Dismissed and Overlooked: Women and Violent Extremism in Indonesia

Dismissed and Overlooked: Women and Violent Extremism in Indonesia

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed above are those of the authors.

Out of the population who access 670,000 extremist content across four Asian countries (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia), 80% come from Indonesia (Johnston et al, 2020). In recent years, Indonesia has faced repeated terrorist or violent extremist attacks. Among these, several attempted or accomplished suicide bombings were carried out by women; one attack even involved children (Curtis, 2020; Drajat & Pertiwi, 2020). In Indonesia, a country with the largest Moslem population in the world, women’s active involvement in violent extremist attacks is imminent. What does this phenomenon mean, and how does it affect the works of countering violent extremism (CVE) in Indonesia?

Studies of the gendered process of violent extremism on both extreme spectrums—the radicalization of women and the role of women in countering violent extremism (CVE)—remain overlooked (Johnston et al, 2020; Mahmood, 2019; True & Eddyono, 2021), just as other gendered processes in any issue. While in recent years, the shift of women’s role in violent extremism has been underlined— for instance, in Indonesia, Presidential Decree No.7 mentioned the need to include gender mainstreaming without further elaborating on what attempts are considered as gender mainstreaming in CVE. Thus, there is still much work to be done in incorporating gendered lenses on CVE, especially in Indonesia. 

Gendered Assumption on the Role of Women in Violent Extremism

Previous studies have shown an underlying stereotypical gender binary assumption—or even prejudice on how people and policymakers see women in the issue of violent extremism. Women are usually portrayed as victims of violent extremism but rarely as the initiators. On the other hand, women’s involvement as violent extremists—when acknowledged—is seen as an anomaly (Mahmood, 2019), lacking political motivation (True & Eddyono, 2021; Mahmood, 2019), and devoid of agency (Mahmood, 2019). In return, studies that discuss their role in CVE initiatives have highlighted their lack of role and power in the initiatives (True & Eddyone, 2021; Putri, 2022). There is also a tendency to associate women’s works in CVE with motherly and familial roles, leaving many women-led initiatives to remain unseen (Scaramella & Viartasiwi, 2018).

This rigid division of masculinity as violent and femininity as nonviolent will contribute to the ongoing misperception of women’s roles on both extremes—the gendered radicalization process and the CVE initiatives. When women’s involvement was seen as personal—such as wanting to find husbands or romance (Mahmood, 2019)—rather than political, it would undermine the severity and miles women would take to commit violent acts. Dismissing their ‘personal’ reasoning is also to ignore the potential to counter the violent extremist acts before they are carried out—in entirety, we may fail to identify women who may potentially be recruited into violent extremist organizations. As critical feminist theory would put it, the personal is political. Their gendered individual or collective grievances have underlying structural concerns that are left unfulfilled. Concerns that need to be addressed and recognized to identify the gendered process of women’s radicalization.

On the other hand, one also should not dismiss women’s agency in their decision to participate in violent extremist attacks. In a recording of a female Pakistani woman’s recording for her husband before she committed a suicide bombing, she stated:

‘I want to die a martyr’s death; if you can’t join us, then pray for your wife and children to die in jihad.’ — Bushra Cheema

It is unlikely to consider Cheema’s action as an influenced, non-religious, and non-political decision (Mahmood, 2019). Similarly, many Indonesian migrant workers who worked overseas joined the Islamic States, presumably because of their existing personal crises and political grievances, such as structural poverty (Johnston et al, 2021). While there are cases where women’s radical violent acts are influenced by their family or husband’s influence, ruling out the possibility or even dismissing their individual or collective political motivation and agency might not be constructive in the long run.

Systematic and Gendered Process of Violent Extremism in Indonesia

Recruitment of women in violent extremism has been traced until back in the 1980s, in Darul Islam (DI) and in 2000, in Jemaat Islamiyah (JI), and until recent years in Jama’ah Ansharul Daulah (JAD) (Putri, 2022). There is a shift in the recruitment process and role of women. Notably, the earlier organizations banned its women recruits from engaging in any combat activities. In contrast, in the latter—or JAD, women were actively encouraged to participate in combat activities—being trained to use firearms and explosives, and securing funding for the organization’s operations (Putri, 2022). 

