Amalina Binte Abdul Nasir, a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR)
On May 2018, Southeast Asia was shocked to find out that coordinated suicide attacks on three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia were carried out by a family. A day after, another family carried out an attack. Months ensued with more cases of family-based arrests, attacks and foiled plots made by local authorities. Clearly, this phenomenon was signaling a new trend: Women as a permanent part of the Jihadi structure.
This new trend of hardline female extremists indicates a shift in the roles typically assumed by females in Islamist extremist groups. Previously, women stood in the men’s shadows, providing operational support to the network, taking care of the household and serving their husbands. However, since these devastating attacks, women are now posing a combat threat as they also take up arms.
This shift can be attributed to the low and weak application of gender mainstreaming in local Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) initiatives. This article seeks to shed light on three factors that hinder Indonesia’s efforts to adopt an effective gender-based approach in PCVE approaches.
Domination of Masculinity
In 2000, the third President of the Republic of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, had undertaken significant steps on the international and national level to promote gender equality and empowerment. Amongst these was Presidential Instruction Number 9/2000 on Gender Mainstreaming in National Development. Wahid aimed at integrating women into every level and sector in nation-building strategies. Since then, the discourse on the role of women and empowerment has been widely debated, including the realm of violent extremism.
Ground-up initiatives have mushroomed by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) which are eager to chart a better future. However, gender mainstreaming is still weak, if not absent, in responsible government agencies such as the National Agency for Combatting Extremism (BNPT). BNPT as an agency is still presently dominated by men. Women are minimally represented in the counter-terrorism sector — especially in decision-making and strategic positions. Although hiring quotas have been introduced to ensure women’s representation in the sector, they typically assume administrative positions, thus, defeating the aim of gender mainstreaming.
The issue of under-representation is an issue CSOs are actively tackling through targeted discourse and meetings such as those organized by the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN). AMAN organizes the Indonesia Peacebuilders Forum which convenes women including researchers, practitioners, survivors and victims, tabling PCVE recommendations needed for Indonesia and the region moving forward. Recommendations agglomerated during such conventions are driven upstream to push BNPT to change its perception to better, and more urgently, tackle the issue of extremism.
Lack of Attention to Initiatives
Another challenge is that local PCVE efforts by women are hardly documented or given attention. This brings about two challenges. Firstly, the lack of awareness surrounding these efforts is indicative that people know very little about women’s participation within the realm of PCVE. Despite numerous initiatives on the ground, they fail to connect with their target audience and raise awareness on the efforts that are taking place. As a result, initiatives are hindered making it difficult to achieve their objective: preventing women from being radicalized.
Additionally, funding for such efforts, especially in the PCVE sectors, is still poor. Hence, grassroot and Non-Governmental Organizations are finding it difficult to expand their initiatives. These groups are only able to engage with a small audience at a time which has slowed Indonesia’s progress in preventing violent extremism.
Case in point is Rahima — an NGO that focuses on increasing awareness on Islam, gender and women’s rights. It takes a gender-based approach in tackling issues like child brides, using violence in the name of religion and sexual violence. In comparison to neighboring countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, Rahima uniquely includes the voice of female clerics (Ulama Perempuan) to counter extremist-gendered narratives. This is still absent in the former three countries where the threat from the radical Islamist movement is pertinent.
Despite being a step ahead, Rahima (@swararahima) has only 2,452 followers on Instagram as of February 2020. On average, its posts receive less than 100 likes. This means that less than 5% of its targeted group is engaged. Its Facebook page — which was set up in 2014 — has an average of 10 likes or shares per post. Despite its rigorous efforts and wealth of counter-messaging materials online, its outreach efforts are still largely unknown to the masses. This impedes its potential to further the gender-based agenda in PCVE.
Is it really a “Gender-Approach”?
Despite the mushrooming number of initiatives to include women in the fight against violent extremism, these efforts tend to overlook the gender dynamics of violent extremism. In other words, there is presently a mismatch between the understanding and manifestation of a gender-based approach.
A study by UN Women found that gendered extremist narratives and messaging on social media are widely encompassing. It spans from themes regarding motherhood, combat, freedom, boundaries set by secular states in practicing one’s faith and finding love. Despite the myriad of themes, there is one common thing that it offers: empowerment. Terrorist groups portray women as strong when assuming such roles in their organization.
While efforts to empower women on the ground have been made in the past few years in Indonesia, it has largely covered the themes of equal domestic work distribution, parenting behavior, socio-economic stability and women’s involvement in family decision-making. Efforts to counter what is being preached by terrorist groups like the Islamic State have, however, fallen flat.
Additionally, gender-based counter-narratives are still absent. General counter-ideology of Islam Rahamtan Lil ‘Aalamin (translated as Islam as a blessing to all mankind) is used to refute extremist claims made by IS. These counter-narratives are often preached by female clerics in the spirit of advocating a ‘gender-based approach’. Although such narratives aim to uphold humanity and universal values of justice, equality and tolerance, it is counter-productive in refuting the extremist gender-messaging that is being rigorously propagated by IS. While the messenger of the counter-messaging is critical, the message also needs to be apt. As long as it fails to appreciate the gender slant, these claims of “gender-based” initiatives will remain an illusion in the local PCVE space.
As much as Indonesia is making significant progress in PCVE efforts compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, it is critical to ensure that the essence of these efforts are truly nipping the threat in the bud. The three areas mentioned above must be reviewed and progress must be made towards change in order to mitigate the breed of future female radicals.
Countering extremist narratives online is becoming more pressing and challenging. Chatter on encrypted platforms like Telegram has shown that female extremists are rallying one another and influencing aspiring female radicals to take up more significant roles within terror networks. The underlying message of empowerment is increasingly amplified and gendered-ideology is widely used as IS continues to stay resilient. Thus, while female participation is a great step towards a gender-based PCVE, targeted efforts are a prerequisite to mitigate the rise of female radicals in Indonesia.