A former part-time religious teacher and housewife in Singapore was detained in April this year for planning to Syria to join Islamic State (IS) group. In August last year, she was found to have been radicalised by her Malaysian husband and supported his intention to travel together along with their two children to join IS.
While her husband was arrested and deported back to Malaysia, she was placed under Restriction Order (RO) which she was subjected to certain restrictions such as seeking permission to travel abroad instead of being detained. Since being subjected to RO, she remains entrenched in her radical beliefs and persisted in communicating with IS overseas supporters online. She also refused to make any genuine effort to participate in rehabilitation programme.
This is not a new case where women are influenced by radical ideology in Singapore. Prior to this, several other women had been arrested and detained for supporting terror groups.
A WORRYING TREND
As we celebrate women’s multi-faceted roles across societies in many areas today, there are still a handful of women who are being influenced by violent extremist ideologies. There is a growing trend of radicalisation amongst Muslim women locally and globally.
Earlier this year, nine women suspected of plotting to blow up military targets in southern Philippines were arrested. Security forces seized bomb-making equipments in their houses. The women were also accused of channeling financial and logistical assistance to the Abu Sayyaf group. Three of them are the children of former Abu Sayyaf leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who is accused of planning the deadly attack on Jolo Cathedral in 2019 which left 20 people killed and at least 100 injured.
Indonesia in recent years witnessed an increasing number of women become involved in violent attacks across the archipelago. Two attacks in Makassar and Jakarta earlier this year involved two women appeared to be inspired by IS. In Singapore, at least 24 women in have been radicalised since 2015. Most of them were arrested and detained for showing their support for IS.
THE INFLUENCE OF IS PROPAGANDA
Violent extremist narratives like IS propaganda is highly appealing and able to attract the attention of many regardless of their background including women. Despite losing the physical territories on the battle front, the main strength of IS lies in the spreading of its narratives in the virtual world including websites, chat groups, forums and social media. The internet and social media remain as main platforms for IS to reach out to a wider audience. This is done in such a sophisticated and appealing way. The messaging conveyed is targeted directly at Muslim women at all levels.
The use of social media websites is used by IS as one of the methods not only to radicalise but also to recruit new members. Recruitment and the process of radicalisation on social media have led to changes in the traditional role played by women in the issue of terrorism. Previously, women’s participation in IS revolves in the form of domestic support such as educating and grooming next generation of fighters and did not involved taking up arms.
Today, they play a variety of roles including online recruitment, raising funds online for operations and even taking part in suicide attacks. By expanding the role of women beyond domestic duties, IS certainly view women as equally important that of its male combatant. In fact, IS continue to spread narratives which claim that women involvement is also a jihad and sacrifice on the religious side that promises godly rewards.
WOMEN AS FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE
Despite the increasing trends of women getting radicalised by terrorist propaganda, it does not discount their role from being involved in the fight against terrorism. In fact, women play a huge role in the fight against terrorism and radicalisation, Women, especially mothers and wives are known to be key agencies in helping to prevent the process of radicalisation from occurring in the family. They should be the first responders in sensing suspicious behaviours among family members.
Among the main roles that women play is to protect family members, especially their husbands and children from getting caught up in the process of radicalisation. They ought to protect their husbands and children by giving words of advice and prevent them from falling prey to terrorist propaganda. This includes reporting about the misconduct of their family members to the authorities if deemed necessary.
The role of women as the foundation of the family structure needs to be strengthened. Women as wives and mothers, typically have intimate knowledge of their immediate family members. They are able to detect any changes in attitude or behavior. In summary, women play a major role in preventing the process of radicalisation if they:
(1) always on the lookout for suspicious behaviour of their family members
(2) be aware of the tell tale signs of a radicalised individual
(3) seek help from accredited institutions and share their concerns
(4) report to the authorities if the advice and warnings that have been given to them previously do not yield positive results.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
In general, women have a role to play in fostering an environment that rejects any adherence to extremist ideology or support for terrorist activities. They play an important role in encouraging their children to adopt positive attitudes and values such as tolerance, forgiveness, mutual respect for each other regardless of religion and race.
By doing so, parents can reduce the risk of their children becoming radicalised by cultivating the nature of understanding, respect and even tolerance towards fellow human beings. Indirectly, this can strengthen their children’s resilience from being influenced by extremist narratives.
As mothers as well as fathers, they should also constantly monitor their children’s online activities and explain to children about the dangers of radical ideology that is rampant in the online world.
Women play a huge role in the formation and development of families and communities.
The great role that has been played by the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and the companions in supporting Islamic religious activities led to the formation of an early Islamic nation in Medina.
Due to the high regards of women in Islam and also the nature of gentleness that God has created in them, women have a huge role in bringing peace to the world and not the other way around.
The trend of women becoming radicalised in societies today is something of great concern. It should be addressed even more seriously with effective and long term strategy.
Hopefully with this awareness, we will be able to produce a generation of women who are key advocates of peace and can play an important role in the ongoing efforts against terrorism and extremism.
*Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor and Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Both studies Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, Cairo and are counsellors with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).