Women’s Involvement with Radical Islamic Groups

Musdah Mulia

In 2016 we were stunned when a Muslim woman, Dian Yulia Novi, was arrested prior to carrying out a suicide bomb attack in Indonesia. She was previously a woman migrant worker in Singapore and she was also the wife of Bahrun Naim, the person responsible for the Sarinah bomb attack. The plan was that on December 11, 2016, she would detonate a pressure cooker bomb at the State Palace, but fortunately was arrested by the police before she could carry out the plan. This tragedy uncovered the fact that a number of Muslim women were involved in radical Islamic groups and terrorist movements in Indonesia.

Apparently the most recent trend in terrorism is to turn women into perpetrators. If terrorist acts in the past had a masculine face and used a patriarchic approach, recent trends of terror use women as executors using a feminine approach. Although the women are executors, they are actually still the victims of their ignorance, are being exploited by those with systematic plans for terrorism.

The question is Why women? Discussions on issues of feminism reveal that women can be most relied on in terms of loyalty and obedience. Women are a group of people who would easily believe anything related to religion. Mostly women always see religion as a best friend although religion is often unfriendly towards them. And the most convincing factor is that women can be bastions when it comes to defending their family from any unwanted threats.

The main motivation for women involved with this radical Islamic groups is theological. Initially, they were exposed to a radical understanding of Islam, such as the obligation to kill all kaffirs (non-Muslims). They firmly believe the obligation to establish an Islamic state through jihad. Women must join in the jihad movement in defense of an oppressed Islam.

Some of them are recruited through marriage, with their own husband carrying out a systematic effort to instill a radical Islamic ideology through “brain-washing”. This means that they are purposely wedded to then instill radical ideas in their minds. Quite a number of them get married in jail. Others are wedded after they have received radical indoctrination.

It is interesting to note that many of the women recruited into terrorist movements are migrant workers. Why? Because they generally have their own money, are independent and daring, and the most important thing is that they are used to travelling abroad. They are also very actively in using social media and the internet. Some of them were exposed to radical Islamic ideology through the internet while they were working overseas. Some of them meet their husband and their group through social media.

The tasks of women in radicalism movements are quite varied and significant. Among others, they carry out the task as educators and trainers, agents of change, preachers, solicit and collect funds. Women involved in radicalism movements are actually executors of terrorist acts as well as victims. They are victims of their husband’s ideologies, victims of religious indoctrination, victims of stigmatization from society, victims of the media, and also victims of the excesses of conflicts. Again and again, women are only the victims of a condition created by the patriarchal powers.

The Significant Roles of Indonesian Muslim Women


Firstly, women’s role in building gender equality

I do believe that Islam is not a barrier to gender equality program. But the big question is how to understand Islam? Islam was passed down in the seventh century through the Prophet Muhammad at a time of ignorance where people embraced paganism, patriarchy, despotic system and feudalistic values. It was not surprising, therefore, that the moral messages of Islam were targeted more at eradicating all form of paganism, patriarchy, despotic and feudalistic system. The Prophet Muhammad has been described as a ‘proto-feminist’, reportedly having introduced reforms banning female infanticide and granting women a series of rights.

The significant role of Muslim women in building gender equality is upholding the concept of tawhid. In explaining the Islamic teachings we always begin  from  the concept tawhid as the core foundation of Islam. Tawhid  is completely a conviction that there is only one God to worship and that is Allah. This conviction has given rise to the principle of equality of all human beings: man and woman. From the concept of tawhid we can conclude that patriarchy is a kind of shirk or ultimate violation of divine unity. Why? Because it denies the equality of Allah’s creation.

We also give attention to the main objective of  the creation of human beings. Islam as a religion strongly teaches that human being: woman and man is a noble creature entrusted with a special task to be khalifah fil ardh (a moral agent). As the moral agent, every human being: women and men is obliged to uphold justice, prosperity, welfare, and peace in the universe.

In 2004, in my capacity as the Coordinator of the Gender Mainstreaming Team in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, I have proposed a new draft of family law in the name of  the Counter Legal Draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law (the Draft) and it is clearly grounded in the Islamic principles of equality and justice.


The Draft strictly proposed the following articles: An equal minimum age of marriage (nineteen years) for men and women; Abolition of the requirement that the (male) guardian must consent to the marriage of a woman; A standard form marriage contract in which all marriages contracted are monogamous and polygamy is strictly prohibited; An equal right to divorce and divorce only by judicial decree; An equal division of matrimonial assets and an equal right to custody and guardianship of children. With this draft we actually wish to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence against women and girls. We also wish to eliminate all harmful traditional or customary practices, such as children marriage and female genital mutilation.


We have been working many programs to change the patriarchal culture that is so deeply rooted in society’s traditional values. For example, women empowerment program and raising society’s awareness of the importance of respecting human-beings and humanistic values through parenting educations to disseminate the culture of equality, starting from the home, from the family life.


Secondly, women’s role in deradicalization efforts

I am very sure that women can be the agents of disengagement. If they can be recruited as terrorists, it should be easier to encourage them to be agents of peace. We urge the government to use a comprehensive strategy in combating all forms of religious radicalism. An approach stemming from militaristic power based on the principle of security should be reviewed.

The most important thing we have been working is advocating the government to eliminate the roots of terrorism that are already present in our society. We also seriously encourage all Islamic religious leaders: men and women and all elements within Islam to uphold Islamic teachings that compatible with humanitarian values such as justice, equality, tolerance and peace. Because we do believe that the essence of Islam is to humanize human beings and establish a fair and civilized society.

