, the social sector and academic studies. The military aspect is a very small, though undoubtedly powerful and unique, sliver of this overall spectrum. When people think of ‘CT’ perhaps they think more of the photos of the special forces’ raid that killed Usama Bin Laden than they do of less easily visualised issues such as legal systems and penal codes, professional policing, resilient infrastructure, education to prepare the next generation for useful roles in a liberal society and even achieving shared international understanding of the threat terrorism can pose. So it is hard to say that women would face more of a challenge in joining the ‘CT field’ than men – there are roles for everyone at every level and most of them are civilian.

I don’t feel that a preconceived idea of what women ‘may and should want’ is to blame for the low turnout of women in the security sector. I believe it is more a question of a gradual progression towards an equitably populated job sector.  My current team is composed of 5 women and one man. The candidates I see each year seeking internships are of exceptionally high quality and those who rank highest, so far, have been women with impressive CVs that show a progression through educational, vocational and social opportunities towards their area of interest in the security sector. I do think that women (but men too!) would benefit from a chance to speak to those already employed in their area of interest. The security sector has always been thought of as a bit untransparent because it often deals with sensitive issues and classified material but the generics: the type of work, the daily life, the mindset and the challenges can all be discussed without much inhibition. Governments have already become much more open in their recruitment process and in their public profile (websites etc) as have institutions such as the UN, the OSCE, the EU and, of course, NATO.

  • Would greater participation of women in the CT field be an effective deterrent against acts of terrorism aimed at women?

Female role models are essential, both to achieve a balanced perception by men of women and to ensure women’s ability to identify with specific roles rather than being faced by a largely male bastion. Whether greater participation of women across the full range of CT roles is likely to deter acts of terrorism against women is hard to judge and is undoubtedly related to the wider context (e.g. women in CT-relevant roles in Afghanistan become more targeted rather than less). Opportunities for women, in the security sector and more widely, can only serve as a positive influence on those women for whom society ceases to hold a desirable future and who are therefore prepared to support or commit terrorist acts. I have been particularly struck by civil society NGOs such as 'Frauen Ohne Grenzen' and others who work with mothers, wives and sisters of victims or terrorists both to illustrate the immense waste and damage caused by terrorism and to strengthen societies against such violence by working through the female side of the community. These are examples of women in the ‘CT field’ whose work serves as a deterrent to terrorism but not specifically to terrorism directed at women.

  • The role of women as terrorists has been overlooked but according to some research, female terrorists are increasing. What is your opinion on this and how do you believe this can be controlled?

I am not sure that the role of women as terrorists has been overlooked. Over the years there have been extensive studies of women in support networks acting as facilitators. The role of women in the LTTE and the Chechen Black Widows has never been ‘overlooked’ although perhaps the public’s memory is sometimes a bit short. Most European media watchers will also be aware of Muriel Degauque, the Belgian suicide bomber in Iraq, Roshonara Choudhry and the ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik in the UK, not forgetting the involvement of foreign men and women in terrorist acts in Syria (and indeed in previous theatres). Is female terrorism increasing? Yes, I believe it is and that it is an inevitable consequence of more equality within more interconnected societies. Increased literacy levels coupled with the intimacy, yet simultaneous global outreach, that the internet and satellite TV bring, equip ever larger numbers of people to identify with causes and events of which they might otherwise have been unaware. Following situations in other countries, having access to credible extremist messages, constantly reinforcing attitudes within closed user groups and relying on internet anonymity can all contribute to motivate both men and women to terrorism. It is thought that the anonymity aspect is particularly important for women who may otherwise find themselves condemned by the communities to which they belong in ‘real’ life. Education (in all its aspects: history, geography, sociology, religion, ethics etc) and improved life opportunities (including employment openings) can work to counter vulnerability to extreme views but is unlikely that it will ever be possible to prevent a fringe population being motivated to violence.

  • How have you integrated UNSCR 1325 into combating terrorism?

UNSCR 1325 is a topic dear to the heart of the current Secretary General who has appointed a senior advisor, Mari Skare, to lead NATO’s efforts in this area. 1325 efforts feed into all aspects of NATO’s work particularly in operations, such as ISAF. Across the organisation good practice in Allied and Partner countries and elsewhere is highlighted and NATO provides an example (and a forum) to those seeking to implement 1325 nationally. Two recent instances of teaching by example may strike you as they struck me – neither was delivered under a 1325 label but both are important to its implementation. Firstly, a Jordanian officer on a staff course in another Mediterranean Dialogue country intervened when an Allied speaker described his own nation’s plans for handling a crisis involving the need for decontamination of exposed personnel. Whilst the host country officers could not conceive of a way to be able to treat any contaminated women, the Jordanian reported that his country trained a sufficient number of female medics for this not to have arisen as a problem. Secondly, whilst providing assistance to a former Soviet bloc country, specifically on setting up a Counter Terrorism course within the Military education system, NATO sent two female, civilian experts to instruct a group of male military officers on the overall spectrum of Counter Terrorism tasks taken on by a democratic government under a typical national Counter Terrorism strategy. The niche role of the military within such a civilian-led approach was highlighted and was reflected in the resulting curriculum put together by the Defence school.

  • Your vision for women in the future of NATO? What message would you like to send to young women that want to work in the security sector but feel they have to adhere to social standards?

In the future women should be able to skip this type of interview with a completely clear conscience because the ‘insider’s view’ will be less interesting due to greater overall transparency. Unnecessary mysteries surrounding security sector jobs should have been dispelled and applicants to NATO (and elsewhere) will have a solid knowledge of what to expect and of what is expected of them. There will be more women of course, though a 1:1 ratio may not be achieved as this will always depend on the numbers and quality of female candidates applying. NATO has a merit-based recruitment policy but, if two candidates are equal in all other respects, the less represented group will be offered the post. I would wish this approach to be maintained; I for one could never accept any intimation of being a second class employee, which might be thought to be the case if lower hurdles or a quota system were introduced.

What message do I have? That a job at NATO is a great opportunity to contribute on the playing field of international security in both political and military aspects. To be a ‘NATO official’ is a perfectly reasonable female aspiration, like being an astronaut, a doctor, an engineer or a truck driver. All these fields are already open and we are only limited by our will to try, our appropriate qualities and our qualifications. NATO has a small staff (compared, for example, to the European Union) and there are many applicants for every vacancy but the application and recruitment process is transparent. Getting a foot in the door fresh out of university is difficult (as it is everywhere) but being a NATO official can be a rewarding phase in a wider security sector career. Bring your experience to NATO, enrich the organisation and in turn you will gain unique experience to better serve your country or the international community as you take the next step up your career ladder. As for adhering to social standards, no NATO nation should be preventing anyone (male or female) from pursuing the career they aspire to – if you are female, feel free to point to the first article of UNSCR 1325 if you encounter any problems!

- Women, Gender, and Terrorism, Edited by Laura Sjoberg,Caron E. Gentry, 2009
- Gendering Global Conflict: Toward a feminist theory of War, 2013
- Gender and Military: Women in the Armed Forces of Western Democracies, Helena Carreiras
- Why Gender matters in understanding September 11: Women militarism and violence, Amy Caiazza
- Towards a New Theorising of Women, Gender, and War, Dubravka Zarkov
- Making Gender Making War: Violence Military and Peacekeeping Practices 2013, Annica Kronsel/ Erika Svedberg

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