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“Boulders of Strength and Pillars of Hope”: Exploring Gender and Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia

17 Jan 2023
By Dr Kiriloi M. Ingram
March 8 rally in Dhaka, organized by Jatiyo Nari Shramik Trade Union Kendra. Source: Soman/

Empowering local women is key to competing against violent extremist influence across Southeast Asia. This requires a gender-sensitive approach to preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE).

“We are not heard…we are always silenced. Then peace spoilers say this is your time to talk, this is your time to fight.” During my recent trip to Marawi in Mindanao, the southern Philippines, a young Maranao woman reflected on how the local pro-ISIS group sought to recruit women by exploiting gendered insecurities. Another woman in the focus group discussed the role that “influential and powerful” women played as recruiters. Many spoke of women joining the local group due to the prospect of empowerment. One woman emphasised, “It is not just men seeking a legacy. Women seek to leave a legacy too.”

ISIS’s influence across Southeast Asia and, with it an increase in female combatants and suicide bombers, underscores the need for a gender-sensitive P/CVE approach that accounts for the diverse combatant and noncombatant ways in which women engage in political violence. My analysis of primary sources and interviews with women in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Mindanao reveals that gender is one of the most important identity levers manipulated by violent extremists to achieve strategic objectives. Four key trends emerge.

Gender offers the most efficient and potent means for appealing to audiences

Gender is the set of characteristics associated with social expectations of what it means to be a woman and a man. The differences between socially constructed femininities and masculinities are highly contextual, evolving to meet the needs of the politico-military environment and socio-historical context they are performed in. Gender therefore informs how one views the world, their perception of self and others, and shapes everyday behaviour. The universality of gender makes it a potent identity appeal, which is why violent extremist groups across Southeast Asia and beyond, and across the ideological spectrum, persistently manipulate gender.

For example, ISIS’s gender appeals are designed to appeal to the broadest possible constituency cutting across race, nationality, or geography in a way few other identity levers can do. Importantly, because gender shapes everyday experience, it can be leveraged through targeted, nuanced strategies that are designed to resonate at a personal level. Therefore, applying a gender lens gives insight into everyday experiences of women and how their social position informs violent extremist strategies and shapes their experiences of them.

Gender identities are constructed to achieve strategic objectives

While female subordination characterises ISIS-affiliates across Southeast Asia, the way ISIS’s official propaganda and local recruitment seeks to appeal to women presents a largely positive and empowering picture of an alternative, gender-just future. ISIS propaganda uses the same overarching strategic logic to appeal to both genders. This discourse aims to shape perceptions and motivate support by presenting life under ISIS as the safer and smarter option through promises of security and empowerment, and by playing on in-group/solution, and out-group/crisis constructs. While these depictions are false, objective analyses of ISIS’s gendered appeals must inform counter-strategies.

When specifically targeting women, ISIS breaks down the in-group and out-group by portraying women via five female representations: “supporter,” “mother/sister/wife,” and “fighter” belong to the in-group, “victims” are women experiencing crisis, and “corruptors” belong to the out-group. These representations construct a gender order designed to advance the group’s strategic objectives. For example, during ISIS’s period of strength when it consolidated territory and populations, the most common representations were of “supporters” who are a strong Muslim woman performing hijrah (migration) to ISIS territories, and  “mother/sister/wife” who benefits from life in the Caliphate while raising the next generation of “lion cubs.” During periods of weakness, mothers/sisters/wives were encouraged to remain steadfast, and “fighter” women were praised and used to shame inactive men.

Violent extremist groups need women

Southeast Asia has experienced the impact of ISIS’s efforts to mobilise women. According to some, the emergence of ISIS-affiliates resulted in more women becoming involved in militant organisations, with increasing participation as combatants and suicide bombers due to tactical and organisational advantages. Women I interviewed stated that in the lead up to the Marawi Siege, women were recruited as snipers, mirroring the use of female snipers in the 2013 siege in Zamboanga, Mindanao. Women in Bandung and Marawi discussed how recruiters promise women important roles which are framed as central to ISIS’s mission and a means to address personal gender and political insecurity. Familial roles are also exploited, where the matriarch in the family or community persuades others to engage in action. The Maute Matriarch, family attacks in Surabaya, a couple’s suicide bombing in Jolo, and a husband and wife’s suicide bombing in Makassar exemplify this strategy. It is essential that policy responses encapsulate the diverse typology of female roles that advance violent extremist objectives, and for post-conflict peacebuilding to include women’s voices and avoid remarginalisation.

Gendered insecurity drives violent extremism

My research indicates that women engage in violent extremism via a complex mix of personal, political, and rational-decision making as they pursue empowerment (the agency to make meaningful life choices). Importantly, however, this decision-making is contingent upon locally nuanced political pressures and social expectations placed on women and girls, as well as their ability to safely access resources and opportunities.

The recurring feedback I receive from women in these contexts is that grassroots efforts to recruit women play on the five female representations but in locally nuanced ways tailored to local gender power dynamics. Women across Mindanao, particularly those who escaped violence or are the widows of former combatants, discuss the double and triple burdens they face of isolation, caring for children, and navigating socio-political instability while securing food and economic security. For some, joining the group was as a way to better fulfil their social reproductive responsibilities, while others saw it as a way to escape the private sphere. One woman in Iligan expressed it this way,

…women are considered the weakest in the household, to be dishwashers, wash clothes of our sons and fathers, all the household chores are given to women…by using our vulnerabilities, local recruiters give women false promises of empowerment. They promise women access to opportunities and say we can fight gender inequality.

In contrast, a woman in Bangladesh said to me,

To me, ISIS seems like the right way because they say mothers are important. Then development people come into my country and say this is not good enough and we must get jobs. But in my culture, being a mother is very important.

More broadly, political grievances, poverty, gendered insecurity, and financial insecurity are consistently described as factors motivating women, often alongside family members, to join the local group. Left unaddressed, these vulnerabilities present opportunities for violent extremist exploitation towards recruitment.

Women play critical roles in preventing violent extremism. As Aliah Baniaga Adam highlights, whether it is through helping reconciliation efforts, leading civil society outreach, or building resilient families, there needs to be formal engagement with women’s peacebuilding efforts. Critically, empowering local women through transformative gender interventions that centralise their own voices will be key to out-competing violent extremist influence. As one Maranao woman declared in defiance to being silenced, “We are not just women. We are women, and we are boulders of strength and pillars of hope.”

Dr Kiriloi M. Ingram is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security at Charles Sturt University. Contact:, @KiriloiIngram

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.