The Shifting Role of Women in Extremist Movements: How Does It Reshape Gender Stereotypes and Its Consequences for Counter-terrorism in Indonesia

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

On Sunday morning 13 May 2018, a family of six carrying bombs entered three churches in Surabaya and detonated themselves, killing at least 11 people including themselves. Another bomb exploded later that night in an apartment in Sidoarjo, which killed three members of a family. Police have ruled that the family might have been planning an attack but the bomb exploded prematurely. The next day in Surabaya, a family of five carried out a suicide bombing at a police headquarter. All three families involved in the attacks in Surabaya and the bombing attempt in Sidoarjo were associated with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), Indonesia’s terrorist group who supports the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Indonesia has had women involved in extremist movements before, such as Munfiatun, the wife of terrorist Noordin Muhammad Top, and Dian Yulia Novita “Novi”, the first Indonesian woman who became an active actor in suicide bombing attempt. However, the attacks in Surabaya and Sidoarjo were the first times women died as suicide bombers in Indonesia. Not only that, the three bombings showed the involvement of all family members, including children, in terror attacks—something that has never happened before. Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta, stated that the terrorist attacks which involved the whole family could not have happened without the women’s willingness. As reported in Mia Bloom's 2017 journal article entitled "Women and Terrorism", children are often engaged in jihad due to their mothers’ encouragement.

The two attacks in Surabaya and the bombing attempt in Sidoarjo highlighted women’s direct role in extremist movements. But is this phenomenon new?

Women’s involvement in extremist movements may look like a contemporary phenomenon. Yet historically, women have long taken part in violent radical groups, although their involvements have been limited to subordinate roles. It is worth noting that their causes were not limited to radicalization associated with jihadism or militant Islamism as it is widely known today, but also causes related to nationalism, politics, and women rights. For example, according to the 2016 Research Report by Conseil du statut de la femme and Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence entitled "Women and Violent Radicalization", some women participated in the fighting and political discussion during the French Revolution, before finally being relegated to less active roles such as laundress or canteen-workers and banned from political clubs. Women have also been known to participate in the Palestinian and left-wing terrorist groups from the 1960s to 1980s, in Spain’s Basque Homeland and Liberty, and in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. Nevertheless, women’s engagement in extremist movements is still considered less important and received little attention from either a social or scholarly point of view.

Arguably, women’s participation in extremist movements received little attention because it shattered the widely acceptable notions about women gender stereotypes. Women have always been perceived as submissive, less aggressive, dependent, vulnerable, and subordinate, according to the 2013 Women and Terrorist Radicalization Final Report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Furthermore, women are often depicted as motherly figures who care, nurture, and protect. These descriptions are far cry from the hostility and violence associated with extremist movements. In the cases where a woman did join a terrorist organization, she would be seen as a victim or under the influence of a male terrorist and not because of her own agency. Hence, women are thought to be less likely to participate in terrorism activities.

Ironically, the traditional view of women gender stereotypes is being exploited by the terrorist groups for their advantages. In a patriarchal society where women are often being denied their socio-political agency, extremist organizations will approach women and give them a chance to be part of global political movements by joining terrorist groups. It is also not uncommon for terrorist organizations to use women as deceiving weapons and surprise elements towards the law enforcements. A woman can keep a low profile and escape police’s suspicions because it is unlikely for her to be seen as perpetrator. For instance, Bloom writes that in the Middle East and South Asia, a woman can hide an IED whilst dressing in traditional clothing such as the niqab or the silwar kameez, and disguise as a pregnant mother. 

The trend of giving women more active roles in extremist movements was popularised by ISIS who started recruiting women fighters from Europe, America, and Australia. Originally, ISIS encouraged women to join the caliphate as mothers of future jihadists, network builders, or teachers, and forbade them to actively join in a fight unless in self-defense. But as ISIS reached out to the “lionesses of Allah and their cubs”, they finally allowed women to go beyond what was initially approved, as written in 2018's "How ISIS Has Changed Terrorism in Indonesia" by Sidney Jones. These women then not only acted as active propagandists on social media and supporters of the men, but also carried out direct attacks as combatants. In Indonesia, the ISIS-inspired militant group JAD followed this type of recruitment, especially when there was a male combatants shortage. Women were recruited and trained on war simulation, and later were given permission to carry out terrorist attacks.

There is no currently satisfying explanation as to what motivates women to become attracted to and join JAD. One may argue that feelings of isolation drive women to join JAD, as what often happened with the Indonesian domestic workers abroad. In Febriana Firdaus’ "Bagaimana ISIS Mencetak Seorang Bomber Perempuan Pertama di Indonesia" released in 2018, in an interview with Novi, she unfolded how she became involved with extremist movements in the first place. Whilst working in Taiwan as a domestic worker, Novi did not have time to go out and socialise with other Indonesian domestic workers. Therefore, she spent her times at home and on social medias, where she found various conversations about jihad and started learning about it.

Moreover, social media has provided platforms for women to express their political views due to the lack of patriarchal system online, as Bloom also mentions in her book. In any social media, women can participate and show their fanatical support without the fear of being seen as subordinate or compromising their position in society. Thus, women who joined JAD through radical ideologies online may feel that they were given the sense of agency, independency, and control—something that they may not experience in daily lives.  

Joining JAD may also look attractive for women because it provides them with the opportunity to be equal with men in the global political point of view. In Indonesia, where the patriarchal system rooted deeply, women are often seen as unequal to men. Many Indonesian women are still seen through traditional women’s stereotypes lens, where women are expected to deal with domestic field rather than socio-political cause. Although JAD, like other jihadist groups, is still a patriarchal organisation, it gives women an ideological value, the same obligation and personal responsibilities as men’s, and recognition for their roles in establishing a caliphate.

Women who join JAD share the same belief with their male counterparts; that Islam and Quran are the most fundamental principles, and a caliphate is a mandatory and an answer to many socio-economy issues. Novi stated that Pancasila, the foundational philosophical theory of Indonesia, is an indication of the lack of belief in Quran. She argued that as the biggest Muslim populous country, Indonesia has to follow the Islam law and Quran as their basic principles. Contrary to popular belief, Novi’s view shows that women join radical movements not only because they are victims or under the influence of male terrorists, but because of their own belief.    

The shifted role of women in extremist movements in Indonesia marks the time not to only reshape our view on gender stereotypes, but also to review our terrorism and counter-terrorism policy. Indonesia needs to start incorporating gender dimension in framing terrorism investigations and counter-terrorism efforts, as terrorism is no longer a “masculine” issue. The gender perspective will provide a broader understanding of how women are radicalized, recruited, and given roles in terrorist groups. Although we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that women can still be victims in terrorist attacks, we, and particularly the Indonesian law enforcements, have to bear in mind that women can also be involved in terrorist organizations as masterminds, recruiters, propagandists, and combatants. Therefore, both men and women involved in terrorism have to be investigated equally. Women also need to be included in the radicalism prevention program because they can give insight and recommendations from a woman’s perspective. Not stopping there, women can also be agents of change by promoting tolerance and unity in diversity within family, as well as monitoring the spread of radical movements in their environment.

Additionally, we need to understand why women join extremist movements. If the reason is gender inequality in socio and political contexts, then we need to reshape our view on women gender stereotypes. We can no longer deny women’s socio and political agency and assume that they are subordinate, passive, and dependent on men. We have to acknowledge that women have a voice and an equal chance as men to participate in a socio and political movement. Hence, we need to educate both Indonesian men and women to change the way they see gender stereotypes. Furthermore, we need to provide platforms for women to have open discussions and to express their political views and socio-economic concerns in a more positive way.