The following article focusses primarily on the topic of distancing from right-wing extremist scenes. In Germany, so far comparatively little experience is available regarding gender aspects for targeted exit work in militant religious fundamentalism. In this respect, cooperation with the Radicalisation Awareness Network will be helpful in the future.
In Germany, most offers of exit support are either state offers, which were often set up by the state youth welfare offices, or offers from independent youth welfare institutions in the individual federal states. In some cases, the exit offers from the state offices are connected to the protection of the constitution.
Recently, the National Working Group set up the association “Ausstieg zum Einstieg” (Exit to Entrance, BAG exit work) as an independent, nation-wide player in the field of exit work. The BAG exit work has evolved from among the former promoters of the Xenos special programme “Ausstieg zum Einstieg” (2009-2014). The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) accompanied the BAG founding process on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Labour. The FES is not a member, but sees itself as their partners. The BAG is an independent acting operator.
With the exception of Saxony-Anhalt, each state in Germany currently have an exit support offer for members of the extreme right milieu. The vast number of those willing to seek exit help are (young) men who want to break away from the scene or have legal obligations to do so. The percentage of women is currently not possible to determine and is expected to range between about 3-10%.
The methodological importance of understanding one’s own masculinity and femininity corresponding to the process of working with male and female gender identity has not yet been sufficiently determined. However, it is striking that the percentage of female staff who work as exit support is considerably high. This has also apparently not happened by chance, but seems to be the expression of a targeted – although not yet systemised – approach with gender connotations.
How does exit support function?
There are two fundamentally different approaches in the practical strategic exit support procedure:
- The silent exit – “better for the small fry” In this approach, so-called “legends” are developed by which the individual willing to exit can act in the scene environment without having to fear threats or complete isolation. In this case, harmless lifestyle reasons are developed to explain why one can no longer be actively involved in the scene. It might be for financial reasons (e.g. the need to pay off debt) or career changes (beginning training, applying for or starting a new job which is politically sensitive), or due to family circumstances (taking care of children). Family and gender issues may perhaps play a central role here.
- Public distancing – normally chosen for big names in the scene. Here, the individual willing to exit is supported in explicitly distancing themselves and in publicly taking a stand. This exit path must be carefully prepared and attended to with great care. For one thing, a much greater personal pressure to change is to be expected in this process. Secondly, the person taking this path may possibly also be perceived as a “traitor to the cause”.
Exemplary steps of exit support
The person willing to exit – or distance themselves – either approaches exit support institutions or are referred there by youth workers or similar help services. Before beginning the actual casework and exit work, some preliminary steps are completed which are necessary to ensure a targeted work process.
1. Analysis of potential and pressure for change Firstly, the worker and individual willing to exit sketch out an exact reconstruction of the overall position the person currently finds themselves in. This first requires that the person willing to exit issues a confidentiality release, so that the helper can obtain the necessary background information and clearances with the authorities, youth welfare offices, police, court assistance, etc.
2. Case history and motivation check
In the second step, it is important to better get to know the person willing to exit by means of in-depth one-to-one sessions so that an analysis of the potential and pressure for change can be made. During the consultation, the worker systematically explore four dimensions to assess the potential / pressure for change:
- The personal dimension: What self-perception, social / cognitive skills and life dreams / goals exist? How do family, friends and relationships shape the person? What youth cultural background, music preferences, media habits, and leisure preferences do they have?
- The specific problems: What particular challenges are there in terms of substance addictions (alcohol, etc.), financial debt, housing, education, professional status? Are there psychosocial risk factors, for example, in terms of emotional control and violent behaviour or mental stability and psycho-traumatic stress?
- The external scene location and criminal history: Does the person belong to an extremist organisation squad? What level, hierarchy position and function do they have? How long have they been in the scene? To what extent are they more of a “casual Nazi” who only participates in scene activities on special occasions, or a firmly integrated representative figure of the scene? What history do they have of crimes, penalties and rehabilitation judging by the police documents and other documents? To what level do they accept violence and what risks are there of impulsive violent actions?
