Last week, an Indonesian woman opened fire at police at the National Police Headquarters in Jakarta. The woman, who was apparently inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was shot dead after she fired six times at police. This incident came just days after a husband and wife launched a suicide attack on a church in Makassar, South Sulawesi.
Conflict and extremism expert Sidney Jones has long warned of the role of women in terror attacks. But many terrorism experts appear slow to apply gender analysis to their examinations of violent extremism. It is still common to read simplistic analyses that suggest men pursue violent jihad as a way of performing and asserting their masculinity, while women are stereotyped as participating in jihad naively, without any agenda or goals.
The attacks in Makassar and Jakarta appear to be cases where women were not coerced, pressured, or tricked into participating. Women have repeatedly demonstrated that they participate in violent jihad with their own missions and aims. Their reasons for doing so vary, and may even relate to their husbands, children, or families, but they usually participate actively.
The case of Dian Yulia Novi, the first Indonesian woman convicted of planning a bomb attack, also demonstrates this trend. She pledged allegiance to ISIL, and planned an attack on the Indonesian Presidential Palace, before being arrested in December 2016. She reportedly believed that the act would ensure her mother would go to heaven in the afterlife, after being disappointed that she had failed to bring her mother happiness on earth. This apparently relates to the view held by many jihadis that if they die as martyrs, their family and friends will join them in paradise.
But Dian is not unique. In fact, as far back as two decades ago, there were already plenty of examples of Indonesian women exercising agency and participating in violent extremism for their own reasons. The ability of Noordin M Top, the architect of the JW Marriot bombing in 2003, to evade authorities was in no small part thanks to the women around him.
He married at least three times before being killed by authorities in 2009. These marriages, which were facilitated by his networks, were in part a strategy to evade authorities and blend in with the local community.
In terrorism studies, the role of the household is often said to be to allow terror fugitives to have a “normal life”. Noordin’s last wife, Ariana Rahmah Noordin, was a kindergarten teacher at a religious organisation in Central Java. Ariana, and his previous wife, Muflihatun (also known as Fitri), reportedly did not know the details of their husband’s activities other than he would regularly leave for long periods to “engage in jihad”. But these women actively participated in these marriages because they knew their husband was conducting jihad.
The trend of women’s participation in violent extremism has evolved considerably over the past few decades. For a long time, women were only seen as ‘supporters’ in jihadist movements. This was, in part, because highly conservative interpretations of religion forbid women from participating in warfare or fighting (known as qital). Women were instead considered useful for assisting the movement and supplying male children to bolster the troops of male fighters.
But when combatants who had been fighting in Afghanistan began returning home to Indonesia, people heard stories of the ‘heroic’ acts conducted by women jihadists. Recent years have also seen a similar glorification of the role of female suicide bombers in Europe and South Asia. These stories have been consumed by young Indonesian women who want to participate in jihad, but not just through their wombs. At the same time, many of the men who had returned home from combat in places like Afghanistan were pursued and arrested by authorities, creating a shortage of fighters.
The emergence of ISIL in 2013 further changed the face of jihadism, from individual males to women and families. The dissemination of radical ideology no longer occurs just in religious gatherings (between men) or in the bedroom (between husband and wife), but also at the dining table, with the whole family.
This was the case with Dian, the woman who planned to attack the Presidential Palace, as well as the 2018 church bombings in Surabaya. The women involved in these attacks rarely socialised or attended Islamic study groups. The radicalisation process occurred in the family setting.
But it is clearly not easy for terror experts and policymakers to examine terrorism with a gender lens. This is seen in the feminisation of rehabilitation programs for former foreign combatants and returnees. Women are typically given a small amount of funds, supported to engage in income generating activities, and efforts are made to encourage them to love their country.
Meanwhile, efforts to address ideology and ideas about what is considered a “meaningful life” as a jihadist are not always planned or funded. How is it possible to address Dian’s wish to participate in jihad to make sure her mother goes to heaven?
The difficulty in understanding the participation of women in terrorism is that the security sector is often highly masculine. Consider the film “Jihad Selfie” by Noor Huda Ismail, which tells the story of a 17-year-old boy, Akbar, who considers joining ISIL. The film depicts a desire to express masculinity as an important factor explaining why young men participate in violent extremism.
Women, meanwhile, are depicted in the film as carers and protectors. Too often, examinations of violent extremism see women simply as providers of love, as if they have no agenda or desire to solve the world’s problems, in contrast to their terrorist husbands and children.
More work needs to be done to examine the private sphere to better understand trends in terrorism. The longstanding assumption that terrorism is a problem of the public domain has meant that it is viewed in relation to national stability and state authority. As such, the focus of analysis is on matters of the public sphere: power, ideology, political authority, representation, examination of space, funding, and networks between men.
Meanwhile, the experiences of women and power relations in the private sphere are not considered to have the same gravity as the problems in the public sphere.
Looking at the trend of growing women’s participation in terror attacks in Indonesia, it is clear that gender analysis that examines relations among husbands, wives, and their children, and relations between the public and private spheres can no longer be left out of efforts to understand and respond to violent extremism.
Gender analysis helps to explain why women are increasingly participating in extremist violence. When power relations between men and women are so uneven, when respect for women is so low, when women are considered the source of sin and other problems, why wouldn’t they want to die young, if that could give their lives more “meaning”?
An earlier version of this piece was published in Kompas on 3 April as “Peta Perempuan Dalam Terorisme”.