Around the world, young women are disappearing, for a surprising reason. They are leaving their homes to join terrorist groups with religious ideologies, such as ISIS. Take Hasna Aitboulahcen, for example. She never appeared to be a pious girl and reportedly only started wearing a head covering last month. But last week she blew herself up during the police raid in Saint-Denis, Paris. Earlier this year, three British schoolgirls went to Syria through Turkey to join ISIS militants. Meanwhile, in March, an entire Indonesian family, including a toddler, a baby and a pregnant woman, slipped away from their tour group in Turkey and crossed into Syria. Indonesian terrorism expert Sidney Jones has said that her research has identified about 40 Indonesian women and 100 children under 15 in Syria.
The question is: why do these girls and women want to join radical groups? There is growing scholarly and media attention being paid to the role of women in violent jihadist movements, especially in light of the success of ISIS in attracting female recruits. Earlier studies have also examined the role of women in suicide bombings. In Indonesia, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) has documented marriages of women to ISIS fighters by mobile phone, used to “cement alliances, reinforce social hierarchies, satisfy the ‘biological needs’ of prisoners or bring women out to the Middle East”. Historically, however, analyses of the role of women in radical movements have tended to be simplistic and have deprived women of their agency, painting them as victims of stronger or charismatic men.
Obviously it’s not that simple. In the Indonesian context, the appeal of radical groups can be explained partly by the position of women in patriarchal society and the desire of these women to contribute to building “an ideologically pure state” grounded in the laws of God.
Last year, the Jakarta-based nongovernmental organisation Rumah Kita Bersama launched a book,Testimony of the Faithful Servants (Kesaksian Para Pengabdi), which documents the stories of 20 Indonesian women who are, or have been, involved with fundamentalist groups. The women expressed a range of reasons for becoming involved in fundamentalist groups, including in violent extremist movements.
There are two levels to understanding this phenomenon, and both can be applied to both the Indonesian context and the global situation. First, just like the men who are part of radical movements, the women who join them also believe in the idea of a caliphate, both as their mandatory duty according to shari’a and as an answer to social and economic disparity. These are not just silly, thoughtless girls. On the contrary, many young women join these movements because they care deeply about inequality, suffering and injustice, and are disappointed with the government’s inability to eradicate poverty. Sadly, they have not found a more sensible outlet for channelling their concerns.
Involvement in transnational organisations such as ISIS that support the idea of a caliphate – and even to some extent with similar local experiments like Darul Islam/Islamic State of Indonesia (NII) – can make women feel as though they are part of an important global movement. In comparison to groups like ISIS, the shari’a discourse promoted by small-scale conservative movements in Indonesia appears feeble and hollow.
Men and women who believe in the idea of a universal caliphate have long committed to memory the stages to achieve this end. They have been trained to act as small parts of a larger movement, while putting into practice the concepts of a shari’a state on a small scale: how to pay (or not pay) taxes, identifying allies and opponents, suffering quietly while guarding the movement’s secrets, and so on. Through radical organisations, they have a vehicle to realise the results of all this training. But because the jihadist movement has a masculine face, mapping and analysing women’s involvement in this process is often neglected.
The second level to understanding women’s involvement in radical movements is to look at the patriarchal social structure in Indonesia, particularly among conservative Muslim communities, which places women in a subordinate position to men. In fundamentalist movements, however, women feel equal. In groups such as ISIS there is an ideological recognition of their unique role in building an ideal state. Many women believe strongly that participation in jihad will ensure they become “angels” in the afterlife.
Of course, these desires for gender equality are not so easily realised. All jihadist movements and organisations are extremely patriarchal. The meaning of jihad is also reduced to gender stereotypes. “Hard jihad” occurs on the field of battle, and is the realm of men. “Soft jihad”, meanwhile, is waged by women, who are expected to give birth to new soldiers for the movement and “service” the men in their group. Their roles are the same as those of women in most traditional societies – serving men – but radical movements give them an ideological value.
For some women, dedicating their wombs and their roles as wives and mothers to the soldiers of God is a source of pride. Having many children is important, but having male children is even more so. In their view, only male offspring can become jundullah (soldiers of God). It is therefore not surprising that women in these groups do not reject polygamy or refuse to bear large numbers of children. Women from some traditional societies long for recognition of their role as mothers who give birth to the next generation of fighters for truth and raise them.
Not all young women are satisfied with the soft jihad route. Rumah Kita Bersama’s research also found that some women were highly critical of the subordination of women in fundamentalist movements and would leave these groups as a form of protest. As Sidney Jones and others have pointed out, many young women also wish to engage directly in the field of battle. It is important to remember that the concept of jihad contains ideas not only of gender but also of class. Hard jihad can be a means for poor men and women to rise in social status. Of course, not all women who join radical groups are poor, however hard jihad may be one of the few options available for poor women to gain greater respect.
So far, ISIS has largely excluded women from combat but this may change in the future. As other scholars have noted in relation to Al Qaeda, the recruitment of women as suicide bombers avoids the empowerment of women that would occur as a consequence of their involvement in armed conflict.
While ISIS continues to remain reluctant to let women fight, there are other ways that women can improve their social mobility in fundamentalist movements. One way is, of course, to be chosen as the wife, or one of the wives, of the group’s leader. Skills in IT, language, intelligence, espionage, bank account hacking, or virtual study of bomb-making can also lead them to being accepted as equal to men in the elite structure of radical movements and organisations.
There are strong motivations for young women to become involved in radical movements, even if the reality often falls far short of their hopes. Women crave recognition of their role in establishing a caliphate and ideologically pure society in line with their beliefs. These desires are understandable, when we remember how they are so often neglected or marginalised in their communities of origin. In fundamentalist groups women can feel needed, praised, and appreciated. Only in this way, they feel, can they become angels in this world and in the next.
A shorter Bahasa Indonesia version of this piece appeared in Kompas under the title Merindu Bidadari.
This writing was originally published on Indonesia at Melbourne.