Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Women and Jihad: Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation and Human Rights, Conference hosted by the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia

Harnessing the Power of Women in Communities to Counter Violent Extremism

Good evening.

Can I begin by acknowledging my parliamentary colleagues, The Honourable Liz Behjat and Ms Janine Freeman MLA.

Can I also acknowledge Professor Samina Yasmeen, whose book I have the pleasure of launching later this evening.

It is my privilege to present the keynote address at the opening of this important conference, with the central discourse being one so vital to the social cohesion and security of Australia.

I come to this conference with two separate but complementary roles.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General, my responsibilities include community engagement in support of the Government’s efforts to counter violent extremism.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, I have responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

So I speak from two different but convergent perspectives on the importance of community and most especially the role of women in social cohesion and countering violent extremism.

This “double hatting” strengthens the links between existing social services programmes and the Government’s broader strategy for greater community engagement on countering violent extremism.

It also means that I spend a lot of time meeting with many wonderful women from across Australia who are leading organisations to ensure that rights and opportunities are extended to all women, particularly Muslim women, across all the communities in which they work.

This work, of course, is not new to me.

It is part of the process that I have been involved in since my young days, when I was an advocate for multicultural communities, starting with my own Italian-Australian community.

Over the years, I have come to know leaders in the Muslim community and have worked with them on interfaith and other issues.

So I speak to you this evening not just wearing those couple of hats, but also sharing some of my thoughts from that past 30 years’ experience.

Multicultural Australia

Australia has a proud history of inclusion and respect for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Since 1945, we have welcomed 7.5 million migrants, including 800,000 under our humanitarian programme.

Almost half of us were born overseas or, like myself, have at least one parent born overseas – we are one of the most culturally diverse yet socially cohesive nations on earth.

The Scanlon Foundation in Australia has mapped social cohesion over the years. Its 2014 Mapping Social Cohesion report found that 92 per cent of Australians feel a sense of belonging; 88 per cent expressed pride in the Australian way of life; 85 per cent believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

Our social cohesion is based on shared values and a sense of belonging. It is founded on a commitment to the common elements that unite us, combined with the respect and understanding of our cultural and religious differences and freedoms underpinned by our constitutional foundation.

This strong social cohesion did not happen by accident.

Our sustained success takes effort, from individuals, from civil society and Government who join together to build this prosperity. We work best when we work hand-in-hand.

In particular it continues to rely on a robust and active community sector, showing leadership between faiths and between different communities.

We know that people, particularly young people, can become disengaged for any number of reasons.

And when they do, they turn to drugs, alcohol, gangs or any number of destructive activities.

This disengagement from society is now manifesting itself in a new way: in a commitment to extremist ideas which can ultimately lead to violence.

We, as a society, cannot afford our vulnerable young Australians who are vital to the future of Australia, to disengage from society.

For that reason we need to tackle the underlying causes of disengagement.

That is why we must harness the very best of our social cohesion apparatus to treat violent extremist ideology at its roots, and even after it takes hold, to prevent individuals from crossing the line and becoming criminals, or travelling to take up a life in a place of violence.

That is where social cohesion meets countering violent extremism and that is what I am here to discuss this evening.

Cultural context

It is important to put the current issues into context.

Whilst countering violent extremism is not about religion, regrettably it is the Muslim communities that feel mostly targeted, although I also appreciate that some non-Muslim communities also have concerns.

According to the 2011 census, 476,000 people claimed Islam as their religion, representing 2.2 per cent of the Australian population, which is an increase of 40 per cent since the previous census.

It is important to note also that around 179,000 were born in Australia, and almost two thirds are women and children.

People claiming Islam as their faith come from different parts of the globe: Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Bangladesh, just to name a few.

They are different and diverse communities, with the majority living in New South Wales and Victoria followed by Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, small numbers in the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Most importantly, we must note that young people represent a significant proportion of the Muslim population, with 57.2 per cent of Muslims aged 29 years and under.

The overwhelming majority are law-abiding citizens committed to Australian values and the Australian way of life.

Where they have newly immigrated to Australia, they have come to build a better life for themselves and their families.

