More often than not, suicide bombers are men who volunteer so that their family can obtain permanent welfare benefits from a self-proclaimed liberation organisation. Also common are men who lose their moral and religious compass amid the hustle of the modern global economy and chanced upon the prospect of providential redemption through an act of ‘selfless terrorism’ against ‘infidels’.
Several recent instances in Asia defy this frame of analysis. Women are now reportedly embracing terrorist causes in their search for a secure sense of place amid the array of societal forces and influences at work in their lives.
The cases reported in the New York Times of Ayu (a pseudonym) in Hong Kong and Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari in Singapore, and the more recent imprisonment of Indonesia’s first would-be female suicide bomber, Dian Yulia Novi, showcase the very real possibility that women are equally salient targets for radicalisation by the likes of Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.
These women were all lured by online propaganda that preyed upon their feelings of marginalisation and isolation as female migrant domestic workers.
The New York Times on Ayu stated that she was only a nominal Muslim while in Indonesia and became more fervent in her faith while working in Hong Kong. She was exposed to radicalised teachings through social media. Similarly, the two foreign domestic workers in Singapore who were repatriated to Indonesia were also radicalised through social media.
A 2016 report from the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism based in Malaysia addresses the issue of radicalisation of Filipino foreign workers in the Middle East. The report highlights that the susceptibility of these workers being radicalised and recruited in or near conflict zones is significant.
It mentions the arrest by Saudi authorities of an expatriate Syrian and his Filipino partner, Joy Ibana Balinang, for suspected involvement in terrorist acts in September 2015. Balinang is said to have run away from her employer’s home 15 months earlier.
Some counter-terrorism experts claim that Al Ansari and others like her are influenced by romantic ideals such as being married to a ‘soldier of God’ or being a ‘martyr’ to the cause. In the case of Dian Yulia Novi, it is possible that she was influenced by her husband to consult propaganda online while she was working as a domestic helper in Singapore.
But this line of analysis lacks nuance. These women are subject to various dominant societal concepts and practices — whether it be patriarchy, religion, historical tradition or cultural norms — each exercising influence over their lives. Subjugation from different angles, at home and outside, forces them to ‘resist’ their fate using the techniques most available to them — in this case, an understanding of faith as propagated by extremists.
Yet they still stay within the mould of what is expected of them — daughter, wife, mother. A better understanding of these enveloping elements will facilitate a more enduring rehabilitation process.
While waiting for society at large to take a more enlightened approach, existing practices and policies need adaptation and modification. At the broader level, more attention must be applied to the realities of the experiences of women.
The UNSC explicitly recognises ‘that development, security, and human rights are mutually reinforcing and are vital to an effective and comprehensive approach to countering terrorism’. UNSC Resolution 2178 (2014), which focuses on foreign terrorist fighters, encourages member states to engage relevant local communities and non-governmental actors in developing strategies to . This includes by fostering social cohesion and inclusiveness.
For the longer term, the imperative is to examine gender issues away from the traditional paradigm. To curb female radicalisation in the workforce, addressing gender-specific socio-economic plight will be an important step. For starters, there is a need to understand that women in the workforce have unique and different ways of viewing the world and interpreting what is needed to make their lives and the lives of their families better.
Existing knowledge on radicalisation may find the link between extremist behaviour and gender inequalities rather tenuous. But once the blinkers of traditional perspectives on radicalisation are removed, the broad links between these phenomena become apparent. This allows us a wider field of vision through which to perceive appropriate policy action. With an effective response, radicalisation through religion need not be the more attractive path out of socio-economic disenchantment for marginalised women.