Disability leadership in civil society
By Zara Todd,
When Saeida Rouass applied for a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 to investigate the impact of violent extremism on women, in particular survivors of white supremacist groups and violence, she was surprised to find the connections between racially motivated violence and gender-based violence.
The learnings from Saeida’s Fellowship, and 28 other Fellows, have gone on to help inform the Churchill Fellowship’s Migration report.
"I want to make sure women’s experiences aren’t excluded in the programmes I design and in the partnerships I have, and that the outcomes address their needs."
Based in Cambridgeshire, Saeida is a Senior Programmes Officer for an international non-profit organisation, which works to prevent violent extremism through inclusive rights-based approaches. Rights-based approaches are about maintaining the safety and security of society, without infringing the rights of individuals and communities.
Saeida’s Fellowship looked at the impact of violent extremism on women because the standard approaches and responses to risk come from a generalisation of male experiences. Saeida believes there is a blind spot on how women experience those impacts in unique ways because of intersectional characteristics such as gender, sexuality, economic-social position and so on.
She wanted to explore the range of impacts women experience as a consequence of white supremacist violence in the United States, but also the strategies they develop and implement to recover, both as individuals and members of communities.
Saeida travelled to the US to visit individuals and communities who had been directly impacted by violent extremist or terrorist attacks.
Her travels were extensive, taking in 36 locations. This included time spending with the Tree of Life Synagogue community in Pittsburgh, where an antisemitic terrorist attack in 2018 resulted in 11 deaths.
“I spent four days within the synagogue community interviewing women, faith leaders and professionals providing supported, to look at the impacts of the attack and how the community rebuilt. I wanted to centre on what women were doing, because policy in this area is so often generalised on the male experience, and women’s experiences aren’t taken into account.”
In South Carolina, Saeida spoke to the daughter of a victim of a neo-Nazi terrorist attack at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 2015.
“She’s a pastor and black American, and has used a tragic experience to campaign and influence policies around gun control and white supremacy violence, while continuing to live with the grief and loss.”
In Florida, Saeida met a man who was once a member of the white supremacist prison gang, the Ayrian Brotherhood. She also met a woman who left a white supremacist group while serving a sentence in prison for a hate crime. Both have since worked for Life After Hate, an organisation that supports individuals to leave white supremacy. For Life After Hate, a mentor who has a similar lived experience is important, as individuals are often riddled with shame about their past associations and actions.
“I wanted to find out how being part of these movements is different for men and women. Are they gendered or the same?”
What learning can be drawn from far right violence?
The first area of learning is around the use of terminology. Although Saeida looked both at the survivors and former perpetrators, she says this distinction is too binary and can be reductive, because many former group members are often victims of other forms of violence. This is particularly relevant for the women she met.
“They have perpetuated or promoted racial violence, but many reported that being part of those movements meant enduring gender-based violence such as domestic violence, grooming, sexploitation and trafficking within the group.
“To just talk about survivors and former perpetrators doesn’t get to the reasons as to why people join these movements and why leaving can be so hard.”
And this leads to Saeida’s second area of learning. While there is a recognition among former perpetrators that there is race-based violence, there is little acknowledgement that the violence is often also gender-based.
Women often described experiences of gender-based violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. However, very few men acknowledged this violence took place within the groups. Most focused only on the race-based violence as a harm that wanted to repair.
“White supremacist violence is not just race-based, it is also gendered. Black women who have survived it have unique experiences because of how society positions them as a result of their gender and race. White women who have left those movements reported experiences of unique forms of violence. What makes white supremacy appealing to some white women is not the reality they experience once becoming members of these movements. White supremacy is about the superiority of white straight men over all else and dismantling it requires us to address the different components of hate that hold it together.”
So how does Saeida disseminate her learning?
She has presented a paper on her findings from the Fellowship at an international conference in Australia. It also feeds into her work at the international NGO.
“I have a far better understanding of the space I am in and how I navigate that space, by trying to make sure gender is mainstreamed into everything I do as an individual and what we do as an organisation. I want to make sure women’s experiences aren’t excluded in the programmes I design and in the partnerships I have, and that the outcomes address their needs.”
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.
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