In Radicalizing Her (Beacon, Apr.), journalist Gowrinathan examines the motivations of female resistance fighters.

Why do programs aimed at rehabilitating female resistance fighters keep getting it wrong?

Because they’re borrowing from an already faulty formula in the development world for empowering women. Whether in response to a hurricane, or poverty, or in a war zone, most of the programs offered to women tend to be re-feminizing and depoliticizing. They’re given sewing machines, or asked to bake cakes, or given chickens and cows. These programs are narrowly focused on the abject victimhood of the woman, and, more often than not, on her sexualized identities. She’s a victim of rape; she’s a victim of female genital mutilation; she’s a victim of early marriage. And this view of women has been carried over into de-radicalizing programs. It’s just that the disconnect is much more evident with women who have been leaders on the battlefield and are now being told they can run a pastry shop or sew little baby girl dresses.

How does Western feminism misjudge female fighters?

To me, the erasure of the female fighter from conversations on gender and power is not only dangerous, it’s also anti-feminist. A lot of this hinges on the positioning of Western feminism to violence, and the insistence on nonviolence as the only form of acceptable political resistance. The issue there is that you get forced into this binary to condone or condemn violence. When really, violence is simply a reality for these women. There’s a great line in the book from Sandra [a FARC commander]: “So if a soldier comes at you with gun, women should respond with what? A Bible? A book? Kindness?” I think that’s a big part, being able to not simply condemn this woman for her choice but to be able to contextualize that choice, and also recognize the political project inside of it and not simply dismiss it because it was a violent resistance.

What lessons can minority activist groups in the U.S. take from these liberation movements?

If you go deep enough into your own struggle, you can find the political throughlines to other struggles. It’s not about being a Tamil, or being a Black woman, or being queer, or Muslim. It’s about being able to see that the way a soldier behaves to a woman in a refugee camp and the way the police deal with Black people in the U.S. is the same process of state violence. And how it maps onto the bodies of marginalized women becomes a kind of throughline that we can fight along rather than dividing into these narrow boxes of identity. I worry that that happens too often these days, and that we lose sight of those political throughlines between struggles.