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Indonesia Enlists Female Clerics in the Fight Against Extremism

As more women become involved in violent extremism, Indonesia has embraced a new weapon in the fight against radicalization: its first recognized cohort of female Muslim clerics.

Written by Priyanka Borpujari Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Women clerics are gaining prominence in Indonesia after a landmark summit last month. Now they're being mobilised to take on extremism. Priyanka Borpujari

JAKARTA, Indonesia – “Who was washing the underpants of men who had joined fundamentalist groups when they were on the run? It was the wife!” So observes Lies Marcoes, a Muslim feminist and researcher in Indonesia, who is training women to help prevent violent extremism.

She says it’s time to explore the role of women in violent extremism in Indonesia, both in fomenting and preventing it.

In recent years, Indonesia has seen a number of men join radical Islamist groups, declaring themselves to be jihadists. Some have traveled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), many with the support of the women in their lives.

Women are also joining the fight more directly. Since August 2015, several Indonesian women have been arrested for their roles in spreading jihadism and their intent to carry out terrorist acts. Dian Yulia Novi was arrested in December 2016, the night before she intended to blow herself up at Indonesia’s presidential palace. Another woman, Ika Puspitasari, was picked up a few days later in the ensuing investigation for planning a suicide attack in Bali. Indonesian women have also acted as fundraisers and online network organizers for ISIS.

Dian Yulia Novi was arrested in December 2016 for planning a suicide attack. (AFP)

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and prides itself on its secularism. As the threat of violent extremism has drawn more and more attention over recent years, new ideas have flourished about how to counter it. One of these is using female Islamic clerics to spread the message.

Now may be the best time to do so. Until recently, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) refused to recognize women as clerics, or “ulama,” a position conferred based on a person’s knowledge of the Quran and the Book of Hadith, a collection of the Prophet Mohammad’s teachings. But that changed last month, when women ulama from across Indonesia gathered to assert their erudition and advance women’s rights through a renewed interpretation of the religious texts.

Ideologies held by women are crucial to understanding the actions of men. Many young women join extremist movements – or support their husbands in joining – because they care deeply about inequality and injustice.

Nor Rofiah, a lecturer at Institute of Koranic Studies in Jakarta and an ulama, says women often get involved in extremism because of skewed gender relations within families. “Women are expected to obey the male authority within their families; they are expected to be subservient to the husband.”

“Any disobedience is seen as not being a good Muslim, and radicalism is targeting this feeling of not being Muslim enough,” she says.

A report from the Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict recently argued women in Indonesia who marry ISIS fighters do so in order to “reinforce social hierarchies [and] satisfy the ‘biological needs’ of prisoners.” But women also see opportunities in radicalization that allow them to break out of these hierarchies.

In 2014, Marcoes’ research organization Rumah Kita Bersama interviewed 20 Indonesian women who were in, or had been involved with, fundamentalist groups.

She found they had a wide range of reasons for joining fundamentalist groups, but one stand-out was the need to feel recognized as equal human beings on par with men, beyond their mere reproductive roles. “They want to learn to make a bomb, and put to use their intelligence,” she says.

In both cases, Rofiah and Marcoes assert that women ulama have an advantage that their male counterparts don’t: the experience of being a woman, trying to establish herself in a patriarchal world. Used right, this common thread of subjugation can be the catalyst in changing the narrative to counter radicalism.

Researchers saw women ulama can draw on their expertise in the Quran and Hadith to take on extremism. (Priyanka Borpujari)

The Asian Muslims Action Network in Indonesia is currently working to identify women ulama who would be able to speak to their communities about the devastating impacts of extremism, in the name of Islam.

Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah is the network’s country director for Indonesia. “Not all women ulama are comfortable discussing this issue, as it seems sensitive,” she says.

“We have to start with what they are comfortable with: the Quran and the Hadiths, and understanding the concept of jihad. We need to emphasize that radicalism is not something that is taking place elsewhere,” she explains.

Marcoes, who has been a mentor to women ulama like Rofiah on gender issues, argues that clerics need to be given an understanding of violent extremism from the perspective of those behind it, and plans to do so through Rumah Kita Bersama.

“We will select women ulama from areas where men have been arrested for their radical links,” she says.

“We will develop a curriculum so that they are later able to work with the families of those whose male members are in jail,” she explains.

A key factor, adds Kholifah, is to ensure that the next generation of men is not consumed by revenge when they see their fathers are arrested for extremism.

While for some women, dedicating their wombs and their roles as wives and mothers to “soldiers of God” is their identity, the same idea can be flipped towards convincing women to use that same role to prevent the men in their lives from taking up arms.

“Women ulama have their religious knowledge, and agency over the communities,” Marcoes says.

“Violent extremism is not just in a man’s world.”

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