On a recent sweltering afternoon in Cirebon, West Java, in a panel discussion inside a classroom that had neither air conditioner nor fan, Ummi Umairah, seemed unfazed while everyone else used whatever came handy to cool themselves off. At least that was the perception, as it was actually difficult to read her expression, her face being covered with a brown burqa.

It was the second day of the inaugural Women Ulema Congress on April 25 to 27. Before the discussion began, the moderator, Ruby Khalifah, who is the Director of the The Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) Indonesia, asked participants to refrain from judgment to better understand religious radicalism. This way “radicalism would not only be approached as a security issue,” she said.

She then handed the floor to Umairah, who held the microphone with hands that are covered with black wool gloves. In an almost childlike voice and with a thick Javanese accent, she talked about an episode of her life that took a cruel twist when her husband was sentenced for life for being an accomplice to terrorism.

Born and raised in a village in Pati, Central Java, Umairah said she did not come from a religious family and she only started to learn how to read the Quran in 1991 when she studied in a teacher’s college. Later on, she decided to wear hijab and, as it was not as common as it is now, she was often mocked for it. She remained undeterred, however, eager to prove that the outfit did not change her attitude.

After graduating in 1995 and teaching at a high school for about two years, Ummi got married and stopped working.

“Quran ordered women to stay home and not working outside of the house,” she said. “The rights of married women are in the hand of their husbands as long as the husbands obeyed Allah.”

During her more than decade-long marriage, Umairah said, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Her husband worked by giving sermons or teaching at campuses, sometimes in other towns. Then one time, when she and her children were visiting her family in the village, she heard that their house was raided by police, and her husband was arrested for his involvement with Dr. Azahari Husin, the terrorist behind the 2002 Bali bombings who was killed in a police raid in Malang, East Java, in 2005.

“The neighbors testified that he was a good citizen. There was no indication that he was a terrorist. Now, he is serving a life sentence for being Azahari’s accomplice and financier,” said Ummi, adding that her husband’s charge as a “financier” had shocked her, as the family lived modestly.

Umairah’s parents urged her and her children to stay in the village, where she became a farmer for two years. But rampant media coverage on her husband led to her son being bullied at school, resulting in his poor grades. As she had nowhere to go, she was offered to teach at an orphanage where she brought along all of her four children. Two years later, she moved to an Islamic boarding school where she has taught and lived with her children until now.

Stigma and role shifting

Any Rufaedah, a researcher and analyst at the University of Indonesia’s Center of Police Research, said that most of the wives of religious radicals or terrorists were oblivious to their husbands’ activities.

Rufaedah and her team had conducted an intervention research on 39 wives of radicalism convicts, whose sentences ranged from four years to life. Most of them had met their future husbands through social media or were matched by mutual friends.

“There is this 17-year-old who was tricked into marrying a convict who is serving life sentence,” she said.

Following their husbands’ arrests, the women were stigmatized in their communities, objected to mockery and or being presumed as rich when other found out their husbands had financed terrorism. Many were blamed by their parents-in-law for the arrests of their husbands. Some face the threats of their houses being burned down by neighbors or were forced to move back with their parents.

Rufaedah’s institution worked with policewomen to conduct workshop on self-empowerment, including financial advice for these women, who are practically single parents.

“Not all of them shared their husbands’ radical point of view, some are actually moderate and do not hate non-Muslims. One woman even refused her husband’s ‘jihad’ that she was willing to be separated for five years,” Rufaedah said.

But where women once held only supporting roles, they are now beginning to take up more dominant roles in radical groups. Nava Nuriyah, a researcher with the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said there had been a shift in the role of women in Indonesian extremist groups, from family members and sympathizer to active members.

“In 2014, there was evidence of women carrying weapons and fighting in Poso, Central Sulawesi. As religious extremist movements are weakened, there is an increased exposure in social media, and women have asked for more roles,” Nuriyah said during the panel discussion.

Previously, jihadi gatekeepers barred women from getting involved at the front line in former areas of Poso and Ambon, she said. Now, however, women can directly reach out to male extremists and plan action together. One of the women-initiated cells was that by Ika Puspitasari. She gave money to her own terrorist cell before working with Bahrun Naim, one of Indonesia's most notorious militants who now fights alongside ISIS in the Middle East and who had funded some terrorist activities back home.

Nuriyah's research found a generation of “new girls,” professional women and migrant workers with international outlook and networking skills who are eager to be more active in extremist movement. Their pathways usually began with personal crises — some grievances or a feeling of alienation — before they discovered religious groups and developed a deep sympathy for Muslims’ suffering.

“They are from marginalized groups and they found a means to express resistance, a sense of purpose. Radicalism is not only a matter of ideology, but also a sense of belonging,” she said.