It is our conviction that there is no easy or single way to sever the chains of radicalism. We compel the government to overcome the structural problem that causes the various social injustice. At the same time, we advocate the government to improve and accelerate economic growth that would be a very important instrument for improving the welfare of the people. This is because a slow economic growth, low income of the people, high poverty and unemployment rate, not to mention poor quality of education would have a dire impact on the lives of the people. These unfavorable conditions would have a direct correlation with rampant radicalism and acts of violence in society.

Regarding the efforts of deradicalization, some actions have been done. First, making critical action towards Islamic interpretations that has an extreme sense by look back to the substantive meaning of Islam. Second, promoting religious tradition that put forward the spirit of peace and non-violence. Third, advocating the government to play its role in giving law protection fairly to all citizen.

Thirdly, women’s role in upholding human rights

Since 2000, we have been actively working for upholding human rights, particularly women’s rights and the right to religious freedom. Our main objective is to advocate the rights of vulnerable groups who are being discriminated and exploited. We actively in advocating the government to demolish all regulations that are anti-democracy and disadvantageous to women and minority groups.


In addition, we are also carrying out peace education programs so that women from minority religions and indigenous religions understand their rights as full citizens and as free human beings. And also we encourage them to speak out, to dare voice their opinions to fight against all forms of discrimination, violence and religious-based exploitation for whatever reason.


Fourthly, women’s role in promoting the progressive and humanistic Islamic interpretation

As Muslim woman, I do realize that the Qur’an and the Sunnah are texts which should be read and interpreted contextually, namely by understanding the historical and political contexts on which the both were revealed. Context-based interpretation will lead us to an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the messages of universal Islamic morality.

We would like to mention some of misinterpretations of Islamic teachings: First, the misinterpretations of the origin and nature of human creation. Generally, religious figures always describe that the first human being created by God was Adam. Thereafter, Eva, his wife, was molded out of his ribs. Such conception has given rise  to a wide implication on the society, that is to say, women are men’s subordinators; women are only the second beings; women are not important creatures because they are only created from and for the interest of men. We firm that such understanding is misinterpretation of Islamic teachings.


Second, the misinterpretation concerning the expulsion of Adam and Eva from Eden. Widely disseminated in the community is the idea that Adam was expelled from Eden due to the seduction of Eva, his wife, who was first, seduced by the temptation of Satan. The implication of such understanding implanted in the minds of people is that women are fundamentally seducers and are close to the Devil. Hence, never be too close to women and never listen to their opinion.

Third, the misinterpretations of women leadership. Widespread and deeply engraved in the mind of the people is the conception that women are not fitted to be leaders due to their weakness in mind and religion. What is more, there is a hadith which goes: Misfortune befalls a nation when it entrusts its leadership to women. Those three examples of misinterpretations lead to the idea that the position and status of women are indeed low and inferior.

To counter those Islamic misinterpretation we have done reinterpretation efforts. Since 2000, Indonesian Muslim women have been very actively in promoting and publishing the progressive and humanistic Islamic interpretation.

Firstly, in terms of human creation we proposed that all human beings: men and woman created by God from the same material (nafs wahidah). There is no cause, therefore, to assume woman’s inferiority to man. This declaration obviously states in such Qur’anic verses: an-Nisa, 1, al-Mu’minun, 23: 12-16; Al-Hajj, 22: 5; and Shad, 38:71.

Secondly, with reference to deeds, we proposed that both man and woman shall be rewarded for their merits and punished for their sins as stated in al-Nisa,4: 24; al-Nahl, 16: 97; al-Ma’idah 5: 38; al-Nur, 24: 2; al-Ahzab, 33: 35-36; al-An’am 6; 94.

Thirdly, in terms of leadership, we proposed that every human being is basically a leader at least for him/herself. Every person will be asked to be responsible before God. A hadith states: “Every one of you is a leader and every one of you will be questioned as regards your leadership” This hadith implies the opportunity to anyone, regardless their gender to become a leader. So, Islam firmly states that both man and woman have equal access to become leader. In fact, there are many Qu’ranic verses that explain the principle of gender equality in Islam, for example: equality in the right to participate in public sphere and all social life; equality in religious punishment for sins; equality in the moral values it advocates; equality in the jurisdiction to carry out all religious duties. So that women in Islam enjoyed independent character and jurisdiction.

Fourthly, in terms of family planning program, we always promote that Islam seriously pays attention to woman’s reproduction health. Mostly Muslim leaders agreed that Islam permits family planning. The Qur’an never says that using contraceptives is a sin against God. In addition, Islam has no objection to birth spacing because there are many verses encourage mothers to breast-feed their children for 30 months.

Regarding this efforts we always encourage all Muslim: men and women, they must have the courage to voice Islamic interpretations that are more humanistic and rational. That kind of Islamic interpretations will be able to respond to all contemporary issues of modern society, such as democracy, human rights and gender equality. Those model of Islamic interpretations will absolutely be able to raise the welfare and the quality of Muslim community and also for the peace and betterment of all human beings.

Of course, this is really not easy. As a Muslim woman and as a human being, I personally believe that religion should have the capacity to transform its followers to be more sensitive regarding problems faced by human beings and to be more professional in providing humanitarian services, particularly for the vulnerable people. With however small contributions that I can give, there at some point time in the future I will never repent having lived in this mortal world. There is still much work to be done. 

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