Recruitment of women into violent and extremist organizations is a deliberate, strategic, and political action and a gendered process. Johnston et al (2021) showed that gendered narratives are imminent and overwhelmingly present in online recruitment. Online extremism in Indonesia is filled with gender-specific or accompanied by gender stereotypes and attributions. The online content to attract women into extremism are usually embedded with conservative views on women’s role, behaviour, and a rigid gender division of labour (Johnston et al, 2021). Some online extremist content is usually fueled with empathy towards the victim of violence and structural problems such as poverty—content that particularly attracts women into violent extremism.

Gender and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Indonesia

Women have the agency to commit to participate in CVE initiatives as much as they have the agency to participate in violent radical acts. In Indonesia, there is a shift in the inclusion of women in CVE initiatives. Initially, women’s involvements are rooted in their traditional gender roles as mothers, wives, or family members to the identified extremists (Scaramella & Viartasiwi, 2018)—presumably, they’re not one. Although, this approach faces criticism from feminist scholars, highlighting the enormous burden on mothers or wives of the extremists and how maintaining this approach will further alienate mothers or wives from disadvantaged socio-economic status (Scaramella & Viartasiwi, 2018). Thus, there is an urgent need to create a more gender-sensitive approach and expand the role of women beyond their traditionally assigned gender roles. 

The women-led and women-centred CVE initiatives are mainly organised by civil society organisations (CSOs) where they predominantly use peacebuilding as their program framework (Scaramella & Viartasiwi, 2018). Said peacebuilding programs provide organisations with the capacity to build trust and sustainable peace. Some organisations, such as AMAN, attempt to incorporate gender and feminine perspectives on Indonesian Islamic teaching to achieve peace. As True & Eddyono (2021) put it: incorporating gender equality in the existing religious discourse is a vital strategy to promote peace, culture of tolerance, and a more resilient community. In deploying the peacebuilding frameworks, many sought to use education as one of their ways to achieve peace, many women lecturers, for instance, deliberately used human rights approach and gender equality in their curriculum (True & Eddyono, 2021).


Understanding the gendered process of women’s involvement in violent extremist attacks is as crucial as understanding the role women can play in countering violent extremism. In Indonesia, the gendered process in the recruitment of women to violent extremist organisations (or the reason they stay in the organisation) is often dismissed. Similarly, their role in CVE initiatives is also overlooked, and there is a considerable lack of the state’s role in incorporating women in their CVE policies. However, CSOs have taken the void left by the state and taken it upon themselves to deploy peacebuilding-centred and women-led CVE initiatives that target the identified extremists—male and female. 


  • Curtis, G. (2020). What Indonesia is Getting Wrong About Women and Violent Extremism. GHC Insights (18).
  • Drajat, G.M & Pertiwi, F. R. (2020). Redefining Masculinity and Femininity on Violent Extremism and Terrorism: The Case of 2018 Surabaya Bombings.
  • Johnston, M.F., Iqbal, M., & True, J. (2020). The Lure of Online (Violent) Extremism: Gender Constructs in Online Recruitment and Messaging in Indonesia. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.
  • Mahmood, S. (2019). Negating Stereotypes: Women, Gender, and Terrorism in Indonesia and Pakistan. Perspectives on the Future of Women, Gender & Violent Extremism.
  • Putri, D.K. (2022). The Urgency of Gender-Based Approach to Counter Terrorism in Indonesia: A look into European Policies. Legality: Jurnal Ilmiah Hukum, 30 (2)
  • Scaramella, K & Viartasiwi, N. (2018). In Dialogue with The Grassroots: Advocating for the Role of Women in Countering and Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia.
  • True, J & Eddyono, S. (2021). Preventing Violent Extremism, What Has Gender Got to Do With It?. Special Issue: Psychology of Extremist Political Identification: Original Articles and Reviews. 

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