Why do Indonesian women join radical groups?

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.

What is Bogor Mayor Bima Arya playing at?

Bima Arya Sugiarto became mayor of Bogor in 2014 on the back of promises to root out corruption in the bureaucracy, restore order to the city’s chaotic streets and resolve the longstanding conflict over the construction of the Yasmin church. With a master’s degree from Monash University, a PhD from Australian National University and experience working with the United Nations Development Programme, he was touted as one of the new batch of reformist leaders who had come to power through direct elections and were set to transform Indonesia. Over recent months, however, his name has become synonymous with religious intolerance.

On 22 October, Bima Arya and other local officials prevented local Shi’a Muslims from commemmorating Ashura, a core celebration in the Shi’a faith that marks the death of the grandson of Ali, the first Shi’a Imam. Bima Arya issued a circular forbidding the celebration for the sake of “security”, saying that it had the potential to make other religious communities uncomfortable. The fate of the Yasmin Church, meanwhile, is still uncertain. Bima Arya has continued the much-criticised policies of his predecessor, Diani Budiarto, who ignored a clear Supreme Court ruling in the church’s favour and sealed the church property after protests from hard-line groups.

During Ramadhan earlier this year, Bima Arya also created controversy by reportedly smashing a glass in a bar that had remained open during the fasting month. And in 2014, he issued a circular urging all residents to stop work and pray at the closest mosque or prayer room whenever they heard the call to prayer. These incidents have created the impression that the so-called reformer of Bogor has some decidedly conservative tendencies.

How did Bima Arya get to this point? Bima Arya and his running mate, Usmar Hariman, won the mayoral election by a slim margin over Ahmad Ru’yat and Halim Hermana. The Bogor General Elections Commission (KPUD Bogor) reported that they won by under 2,000 votes, equivalent to less than 0.5 per cent of the total votes. There were just 673,938 registered voters in Bogor, and a voter turnout of 63 per cent, low by Indonesian standards.

Bima Arya surely knows that he won because Bogor residents were sick of the old mayor, who was more famous for preventing the construction of the Yasmin church and taking on multiple wives than for any efforts to improve the city. Electors wanted Bima Arya to restore order to the city, reduce congestion and improve waste management.

Residents of Bogor are mainly office workers, university staff, students, and traders. Many of the office workers commute every day to Jakarta. As in most areas of Indonesia, the majority of residents are Muslim, with the rest Protestant, Catholic or Buddhist, many of them ethnic Chinese.

However, Bogor is also a centre for hard-line Muslim communities. It is home to the Al-Ghazali Islamic boarding school, led by the preacher Mama Abdullah bin Nuh, where the Indonesian branch of Hizbut Tahrir was established. Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) has also been fertile ground for conservative Islam, and was home to the Qur’an discussion groups that went on to form the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). There is emerging evidence of the influence of the conservative Wahhabi ideology in the region and it is not uncommon to see women with long black gowns covering them from foot to head, or men in long loose Islamic robes.

Given that many Bogor residents are commuters and new arrivals, they don’t show the same love for their city as, say, the residents of Bandung, who live, work and play in their city. It therefore makes sense that one of the first steps Bima Arya took when he came to power was to encourage residents to fall in love with Bogor, or “Bogoh ka Bogor”. He looked for quick wins, such as improving the city’s public gardens, revitalising public playgrounds, addressing waste management and trying to restore some order to the unruly public minibuses that clog the city’s streets. Bima Arya also promoted cultural events, such as Bogor-themed cooking demonstrations, and held public tours of the city’s unique Dutch architecture.

But Bogor is not known as the city of a million minibuses for nothing. Unchecked development of hotels and malls under the previous administration has also contributed to traffic chaos. The most miserable days are weekends and public holidays, when residents should be able to be out showing their love for their city. Instead they face infuriating congestion.

Bima Arya’s efforts to eradicate corruption in the civil service have also moved slowly. When the mayor came to power he began firing government officials who were suspected of corruption. Recently, however, he has admitted that when power relations are built on money politics, it is important to take a careful approach to combating corruption to avoid being impeached.

Despite these ongoing frustrations it must be acknowledged that public order and the management of city parks have vastly improved under Bima Arya. But as even he admits, waste management is a formidable task. Citizens who litter without any concern for who is going to pick it up – as well as a lack of commitment from city waste management staff – mean that it will be a very long time before Bogor gets a reputation for cleanliness.

Facing these intractable problems, maybe it is no great surprise that Bima has turned to trying to woo the conservative supporters of his electoral rivals. After two years of only modest progress, and being dubbed “Wagiman” (Walikota Gila Taman, or Park-Crazy Mayor) perhaps Bima sees exploiting the intolerance of the Sunni majority toward Shi’a, Christian or Ahmadiyah minorities as a way to boost his waning popularity. But by doing so he has alienated his core supporters, who have begun to walk away.

As a city mayor, Bima Arya’s focus should be on public services and on getting things done, not playing politics. Perhaps his actions can be explained by further political aspirations, for example to the governorship of West Java. The depressing truth is that an anti-minority stance is popular among the conservative voters of the province. But other observers who have known the mayor since high school say that we are now seeing the real Bima Arya. He might seem like a reformist nationalist on the outside, they say, but the inside is Islamic fundamentalist.

Rather than turning their backs on him and allowing conservative groups to dictate policy, Bogor residents still have the potential to turn things around by demanding that Bima Arya demonstrate the strength of character that made people vote for him two years ago. Of course it will depend on which residents Bima Arya chooses to listen to, and the signs are not encouraging so far.

The article was originally posted here.