Indonesia: Should Indonesians Fear Female Suicide Bombers Next?


Dr Farish A Noor

Following the terrorist attacks in Bali and the arrest and detention of several militants said to be linked to the mysterious Jama'ah Islamiyah (JI) organisation in Indonesia, it has come to light that women have also been involved in the organisation. Research done by the International Crisis Group (ICG) has shown that some women actually do play an important role in organisations such as the JI, perhaps not in the front line of their violent activities but certainly in the background as supporters of the movement and providers of communications and logistics. Several names have come to the fore, including those of Noralwizah Lee Abdullah, Munfiatun al Fitri and Mira Agustina (as reported in the popular press), who happened to be married to members of the JI or are related to them as daughters and mothers.

Security experts and feminists alike are baffled by the phenomenon of women like Noralwizah Lee Abdullah, Munfiatun al Fitri and Mira Agustina who willingly married JI members or joined the group, with the knowledge that the JI does not exactly promote women's emancipation or treats women as equals in their idealised conservative societal model. There now arises the question of whether women may one day take part in the JI's violent activities, and whether Indonesia will face the problem of female suicide bombers in the near future.

Before paranoia takes its toll, it would be important to emphasise some salient facts: Conservative groupings like the JI and others such as the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia, Fron Pembela Islam, et al. are not loose, anarchic assemblies of rogue actors and agents who do whatever they wish. Terrorist groups are like other well-knit and well-organised organisations, and often count upon strong internal norms and standards of discipline. We have yet to come across a single case of a militant taking unilateral action without official sanction from the leaders of his organisation.

Taking that into consideration, the real question ought to be how and why a group like JI - of which we still know so very little - could take the step of sanctioning suicide bombing as a legitimate form of violence? After all there exists plenty of other radical movements - Muslim, Christian, Hindu and secular - that have not done so.

It is only when the leadership of the group takes the decisive step of allowing for suicide bombing that we should worry about who actually does the bombing. And it goes without saying that if a group sanctions its male members to carry out violent acts, it is only a matter of time before the female members follow suit. A good example would be the LTTE Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, that have allowed male and female members to carry out suicide attacks.

Trying to understand the phenomenon of female terrorism through the prism of gender and to seek answers in 'female psychology' would therefore miss the point altogether, as the agency and will of female militants are curtailed by the operational parameters of the group, in the same way that male agency is. Thus in addressing the challenges faced by Indonesia today, and that forms of violence may erupt in the future, more attention should be paid to the operational tactics and limits of the groups now active in the country, rather than trying to unravel the riddle of terrorism via the personal biographies of its members. And this, in the long run, will require a sharper focus on structures and institutions, against the backdrop of economic and political analysis, rather than amateur psychoanalysis.

WATCHPOINT: Following the second series of attacks in Jakarta and Bali between 2004-2005, the JI has remained relatively quiet. Yet violence may escalate leading up to the next elections and it would be important to note if any attacks carried out in the future will target locations associated with the Indonesian state (governmental offices, etc) or specific communities such as the Christian and Hindu minorities. If in the case of the latter it would suggest that the JI remains a sectarian organisation that seeks to create social-racial-religious tension, rather than opposing the state per se, which they still aim to take over one day.


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