05/21/2013 02:34 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

Mothers of Extremists: The Unlikely Allies for a New Female Security Paradigm

In the aftermath of the Boston attacks, the whole world struggled to put together the pieces in
the hope of uncovering what placed the Tsarnaev brothers on a road of radicalization and
ultimate destruction.

While both the high profile terrorist Ajmal Kasab, the only captured perpetrator of the
Mumbai attacks, and the Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev turned their backs on humanity,
they called their mothers in the most decisive moment of their lives. The mothers of these
perpetrators were fast to assert that they were unaware of their children's path.

Even if they had known, what would have been their course of action? What support is
provided for mothers who fear to lose their sons and daughters to extremism? Addressing
their worries openly could bring shame on their family; reporting their concerns to the police
might be tantamount to treachery. So when we think of security, the last thing that comes to
mind are women.

Talking to women across the West Bank and Pakistan, especially mothers who lost their sons,
instilled me with a fresh sense of hope. Mothers like Samira, a community leader from
Nablus, spread an important message and sense of duty: 'When they come to recruit our sons
we must rebel! A mother will gain nothing; her son is more important to her than anything
else, and if you promise me the whole world or even heaven I wouldn't change it for the life
of my son.'

Her neighbor, reinforcing Samira's statement, has a similar message for boys in danger of
being lured into extremist networks: 'Think twice before you commit yourself. Sure you can
run off and destroy airplanes, but think how your mother's heart will burn. If you destroy an
airplane, people will die but your mother will be also devastated. And what will you get for
destroying an airplane? Nothing.'

Another mother, Laila, with two passionate, restless unemployed boys, devised her own
strategy when they went out to join demonstrations that she felt would turn violent. She often
followed them when she couldn't keep them to stay at home. She remembers one particular
incident during a demonstration very clearly: Ahmed turned around and saw his mother in the
crowds, and shouted, 'This is risky: you have to leave immediately', but when she responded,
'Not without my son!', he was embarrassed enough to come to his senses and leave the
danger zone. With a strong sense of regret, Laila concludes, 'But the day when he got killed I
wasn't there to stop him.'

Another group of brave women whom I interviewed discuss on camera how their children's'
choices destroyed their families' lives. These women send a strong message to mothers
around the globe. They are convinced that if other young people turn to their mothers and
understand that acts of terrorism do not lead to glory (but rather to the devastation of their
loved ones), they would think twice.

A growing number of women in communities at risk are indeed ready to overcome cultural
expectations and speak out. They herald a new era of female diplomacy, where women are
able find alternative, human solutions that balance traditional security measures.
In my recent trip to Kashmir, I met mothers eager to talk, many of whom are afraid that their
children might join the insurgents. Yet these women feel isolated and burdened with their
anxieties since such worries are taboo and never openly discussed. Safira revealed, 'Just
sitting with you now and sharing my story makes my heart feel lighter.'

Safira is one of the many mothers with whom I have spoken to in crisis areas around the
world who consistently assert their desire to protect their children and families. Parenting
skills need to broadened and redefined particularly in these volatile regions. Women must be
sensitized to the early warning signals of disorientation in their children; they should feel
confident enough to voice their concerns and be equipped to respond in a competent way.
SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) is the first female counterterrorism platform that
has created a model -- the 'Mothers Schools' -- to fill this knowledge gap. Community leaders

in Tajikistan are the frontrunners, agreeing that peace starts at home, and that dialogue and
understanding are critical tools to build family and community cohesion. Mothers in India are
already adopting their Tajik sister's model: they are meeting in informal community settings
to learn new skills and create the necessary space to recognize as well as react to the signs of
potential radicalization. In India the voices of these women will be broadcast through a
community radio station that has a listenership of 500,000. Preparations for more Mothers
Schools are on underway in Somalia, Nigeria, Zanzibar and Pakistan.

These female-led, community-based efforts will enable women to become agents of positive
change in the security sphere. Safira, in the Kashmir Valley puts this possibility into very
poetic words, 'During the day I am weaving carpets, but with the mothers we will weave our
stories together and find solutions.'

Motherhood is highly respected in all societies around the world, and is frequently viewed as
an achievement--not a limitation. SAVE has found that addressing mothers must be part of
any serious counter-terrorism strategy. It presents itself as a new way forward, strengthening
families and introducing concepts of grassroots security, particularly in countries that retain
highly patriarchal power structures.

Security is one of the last bastions of male dominance with the main focus being intelligence,
military operations and law enforcement. Yet mothers are strategically located at the core of
their families and are therefore typically the first to deal with their children's fear, resignation,
frustration and anger. They need to be the recognized ally for security in the home and

Dr. Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist, activist, and founder of Women without Borders in Vienna,
Austria. Schlaffer created the global SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) campaign. Women's
eNews included her as one of the '21 Leaders for the 21st Century' in 2010, and she was named one
of Newsweeks' 150 Movers and Shakers in 2011.