Many have made commendable contributions to our country, whether culturally, economically or socially.

The overwhelming majority of Australians, including Muslim Australians, find the barbarism of Daesh absolutely and utterly abhorrent.

It is vitally important at this time that all Australians, irrespective of their ancestry, are understanding and supportive.

To turn on each other on the basis of religion or race would be to play straight into the hands of Daesh.

They want nothing better than to divide us.

Disenfranchisement of young people

Young people go off the rails for all sorts of reasons – they rebel.

They may have problems at home; they may be being bullied at school; they may have cultural identity issues; they may have qualifications but can’t get a job; their education has been poor and they can’t get a job; they have suffered discrimination; they may have no family or come from a broken home; or there is some other problem in their lives that has resulted in mental anguish or instability in their lives and they have no-one to turn to.

They feel disengaged and disenfranchised; they turn to drugs, gambling, violence, gangs etc.

At their most vulnerable point, they feel alone and alienated.

If the person who befriends them or lends them support is a drug taker or a drug dealer, they will turn to drugs; if that person is in a gang, they will also join the gang; if that person is a gambler, they too will turn to gambling.

What we are seeing with some young people is this disenfranchisement manifesting itself in extremist behaviour.

What is happening is that Daesh and its acolytes are “befriending” young and vulnerable people and preying on their insecurities.

They are luring them with promises of adventure – guns, women and drugs.

It is, and has been described as, a “cult”.

This pattern is often referred to as ‘radicalisation’–which, if I might add a personal view, is a term which I have come to see as unclear and unhelpful at best.

It is very clear from discussions with communities that the most effective and financially beneficial way to progress our efforts to counter violent extremism is to work directly with vulnerable communities.

Trust and respect

In my 30 years of involvement in the diversity that is contemporary Australia, I have always found that open and honest dialogue is the best way to earn trust and respect.

And I would like to say this on a personal note: it is pleasing to see that we are talking about these issues, particularly as they pertain to women.

The role of women in countering violent communities

If I may speak openly and frankly, I cannot understate the importance of understanding the role of women in countering violent extremism.

Women have been on the front line of the struggle against disenfranchisement and disengagement in our culturally and linguistically diverse communities for years.

I say to those women who are here tonight and who have been fighting against the disenfranchisement of your children, and against extremism in your own communities: you are the grass roots.

For some women this has meant you have been holding things together with band aids; with just a hope and a prayer.

But it is not just about the children and the women.

It is about family; it is about heritage; it is about culture; it is about tradition.

It is about those bonds that bind those women so much more tightly.

And I say this as someone who is the daughter of migrants to this country, and as somebody who has lived the bilingual and the bicultural experience and seen and heard many, many stories.

By empowering women, we are going to build that very necessary resilience in the families that is so vitally important in the fight against extremist ideas.

Harnessing the power of women in communities

Communities play an invaluable role in preventing violent extremism.

Just as parents and families have gained greater understanding of the dangers posed by online sexual predators, there needs to be increased awareness of the threat from online terrorist propaganda.

Disenfranchised young people are susceptible to being preyed on through social media.

I am not alone in making that observation.

I know, for example, that the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, has warned young people not to trust ‘Sheik Google and Sheik YouTube’, saying that they are ‘very dangerous and they have no moral or religious authority’.

Our best defences are well-informed and well-equipped families, communities and institutions such as schools and workplaces.

As policy makers we need to be alive to whether we have overlooked how women specifically can be empowered opponents of violent extremism.

What we do know is that women must be part of the solution.

Young women are in tune with their peers, understanding the debates and pressures in the youth communities around them.

And women’s groups generally can be active and powerful voices that hold communities together, and help to build their strength and resilience across the board.

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the women’s groups that I engage with in support of the Government’s efforts to counter violent extremism are the same groups who are grappling with the problem of domestic violence.

There is a very distinct overlap between those two issues.

As leaders in their communities women can be voices of moderation, of integrity and of faith, without violence.

It is incumbent on us to recognise that in crafting our response to the threat posed by violent and extremist ideologies.