- The individual scene location and personal attitude towards right-wing extremism: What degree of emotional attachment and social links to right-wing extremist contexts are there? In other words, what psychosocial functions does belonging to the scene have for the person? What is their perception of the personal risk of exit or distancing? What motives are there for the person’s plans to move away from their current involvement in the the right-wing extremist scene? How do they imagine such separation or exit?
Gender-related factors may play a major role in all four dimensions, especially in the personal and individual dimensions. With regard to the motivation for exit, it has been observed that new partners – and the change in perception from the intimate partnership associated with them – often play an essential role in developing exit motivation. The commonly noted disappointment and disillusionment about the scene often have to do with specific restrictions and conflicts with the concepts of masculinity or femininity played out there. In individual cases, coming out as homosexual or bisexual may be a significant factor.
3. Priorities Safeguard – Ensure Safety – Create a Support Plan In the third step, a support plan is prepared, which leads to a kind of contract being formed between the client and the exit support. The commitment created by a fixed agreement is a key condition for the work to be successful. Because scene members as those exiting the scene often have had many stressful experiences with relationships ending, the binding nature of this new working relationship must first be explicitly expressed on both sides. In order to acquire solutions, precautions must be also taken on how one will concretely proceed if doubt surfaces or the contract is breached. In assisting the exit process, the most important task is to establish a secure level of trust between those offering exit support and the client willing to exit – a task which is indeed important for all forms of intensive prevention and rehabilitation work.
Objectives In this work agreement objectives are stated which were developed from the current situation clarified together as well as the case history. For example, a crucial personal development goal could be to dissolve and break through certain patterns of aggression and violent behavior and repeating the so-called spirals of violence. They can also agree to refrain from certain forms of expression (those which are full or resentment or are inhuman) or learn alternative ways of behaving. Where appropriate, specific public positioning measures can also be a personal objective. Desires An important task in exit support is integrating the personal needs and desires which were decisive factors for the person’s involvement in the scene. The person willing to exit must feel that the exit is personally meaningful and meets their needs. Therefore, so-called functional equivalents are developed. These functional equivalents are developed to replace certain forms of satisfaction that had been met by the scene. (…) With these specific needs, the person’s concrete desires may also give them certain perspectives for their professional and private life after the development. It is evident that the perspective of gender and gender-related behaviour in dealing with the personal needs and wishes of the client is very important because the need for companionship / cohesion, excitement / thrill or political debate often have gender connotations; it/there is also the need for stable mental health. Furthermore, in addition to specific personal needs, the desire may arise to become a responsible parents and be a mother or father to children in a certain way (which always has gender connotations). Responsibilities To meet the relevant factors for such a complex work process, exit support works together with a number of partners who are consulted when necessary and with the client’s agreement (e.g. anti-violence training, debt or addiction counselling, psychotherapy, parent and child centres, sport offers).
So far, the gender aspects of exit support have not been systematically and conceptually considered by those working in the field – but they have often been followed intuitively. Therefore, the following gender specific strategies have sometimes been observed in direct practical experience:
Team composition Exit support workers offer mostly male – though sometimes female – alternative role models to the previous ideas and experiences of the client. In cases where a person’s working relationship with a man or a woman is difficult for personal reasons or causes conflict for some reason, they will work with someone of the same gender. On the other hand, they will deliberately work with the opposite gender when work with someone of the same gender would be filled with conflict (which is sometimes the case with male clients, who are strongly influenced by feelings of competition or have an inhibiting aversion to a person who is not considered to be sufficiently masculine). The option for when, how and to what extent psychotraumatic or gender-related emotional processing can be included in the exit process must be weighed.
