The missing link between terrorism and sex
What makes it easier to recruit young men into terrorist groups? Lack of employment opportunities, alienation and disenfranchisement are sometimes cited. But what if we've been missing something fundamental all along?
What if we were ignoring sex?
Here's an example. A group of researchers have found a causal relationship between the rising trajectory of "brideprice" (similar to a dowry but paid by the prospective groom to the family of the bride) and the ease of recruitment into insurgent groups, in groundbreaking research that is soon to be published in the Harvard-based journal International Security.
"For example, the sole surviving terrorist from the Mumbai attack of several years ago admitted his father urged him to join the group so that he and his brothers could afford to marry," says Professor Valerie Hudson, the George H.W. Bush Chair at Texas A&M University, and a co-author of the research.
"There are similar stories from northern Nigeria where Boko Haram recruits on this basis, as well as South Sudan, and other hot spots," she says. "The effect of brideprice on this national security issue has been hiding in plain sight all along, but because brideprice is seen as some type of lesser, woman-related issue, its salience has not been understood."
Hudson, who is the inaugural Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the Australian National University in Canberra this year, has done a lot to highlight the gender blind spot in security and foreign policy studies. It's a world where "realists" – mostly men, claiming an empirical view of hard truths – reign supreme.
But brideprice is just one overlooked area: there are a "constellation" of issues that have an impact on national security but have been traditionally ignored as gender concerns, she argues.
The more stable a country the safer it should be for its more vulnerable citizens, but Hudson's studies turn that proposition on its head, and investigate how a society's treatment of women actually drives national stability.
"Women weave the web of life in most societies for young and old. When you cripple the weavers, you cripple the nation and its future," she says.
Her forthcoming book The First Political Order lays out the case for the causal link between women's security and state security. Its research is being funded by an arm of the US Defence Department.
Previously she co-wrote the epoch-shifting 2012 book Sex and World Peace, which used empirical analysis to show how "the very best predictor of a state's peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity ... it is how well its women are treated." The book grew from The WomenStats Project, a vast online database comparing 176 nations on 350 variables of women's status and security which Hudson founded in 2001.
In 2005, she co-wrote Bare Branches, exploring the consequences of surplus men in China and India, where sons are culturally favoured over daughters.
In 2009, Foreign Policy named Hudson one of the world's top 100 most influential global thinkers. That was a year or two before then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's push to put women and girls' rights at the centre of US foreign policy became known as the Hillary Doctrine.
Hudson began her career in security studies during the Cold War, a time, she says, when "you could have taken every class in my graduate education and never even known there were women on planet Earth".
"At first, I absorbed that as normal and unremarkable," she says.
But her experiences serving in a Special Forces reserve unit, and then having a daughter, as well as reading feminist international relations theorists such as Ann Tickner and Carol Cohn, "opened my eyes and ears".
"Women comprise approximately half the population in every country, but have very little decision-making authority in the realms of foreign policy and national security," she says. "That means that women's concerns, priorities, knowledge and perspectives will not inform some of the most important governmental policy made, which will undermine its effectiveness."
She understood that shifting the perspectives of the decision makers would take "rigorous empirical evidence that these things are important. And that has become part of my life's work."
She says "part" of her life's work, because another part is something most of us would find more than enough on its own. Hudson and her husband have eight children, the youngest just 10 years old.
I told her politely that as a woman myself with a job and only two children, her work-life balance appeared quite literally Herculean to me.
"I am not sure how my husband and I have done it," she says, "though my 3am emails are legendary among my students and co-authors".
As is inevitable with any serious feminist thinker, the personal was political for her: "As a feminist I was always stubbornly opposed to the cultural understanding that a woman couldn't have children and be successful."
"Having eight children and a career was my way of flipping the bird at that gendered constraint, and of saying to the young women who follow that you don't have to give up being a woman to make a contribution to the world around you," she says. "My children are as great or more a contribution to the world as all the books and articles I have written; they are good people and the older ones are already helping to make this world a better place."
Along with Defence Minister Marise Payne, Hudson is a key speaker at the first Women and National Security Conference, which is being held at the ANU's National Security College (NSC) next week on April 4 and 5.
Among other things, she will tackle the gloomy prospects of the Hillary Doctrine under US President Donald Trump.
Marina Tsirbas from the NSC, an international lawyer and security expert who convened the conference, said there was increasing awareness in top policymaking circles that more diversity leads to better decision-making, driven in part by the research of people like Hudson.
"People tend to think of gender as an add-on to hard security issues as if it's not part of it, but it is connected," she says.
Tsirbas, who has worked on Bougainville peace monitoring operations, arrangements for the transfer of nuclear materials and UN negotiations on counter-terrorism conventions, says the "patriarchal environment" she experienced in her early career highlighted for her the importance of gender diversity in her field.
She pointed out that women are now running the key foreign affairs (Julie Bishop) and defence (Payne) portfolios in Australia, plus there is a female foreign affairs shadow minister (Penny Wong) and secretary of DFAT (Frances Adamson).
"Women's participation in conflict prevention advances national interests," she says. "Peacemaking and peacekeeping are missing a critical strategy to reduce conflict if they don't include women in the roles of prevention, stability and early warning."