Nuriyah pointed to the case of Jannah, a former migrant worker in Singapore who was deported due to religious extremism activity. Jannah said that in her foreign employment, she contemplated her life away from her parents. She liked to listen to religious sermon particularly on women fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and through a Facebook page’s interactive forum, she made friends with people who supported Daulah (another name for an Islamic State).

“At first I didn’t agree with their perspective, but after reading the materials that they recommended, I became certain. What terrorist? Syrian people are suffering, there are a lot of videos (to prove it). Daulah only helped them,” Jannah said, as quoted by Nuriyah.

The number of Indonesian women who were deported from various countries as they were headed to Syria has increased. Nava noted that of over 100 deportees in 2016, 57 percent was women and children. In early 2017, around 79 percent of over 150 deportees was women and children.

“These women badly need jobs and reintegration program,” Nuriyah said.

These facts brought theoretical and policy implications, with the former raising the question of women’s agency and empowerment.

“We need to focus on women as agents, not merely accessories or victims. Forget the ‘women and children’ box. The number of female detainees and deportees will increase. We need a thorough assessment on whether they are reluctant participants, supporters, ideological leaders, financiers or operatives. We also need to see women as agents of disengagement and radicalization,” Nuriyah said.

Failure of religious education

Husein Muhammad, a feminist ulema and human rights activist, said religious radicalism and extremism have existed since after the Prophet Muhammad’s period. Their characteristics: a textual and literal interpretation of religious teachings, and the perception that unjust human laws must be replaced with God’s law.

“The stages are conservatism, fundamentalism, radicalism, terrorism,” he said.

Muhammad said that there are several reasons people lean toward radicalism: as a protest against “moral decadence” and a response to a perceived external attack against the Islamic world and to counter Western secularism. Radicalism also grew out of fear of new things, weak authority or leadership, and increasing pragmatism and selfishness.

“The failure in Islamic education is the lack of teaching on religious contextualization. There should be redefinition or reinterpretation or contextualization of kafir (infidel) and jihad. Jihad has different meanings, but the Quran doesn’t say it is a physical war,” he said.

Even the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in the country that Husein belongs to, contributed to this problem, he said. In 1945, NU issued a fatwa that jihad means physical resistance. Since then, jihad has largely not been associated with its other meanings.

“It is the failure of education, resulting in the unwillingness to teach the point of views from different Islamic schools of thought. Which Islamic Law should be used? As long as the law or policy contains justice and welfare, then it is the law of religion or Allah,” he said.

Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, women's rights activist and an associate professor of women's history at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, said radicalism is definitely the result of misunderstanding of Islam.

“(Radicalism) has a basis actually. It originated from a misunderstanding of a verse in Quran, what is known as the verse of ‘whom you love and whom you hate.’ You have to love Muslim, you have to hate non-Muslims. And when you hate non-Muslims you have to go after them and kill them,” she said.

“But there are different attempts to educate these men about the context of the verse, which was descended when the Prophet was in a war against the Quraish, who where mostly his family. There were many cases in which the Muslims went back and forth, helping both sides. So there was a need to determine where the loyalty should go, which was to the Prophet,” she added.

“But today it is implemented it in a literal way. Now, it’s not enough that you’re Muslim. You need to be Muslim from the same line of understanding Islam. So this is why they’re killing Muslims and enslaving women. The way of understanding Islam has become very limited and literal.”

Many people urged dialog or outreach with fundamentalist or radical groups, saying that moderates have been preaching to the choir and speaking in an echo chamber. But several participants said that it would unlikely be effective.

“We will not work with HT (Hizbut Tahrir, an extremist group) and the radicals because they are so ideologically-driven. Forget them – it’s a waste of time to engage with them. It’s better to talk with the masses,” said Zainah Anwar, a woman ulema and activist from Malaysia.

Ihsan Ali-Fauzi, the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD), said radicals are trapped in a spiral of encapsulation so they do not want to hear other interpretations.

“People are caught up with deradicalization method, providing financial assistance to radical people to deradicalize them. Some people may think, do I have to be terrorist to be paid attention to? What about the victims of radicalization like the minority groups like Ahmadiyah? What is important is that deradicalizing women is not to focus only on how women get radical, but to find out how people stop being radical as well,” he said.

Women’s rights activist Myra Diarsi said that people cannot act as if religious radicalism and extremism is a far-fetched and sporadic problem.

“The situation is alarming. Young women in Yogyakarta recently protested against gender equality, saying it is not Islamic,” said Diarsi. “We have to maintain a space for universal religiosity, where national values are prioritized.”

This article was originally published on Magdalene.co, a Jakarta-based online publication that offers a fresh perspective beyond the typical gender and cultural confines.