Rise of the mujahidas a new challenge for Indonesia

Though they typically avoid violence, women embrace jihad with equal fervor as men, and play key supporting roles in radical networks.

By Yamko Rambe for Khabar Southeast Asia in Jakarta

October 24, 2014
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Countries battling religious extremism must not overlook the key role played by radicalised women, experts say.

  •  Women attend an Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) protest outside parliament in Jakarta on September 24th. Radicalised women can play a key roles in supporting jihadist networks, experts say. [Adek Berry/AFP]

    Women attend an Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) protest outside parliament in Jakarta on September 24th. Radicalised women can play a key roles in supporting jihadist networks, experts say. [Adek Berry/AFP]

Indonesia needs to pay close attention to women helping sustain radical groups, according to Lies Marcoes-Natsir, who heads Rumah Kita Bersama (Home for All of Us), a think-tank rooted in Qur'anic boarding school (pesantren) traditions.

"The government should rethink their efforts, otherwise they will only tackle the conventional problems and leave the roots of the problem untouched," Marcoes-Natsir told Khabar Southeast Asia." In countering radicalism, gender-neutral efforts are crucial."

Though women play different roles from men in advancing jihad, they embrace it with equal fervour.

"There are some different interpretations of jihad between radical men and women," Lies said. "Women are less inclined to choose violence in fighting their jihad."

Instead, women give themselves to jihad through traditional and secondary roles. For example, their job might be to raise children and educate them according to fundamentalist Islamic doctrine or by running small businesses that help bring in revenue for jihadist movements.

Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Director Sidney Jones participated earlier this year in a Jakarta seminar about women lured into radicalism, hosted by Rumah Kita Bersama.

Jones said women are just as prone to extremism as men and during the past two years, a growing number of women have shown interest via Facebook in becoming mujahidas (female fighters).

"On Facebook, we can see that there are many who claim their interest and passion of becoming a mujahida ," she said. "These women are as capable as men at engaging in intellectual dialogues with their online peers. They're very inquisitive and like reposting extremist updates on walls, forums, and chatrooms."

Some women act as couriers when visiting husbands incarcerated on terrorism charges , while others run small businesses that generate revenue for extremist groups, Jones added.

"What's interesting is the fact that each Islamic hardline group … has its signature brand of herbal medicines that they sell through a multi-level marketing scheme," Jones told the seminar. "There's a Qur'anic recital group consisting of the wives of Cipinang (Prison) detainees.

"These women are able to support their family by doing business with others they've met there," Jones added.

Former National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) head Ansyaad Mbai said women "have unique roles in extremism". Male radicals can conceal jihadist activities with the help of their wives. And many women agree to arranged marriages with radicals , he added.

"This is to keep the network stronger. The increasing role of women to finance radicalism will be another challenge for the Indonesian government to monitor," Ansyaad told Khabar.

Aditya Surya in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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