No government policy, however comprehensive, can replace the power of the family to persuade a young person to move away from the path of violent extremism.

So, for example, research into young Western women who have gone to support Daesh[1] tells us that one of the most difficult things that a young woman who leaves for a conflict zone must reconcile is the departure from her family she loves.

There is strong evidence to suggest that it is in this window of decision-making that young women’s families, particularly their mothers, have the strongest influence in persuading them to either delay their departure, to seek further advice, or to reject migration entirely.[2]

Of course, I do not think that the influence of mothers–and sisters–who actively argue against violent extremism is limited to young women on the cusp of departing for Syria or Iraq.

The influence of mothers and sisters in fighting violent ideology can be far-reaching and profound.

Intervention Programmes

The Australian Government remains committed to countering violent extremism.

In 2014, the Australian Government announced its approach to countering violent extremism in Australia through:

  • CVE Intervention and community initiatives ($13.4 million); and
  • CVE Intervention Programmes–which aim to identify vulnerable people, and those exhibiting extremist behaviours, and coordinate the delivery of tailored services, such as mentoring, counselling, education and employment services.

But we must be mindful to ensure that the efforts to counter violent and extremist ideology empower women.

By empowering women, we empower our communities.

The aim of our CVE efforts over recent years has been to equip communities, frontline service workers and others to understand what violent extremism looks like and how we can help steer young Australians off this dangerous course before it’s too late.

The Government has provided $1.9 million in grants to 40 organisations who applied for Commonwealth funding.

These grants were designed to enhance the recipients’ ability to effectively work with individuals who are developing violent behaviours.

Intervention programmes give us the opportunity to help an individual who is running a very high risk of throwing their life away.

There are many excellent support services already operating which address personal, social and economic factors that lead to anti-social behaviours, including extremism.

Of course, there is no one trigger or path to violent extremism.

That is why we develop individually tailored intervention strategies.

Individual case management plans involve conversations to directly engage with and try to reframe extremist ideologies.

But it can also include psychological support, mentoring or employment advice.

Some of these services may be accessible through mainstream Government programmes, but many are best delivered by communities themselves.

So it is critical to ensure that those programmes and services reciprocate, and meet the needs of our communities.

Large, well-established organisations are working in this area.

Where appropriate, they have been asked to indicate their willingness to assist governments in working with vulnerable individuals.

But we do recognise that there are many smaller organisations that have been quietly working behind the scenes for many years.

Many of these groups do not work in the public eye but this does not make them less worthy of support.

In fact these groups are often best-placed to help.

There is a need to significantly boost the ability of such groups to work with vulnerable individuals, and we are committed to doing so.

I have spoken with many of these groups over the past months.

In order to protect the good work these organisations do and the privacy of those involves, I am not able to share the many stories where such organisations have been able to prevent young people from a path to violence.

But I can say that they count many women – in leadership, advocacy and service delivery – amongst their ranks.

Similarly, police and other government agencies have been able to prevent horrific outcomes.

But it’s generally best to keep these successes unheralded.


In September last year Australia, together with the international community at the United Nations Security Council, renewed its recognition of the role of women as key influencers in stopping extremism by co-sponsoring United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178.

UNSC Resolution 2178 encouraged Member States to engage relevant local communities and non-government actors–including women–to ‘counter the violent extremist narrative than can incite terrorist attacks.’

This binding resolution builds on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda under UNSC Resolution 1325, which seeks to ensure that women are central to the participation not only in all forms of civic life–local, national, regional and international–but also that they are particularly involved in the recovery of states in post-conflict periods.

While Australia remains a safe and secure, modern nation it grieves us to see daughters, wives and sisters turn their backs on this security in search of a new and dangerous journey.

Our commitment here is that our efforts to halt the scourge of Daesh will see women at the core of each programme, recognising their unique place in our society to lead the way down a different path.

[1] Hoyle, Carolyn; Bradford, Alexandra; Frenett; Ross. Becoming a Mulan? Female Western Migrants to IS. Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2015. http://www.strategicdialogue.org/ISDJ2969_Becoming_Mulan_01.15_WEB.PDF

[2] As above (n 11).