Muslim Women in Terrorist Groups: Emancipation of Regress?

Muslim Women in Terrorist Groups: Emancipation of Regress?

By Farish A Noor

Since 2005 there has come to light many new research findings about the role
played by women in radical conservative religious groups in Muslim countries
such as Indonesia. Indonesia’s radical group called the Jamaah Islamiyah,
for instance, is known to have recruited women as members of the
organisation, but more in the capacity of wives and mothers of the groups
members. Among the better-known women of the JI are Noralwizah Lee Abdullah,
Munfiatun al Fitri and Mira Agustina, all of whom married into the movement
and who played key roles in supporting their fathers, husbands and sons who
were involved in numerous disturbances all over the Indonesian archipelago.

Of particular interest is the question of whether the active recruitment,
training and involvement of women in underground religious organisations
such as the JI signifies a further development of women and improvement of
their status in the context of developing states like Indonesia. The
question is here being raised against the backdrop of a society where women
have always been active actors and agents on the social and political level,
and where significant strides have been taken in the cause of women’s
emancipation, education and political empowerment. Do groups like the JI
represent the latest stage in the involvement of women in public political
life? Or do they represent a step backwards in women’s struggle for equality
and emancipation from the power structures and institutions of Patriarchy?

There are practically no Islamist movements in Southeast Asia today – be
they of the moderate, modernist, progressive, fundamentalist or even
militant variety – where women are absent or deliberately excluded from
membership and participation. Every single major Islamic party in the
political mainstream in Indonesia and Malaysia, including the Partai
Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) of Indonesia and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party
(PAS) boasts of having a women’s wing with thousands of members, all of whom
actively participate in the internal politics of their parties and go to the
streets canvassing support during elections.

What holds true for the mainstream Islamist movements and parties of
Southeast Asia also holds for the myriad of underground radical
religio-political movements in the region, including the infamous Jamaah
Islamiyah of Indonesia. Yet any attempt to understand the role of women in
the myriad of religio-political movements in Indonesia and the wider Malay
archipelago today has to begin from several important historical premises:

Firstly, it should be noted that Malay and Indonesian women have always
played a prominent role in social life, in all areas ranging from culture to
economics, religion to politics;

Secondly it should be noted that even after Islam had arrived in the Malay
archipelago and taken root in the Indonesian-Malay world, it was Islam that
was adapted to suit the mores and norms of Indonesian-Malay society rather
than the other way round – in other words, Islam was rendered local rather
than having the impact of radically altering social-cultural life in the
archipelago ;

Thirdly it is a historical fact that Indonesian-Malay women’s development
was in tandem with the societal development of Indonesian-Malay society, and
that women’s participation in the evolution of Indonesian-Malay politics,
economics and culture was practically taken for granted. As testimony to
this, it should be noted that when Indonesian claimed its independence in
1945 and when Malaysia was finally granted its independence in 1957, women’s
emancipation was taken as matter of course and it was taken for granted that
women would have the right to vote, the right to education, ownership of
capital/property, and the right to participate in political life, etc.

The tradition of having Indonesian Muslim women in public political life
extended well into the 19th and 20th centuries and during the 30-year Aceh
war the region also put forth women fighters like Cut Nyak Dhien, Chuk Nyak
Muetia, Pocut Baren and Pocuk Meurah Intan who resisted the full impact of
the Dutch imperial army. Indonesia is also unique in the fact that it boasts
of being the home of Laksamana Keumalahayati, who was the admiral of the
Aceh imperial navy and perhaps the only woman in the world who ever occupied
such an important post in a nation’s maritime forces.

It should therefore come as no surprise to us today if the radical Islamist
movements of Indonesia have likewise opened their doors to Indonesian Muslim
women whom they consider as potential members, supporters and allies in
their religio-political struggle.

In all the women who have joined the Jamaah Islamiyah like Noralwizah Lee
Abdullah, Munfiatun al Fitri and Mira Agustina we are confronted by a
phenomenon that baffles social scientist and feminists alike: How and why do
these women – many of whom happen to be well-educated, and with economic
agency and capacity of their own – choose to marry men who are committed to
a social reform project that is carried out through violent means and whose
ultimate objective is the creation of a social order that would place women
like them in a secondary position? In the case of women like Mira Augustina
and Munfiatun al Fitri, it is not even clear if emotional attachment figures
at all in the marriages they contracted with their spouses, and that their
marriages were merely instrumental alliances that served a larger political
cause than their own.

Once married and integrated into groups like the JI, however, it is clear
that these women play a pivotal role in cementing the movement together and
maintaining links between the members and disparate cells that operate
across the Indonesian archipelago and beyond. Through marriage links the JI
has maintained its network that stretches to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,
the Philippines and further afield to Pakistan, Egypt and the Arab world.

Women may be courted by the JI and even encouraged by the movement’s leaders
to contribute to the Jihad against the West, but it goes without saying that
there will never be a female leader of the movement. Seen in this light and
taking into consideration the secondary role prescribed to them in the
organisation, it would be difficult to classify the women of the JI as
‘Muslim feminists’ as defined in the typology of Muslim intellectuals like
Amina Wadud.  The women of the Jamaah Islamiyah like Noralwizah Lee
Abdullah, Munfiatun al Fitri and Mira Agustina may be seen by some as
‘pioneers’ in the entirely new phenomenon of religiously-inspired militancy
and urban terrorism in Indonesia; but in their commitment to help their men
tear down the structures of the secular Indonesian nation-state and to roll
back the social, economic and political development of women in Indonesia
they actually help to corrode, downplay and marginalise the significant
contribution of former generations of Indonesian proto-feminists.


Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights
activist, and one of the founders of the research