Gender as a topic in exit work Gender role expectations, which were important in the activities of the extreme right milieu scene, are discussed in the exit process. Until this point, ideas about masculinity were only approached as a general topic. It is rather an exception to include questions about attitudes towards self-determined women and homosexuals as a systematic part of the exit work. Plans for girl and women-specific exit support approaches have begun sporadically (e.g. with the Arbeitsstelle Rechtsextremismus und Gewalt [ARUG] in Lower Saxony [as of summer 2014]). Women who seek out right-wing extremist scenes are often fascinated by a physically strong, dominate male appearance and martial forms of expression. A strong need for male protection is sometimes included in this. Taking this need for protection into account in an appropriate manner poses a particular challenge in exit support for women.
Relationships and marriages between right-wing oriented partners are often characterised by domestic violence and abuse. Women willing to exit who are simultaneously leaving a violent partners may be even more threatened by this and its immediate companionship context.
Those women who themselves become perpetrators in extreme right-wing and/or groups characterised by hate and violence sometimes do so because they wish to offset the suppression and low social status that they have in their home environment and partly also within the scene. The low sense of self-esteem connected to this (which is sometimes only effectively hidden) presents a particular challenge for exit work, because the goal is indeed to make a dedicated and self-confident personal decision to dissociate.
A topic which predominantly comes up with women willing to exit, and may play a role at all levels of psychosocial work with these women, are experiences of sexual assault. In this case, it seems advisable to make additional therapeutic help available to accompany the exit process.
Those women who take an active and aggressive role in right-wing extremist scenes sometimes use rather indirect, passive-aggressive strategies. They are more likely to incite the men to violence rather than becoming a violent offenders themselves (somewhere along the pattern of: “That foreigner came on to me. Do something!”) This pattern of taking violent action in a subtly indirect way may also are still be perceived as “completely normal” in the exit process, so that they reject reconditioning in the pedagogical situation.
Thoughts on why girls and women only take part in exit programmes in very small numbers
Since women are rarely arrested or convicted due to (violent) activities motivated by prejudice, they feel the need for exit to a lesser extent; the pressure caused by impending sentences and probation, which often play a crucial role for men willing to exit, does not come into play here.
The ways in which people willing to exit find out about locally accessible institutions offering exit support are usually informal and unofficial. Friends, educational caregivers, the working environment, local media or similar channels of dialogue may offer the information. Hearing about a positive exit process completed by an acquaintance or well-known person from the region may help give the impetus to become more aware of exit support. Since not many girls and women exit by means of exit support, there are hardly any example stories about such an offer of support.
Exiting extreme right environments is generally more complex for women than for men and is more difficult to achieve. This is connected to the image of women in the right-wing scene; woman have a very gender-defined role, which requires them to provide extensive support men in the scene – particularly their male partner – and to be available for the political cause in many ways. Women are possessively associated with the cause in a different and more powerful way than the men. These implicit claims of ownership are consciously accepted and lived out by many of the female scene members as models for their femininity so that they become an established element of the scene. A woman exiting is thus often connected to personally leaving a man associated with the scene; even without this, it is perceived as a stronger offense and a double betrayal of the cause.
The exit process of a woman can become considerably complicated when there are also children that resulted from the relationship with a man belonging to the scene because, from a right-wing extremist point of view, these children may possibly be seen as a possession belonging to the scene whose abduction can cause further insult to the members.
Through cooperation with specialists in the Radicalisation Awareness Network of the European Commission it became clear that many many parallels exist between these situations and gang crime in Britain, which can be informative for an interdisciplinary overview (on the subject of archaic / pre-modern gender role expectations.)
Accessibility of girls / women for distancing processes Just as girls and women are often underestimated and overlooked as extremist participants and perpetrators, the need to develop and test specific targeted distancing services for girls has also been disregarded up to now. Family-oriented counselling centres, mother and baby units or youth welfare institutions could be particularly good starting areas and, for domestic violence, women’s shelters would also be an option. Since violent and right-wing oriented girls and women are also found in prison in comparably low numbers, this would also be particularly applicable here. Women’s prisons (in Vechta and Berlin) have also already gained experience in this matter, particularly in relation to highly violent women.
