Terrorist and violent extremist groups often leverage misogyny as a tool of recruitment and intimidation. ASEAN’s increasing recognition of gender perspectives in its policy responses is a good first step in combating this trend, but more must be done.
Since the ASEAN Manila Declaration to Counter the Rise of Radicalisation and Extremism and the Joint Statement on Promoting Women, Peace and Security in ASEAN, there has been increasing recognition of the need to integrate gender perspectives into ASEAN and ASEAN member states’ statements, frameworks, and implementation plans to combat terrorism and violent extremism. The ASEAN Bali Work Plan 2019-2025, endorsed at the 13th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime on 27 November 2019, specifically aims to empower women. It promotes gender equality to enhance the role of women in the promotion of moderation and tolerance to prevent the rise of radicalisation and violent extremism under Priority 1.5.
Yet at the same time, women throughout the ASEAN region continue to be simultaneously threatened and targeted by violent extremist organisations, either because of the hostile views towards women some groups espouse, or through recruitment into these organisations. Violent extremist groups within ASEAN have spread misinformation and violent messages online and leverage crises, most recently the COVID-19 crisis, through online propaganda to radicalise, recruit, and mobilise group membership.
Literature has increasingly identified the connection between gender and violent extremism, including the link between gender relations, the participation of women and men in the organisation, and the resulting insecurities amongst populations affected by violent extremist groups. Furthermore, scholarship has also begun to address how misogyny and hostile sexist beliefs espoused online influence offline behaviour, creating very real insecurities for women and girls. Nevertheless, greater understanding of gender relations and roles, and their importance in countering and preventing violent extremism, is critical as countries commit to integrating gender into preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) policies and strategies.
COVID-19, the online/offline nexus, and the interplay of gendered recruitment and radicalisation
In a recent Monash GPS project partnered with UN Women, to be launched on 30 March 2022, we investigated the amplification of gender ideology amongst violent extremist groups in the Southeast Asian region, including how misogyny and hostile beliefs towards women affect violent extremist roles, practices, and recruitment. Given the changing dynamics of violent extremism during the COVID-19 pandemic, we examined how misogynistic beliefs are transmitted through propaganda, the spread of misinformation, and recruitment efforts, including those that legitimise violence against women throughout the ASEAN region. During our six-month study, we surveyed practitioners, and key stakeholders throughout all ten countries in ASEAN, with a further selective sampling in Indonesia, Southern Thailand, and the Philippines, followed by key informant interviews.
Our research found that the pandemic has been successfully exploited by extremist actors to strengthen their organisations and intensify violent campaigns. During this time, individuals have increasingly relied on social media and the internet to engage with extremist content, a practice exacerbated by stay-at-home orders. Regional experts are increasingly concerned that violent extremist groups throughout Southeast Asia are espousing online propaganda, much of which is misogynistic and hostile towards women.
Moreover, appeals to charismatic masculinities are used to attract recruits and legitimise violence, revealing consistency between online and offline channels of radicalisation and participation. Despite this, contestation among women and men in communities throughout the region affected by violent extremist groups exists in pockets, with some evidence that women are beginning to push back against misogynistic ideologies, challenging narratives and violent ideology through discussion forums and appeals to moderation.
It is positive that some ASEAN member states are identifying the necessity to integrate gender into existing P/CVE policies. However, from our key expert interviews, there was a caution against a “one-size-fits-all” approach within gender-responsive frameworks. Participants outlined that while existing P/CVE approaches are generally tailored towards threats posed by jihadism, there was a strong suggestion that growing ethno-nationalist extremism, such as in the case of Malaysia, and continued violence posed by communist insurgency, such as in the case of the Philippines, could pose substantial risk but are not currently integrated into existing policies and programming. Consequently, it is important to consider that while organisations recruit and radicalise women and men distinctly, the gender norms prevalent within the ideology of such groups can influence processes in different ways.
Creating gender-responsive policy: A case study of Indonesia’s NAP P/CVE
Our study also examined Indonesia as a case study on collective leadership and how gender was incorporated into the National Action Plan for Counter Violent-Based Extremism That Leads to Terrorism (NAP P/CVE) formulation and implementation processes. The Indonesia NAP P/CVE was born out of shared concerns after the increasing number of terror attacks by women, children, and family units. Therefore, BNPT, Indonesia’s national counter-terrorism agency, and civil society organisations worked together through a “whole government and whole society” approach to formulate prevention instruments through a national action framework.
In the preparation process, various women’s organisations, including Komnas Perempuan, provided input so that the content of NAP P/CVE is more gender-sensitive. Furthermore, to push back against the indoctrination of extremist groups, the framework adopts program-based approaches through education, such as in the realm of the family educational institutions, including collaborating with women ulama and broader communities.
The formulation of P/CVE plans that link to national Women, Peace and Security (WPS) frameworks is central to address misogyny dynamics and the lure of violent extremism, particularly the sexist attitudes and socially constructed masculinities and femininities that provide fertile ground for radicalisation to violence. Our case study of Indonesia’s NAP P/CVE drafting, and ongoing implementation can provide lessons learned that may inform other action plans in the region.
Violent extremism and terrorism continue to pose a real threat to the diversity of the ASEAN region, and it is positive that member states are increasingly including a gender lens into P/CVE policies and frameworks. Our findings have implications for not only ASEAN member states, but also for the WPS agenda as part of regional consequences for peace and security. Specifically, it relates to impacts on women’s ability to participate in peace and security, gender-inclusive protection from violence and other human rights abuses and the prevention of conflict, and women and men’s peacebuilding roles.
Our research further identified that while women are actively participating online throughout the region in extremist activities, misogynistic activities and behaviour in the offline space reinforced by extremist groups potentially present a dual challenge where women are both targeted as victims and agents of violence. This being said, both women and men are playing key roles in attempting to counter such narratives and activities at the community level. This necessitates gender-responsive approaches to conflict prevention and women and men’s peacebuilding roles, including enhancing and ensuring their participation at the grassroots level.
One crucial issue is that each ASEAN member state has different domestic interests, and as a result, regional agreements and the formulation of concrete steps must be carefully considered in integrating gender responsiveness. Furthermore, P/CVE strategies must respond to and mitigate the social and economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which can exacerbate the conditions conducive to terrorism. In this context, breakthroughs in the form of lessons learned from Indonesia to ASEAN can be found in the drafting and implementing P/CVE policies that are more responsive to gender-sensitive approaches. Intersectional perspectives must be reflected in the conversation of the draft. Likewise, meaningful participation must be included during the formulation of policies. The multiplication of concrete NAP P/CVE implementation initiatives at the local level, which signal multi-level coordination between national — locals’ agencies, allows for the broadening of ownership of P/CVE as a shared agenda according to the communities most affected by violent extremism.
This project was conducted in partnership between Monash GPS and UN Women, with the online launch of the research, “Gender Analysis of Violent Extremism and the Impact of COVID-19 on Peace and Security in ASEAN,” to take place on 30 March.
Dr Alexandra Phelan is the Deputy Director of the Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre (Monash GPS), and Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.
Irine Hiraswari Gayatri is a PhD Candidate at Monash Gender, Peace & Security (GPS) Centre, also a researcher at the Research Centre for Politics at the National Agency for Innovation and Research (Badan Riset dan Inovasi Nasional) in Indonesia, and obtained her MA from the Department of Peace & Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.