Women and the Swirling Vortex of Terrorism

  • Friday, 26 July 2019 14:59
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Oleh : Nadia Yunita

Women have had a long history of involvement in terrorism. In 1878, Vera Zasulich shot the Governor of St. Petersburg, General Fedor Trepov, who brutally treated Russian political prisoners. At her trial, Zasulich proudly called herself a terrorist. “I am a terrorist, not a murderer”.[1]Apart from Russia, women also took part in bomb blasts that tore through North Ireland. Provisional IRA, an organization fighting for Ireland’s independence from British rule, had women such as Marian and Dolours Price involved in bomb attacks that were carried out by men. In 1973, both women received life sentences for the bombing of the Old Bailey that injured 216 people and left one person dead.[2]

In Indonesia, women are both the victims and actors who play an active role in terrorist activities under the pretext of jihad. Dian Yulia Novi is an example of female involvement in suicide attacks when she planned to blow herself up at the State Palace in 2016. Recent cases involving women in terrorism showed a shift in the role of terrorists. Women have proven to be just as capable, no longer behind the scenes providing secondary support to male operatives, but are now playing a frontline role in terrorist activities. Acts of terrorism are no longer about masculine and patriarchal ideals, but have camouflaged under a feminine disguise.

Women’s participation in terrorist undertakings is impelled by the struggles of fellow womenin Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya as a form of pseudo-gender equality for the sake of earning spiritual rewards equal to male jihadis. Female involvement in such acts of violence in fact is being exploited by men. According to Musdah Mulia in Perempuan dalam Gerakan Terorisme di Indonesia (Women in Terrorist Movements in Indonesia), “even though women in acts of terrorism are the perpetrators, they are still essentially the victims of their own obliviousness and powerlessness, which those harboringintentions to commit vile and systematic acts of terror are taking advantage of”.

Women were initially recruited and invested in terrorism through marriage. Under a nuptial bond, their minds are indoctrinated with extremist views of Islam. Radical groups will first psychologically manipulate women by offering an alternative solution to their lives that are mired in indignation, disappointment and resentment as a result of discrimination, physical abuse and others. They are a vulnerable group whose lives others consider can be easily steered by simply inculcating them with the “real” meaning of life.

The reasons why radical groups turn to women as the key subject and actor of terrorist acts are obvious. The feminine ideal inherent in a woman’s subordinate position over the control of their reproductive role, sexuality and other social functions (serving the husband, educating the children, showing compassion, gentle, faithful, obedient, etc.)[3] is a key entry point for luring them into the swirling vortex of terrorism. Furthermore, religion has made the patriarchal discourse even more legitimate without a show of resistance from women. A woman’s trust and submission to her husband has made the process of ideological indoctrination easier to accept.In short, radicalism spurs the return to religion.[4]Women also are less likely to rouse suspicion, therefore can fool the authorities. They have a hidden potential that men do not possess.

Pursuant to the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1325, women should play a key role as agents of peace. This includes women’s participation in the prevention of armed conflicts or other forms of friction. A survey conducted by Wahid Institute in January 2018 brought attention towomen’s immense potential to promote peace. They are seen to be more tolerant to differences, and less willing to resort to violence compared to men. At least 80.8% of women are less inclined to carry out radical acts than men at 76.7%, and there are fewer women who are intolerant (55%) compared to men (59.2%).

What should be done?

Preventing women from being swept into the maelstrom of terrorism is not only the duty of the government, but also all elements of society. INFID (International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development) released the results of a study on tolerance and radicalism in Indonesia (2016) to provide recommendations to the government on the prevention of intolerance and radicalism in Indonesia by repealing discriminatory local regulations that facilitate intolerance by means of singling out certain groups, namely women, and that violate the fundamental principles of statehood and democracy.

Concrete examples of discriminatory regulations or policies include the Anti-Pornography Law, compulsory wearing of the headscarf, and the imposition of a curfew unless accompanied by a male family member.[5]Such rules are meant to domesticate women. We can also prevent women’s participation in acts of terrorism by providing them the space to take part in decision-making processes, and equal access to available resources. In other words, sharing roles between men and women in a proportionate manner where women can participate in the male domain (and vice versa). Furthermore, the need to create narratives on a peaceful and moderate Islam that emphasize on humanity, equality, justice and tolerance.

Finally, collaborative ties between the government, civil society organizations (CSOs), academics, and relevant parties at the national and regional levels nurtured through forums for sharing information and strategy, strengthening cooperation and offering policy recommendations for preventing violent extremism. Such partnerships have been realized by INFID through a public seminar on“Radicalism and Extremism in Asia; Experience, Analysis and Strategy to Prevent It”and aRegional Expert Meeting on “Strengthening and Making Regional Cooperation Effective in Preventing Radicalism and Violent-Extremism” held on 28 – 29 March 2019 atAshleyHotel, K.H. Wahid Hasyim, Central Jakarta.

The events brought together the academia, CSOs, government, media, donors, embassy representatives and experts in preventing violent extremism (PVE) at the national and regional levels. Attendees include Ghufron Masudi from AMAN Indonesia andSilvana Apituley, Head of Expert Staff to Deputy V of the Executive Office of the President who shared their views and recommendations on what has been done and still needs to be done for preventing women from being radicalized.

Accordingto Ghufron, one of the ways to prevent female participation in extremism is to create women’s schools on peacebuildingfor strengthening knowledge and skills on conflict transformation and peacebuilding, and countering radical ideologies through community-based learning for women and strengthening women’s leadership. Silvana Apituley emphasized on the need for synergies between the government and civil society in dealing with terrorism by using gender analysis and promoting the rights of children and women.


The case involving Dian Yulia Novi (2016)proves the shifting role of terror acts in Indonesia. Women no longer play a supporting role for men, but have now become the main actors behind terrorism, despite the fact that women in terrorist activities are essentially the victims of their own obliviousness and powerlessness manipulated by people with terror foremost in their minds. The government and all elements of society therefore need to pay serious attention to the prevention of terrorism, among others by repealing local regulations or policies that discredit women, creating spaces for women’s participation in decision-making and providing equal access to resources, producing narratives that promote peace and a moderate brand of Islam in a consistent manner and working in concert with the government, academics, civil society and others in forums or discussions to develop a strategic action plan for preventing violent extremism.



[3]Sandra Whitworth, “Feminist Theories: From Women to Gender and World Politics,” Women, Gender, and World Politics.

[4] Mulia, Musdah. “Perempuan Dalam Gerakan Terorisme di Indonesia”

[5] Ibid,.