Youth and family welfare facilities, on the other hand, tend to especially see their client’s need for support in the strictest sense of the word, a need for which they are responsible for as an institution; for example, women’s shelter offer first and foremost protection from violent partners and trauma-therapeutic support. The client’s scene context processing is generally not part of the support plan. Thus, there is great danger here that the client will return to their former group and behaviour and, therefore, their right-wing extremist affiliation and activities remain completely unprocessed, although they are usually an integral part of the need for support which emerged.
Furthermore, experience has shown that parenthood is a good time to initiate and implement changes in how one lives. Expectant parents, especially young mothers, also come into contact with a variety of family and youth services offerings. This being the case, it seems advisable to raise the awareness of family helpers, midwives, mother and baby units and youth services among others, and teach them intervention skills. In the context of family-oriented support, it is more promising to create coaching possibilities for clients so that workers can assist them to gradually and permanently distance themselves from right-wing extremist membership – and to personally process the experience.
Gender-aware distancing: Topics / strategies for girl and women-oriented exit work and addressing those vulnerable
- Strengthen friendships and partnerships to girls / women and boys / men outside of right-wing extremist circles!
- Girl-specific empowerment offers: Safety from a relationship, yes – dependency no! The feeling of safety and strength girls / women experience (as well as boys / men) in a close, intimate relationship with a partner is valuable. The person’s need for relationship should most definitely be taken seriously. Should it, however, result in dependency and oppression, there is reason to encourage processing and ending the relationship. In this case, resource-oriented alternatives of self-empowerment can be supported.
- Carefully include trauma therapy: Women in exit support often have experiences with family and domestic violence, sexual abuse and abuse from their own clique. These issues can often only be addressed very late and only partially by those exiting.
- Take up the social and political concerns of young women and strengthen commitment! When personal social and political commitment is apparent, this can be promoted and elicited in applicable areas (environmental protection, criticism of globalisation, human rights work, church social work, social justice, animal welfare, a voluntary social or cultural year).
- Take up and support youth cultural creativity! When a tendency towards creative or (youth) cultural expression is seen, this can be picked up and led in the right direction.
Specific considerations for distancing work with right-wing parents There are particular challenges in working with parents willing to exit when either only the mother or father wish to leave the scene. Exit work will possibly have to be connected with parenting counselling. Child welfare and protecting the children from the possible negative effects of belonging to the scene are a key focus of the work.
Mothers exiting the scene can prove to be especially difficult due to threats of violence / harassment or child abduction. A functional network of exit / distancing work with youth and family welfare and the case law / criminal justice seems wise as practitioners need to be aware of particular difficulties in the separation / divorce of parents as a result of exit processes.
Raise the pressure to change The role women play in the right-wing extremism poses a particular challenge for the work of the police and judiciary. Exit support practitioners report that they barely come into contact with female (violent) participants in the far-right scene because their deeds and activities go unpunished and, therefore, have no influence. Due to so -called “gender blindness”, the police and judiciary tend to underestimate or overlook female perpetrators, so that the girls / women are not held accountable. Thus, for them there is no immediate reason / pressure for them to deal with their own extremist actions. Practitioners therefore commonly need to extend the concept of violence and also to acknowledge the fact that prejudice motivates the acceptance of violence. Practitioners see prejudice motivated acceptance of violence, for example, when young women cheer on or support their male clique members in violent attacks (or, in any case, do not prevent or report this behaviour), or when women translate texts and spread them around the neighbourhood and Internet, inciting hatred and violence against third parties.
As far as is currently possible in the context of law enforcement and justice, it would be advisable with women in particular to pay more attention to abetting, incitement and the failure to give assistance; when these reliably led to criminal proceedings, starting points for distancing, withdrawal and rehabilitation would occur.