The media portrays women who marry terrorists as victims, but the reality is far more complex
In her book People Say Father's a Terrorist, Paridah Abas, the
Immediately after the bombings of the Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Mega Kuningan, Jakarta, on 17 July 2009, media attention focused on the hunt for the elusive fugitive Noordin M Top, the man believed most likely to be behind the bombings. Noordin, a Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah member who, until his recent death, led what amounted to a breakaway faction of the organisation, attained near legendary status through his ability to evade capture and to continue to commit acts of terror. He demonstrated a unique capacity to persuade sympathisers and fellow travellers to give him shelter, to draw new recruits into his movement, and to disguise himself, moving unhindered and undetected from one community to another.
One aspect of his modus operandi in particular has been highlighted by the media: his marriages to local women. Journalists have shown great interest in who these women are and how they came to be married to such a notorious criminal, particularly as two of his wives have denied knowing who their husband was. But despite all the news reports written about Noordin’s wives, what do we actually know about any of them? And more importantly, what do their stories tell us about how women fit into the larger picture of jihadist activity in Indonesia?
Noordin’s first marriage to an Indonesian woman took place in Johor Baru in the late 1990s. He married Siti Rahmah who he met at the Lukmanul Hakim pesantren (Islamic boarding school) founded by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members in 1991. Siti Rahmah is the sister of Muhamad Rais, who was convicted for his role in the bombing of the Marriot Hotel in 2004. Her father, Rusdi Hamid, was reportedly also a JI member. Noordin was forced to flee to Indonesia from Malaysia following the crackdown on Islamic militants in that country in 2001-2. He took his wife with him and they settled initially in her home province of Riau. When Noordin deserted Siti Rahmah in 2002 to take up his struggle against the Indonesian state, she had two small children and was pregnant with her third.
In June 2004, Noordin married Munfiatun al Fitri, a graduate in agriculture from Brawijaya University in Malang. Munfiatun claims not to have known she was marrying Noordin, who she met through the husband of a former fellow student. However, she had apparently expressed the wish to marry a jihadist, and knew her husband-to-be was on the run for jihadist activities. After several months on the move with Noordin, Munfiatun was arrested and sentenced to three years prison for hiding a suspected terrorist and falsifying documents (their marriage certificate).
Then in 2005, Noordin married Arina, in a marriage arranged by her father. Arina also told police that she did not know her husband’s true identity. Arina has two small children. She was taken into custody, along with her mother and children, five days after the 17 July bombings, and elected to remain in a safe house provided by the police once it was declared that she was only a witness, and not a suspect, in the search for Noordin Top.
Despite all the news reports written about Noordin’s wives, what do we actually know about any of them?
The importance of marriage as a means of establishing, strengthening and maintaining solidarity among jihadist networks was first noted by Sidney Jones and the International Crisis Group. More specifically, we can say that Noordin’s marriages to local women brought him a number of benefits. First, in the cases of Siti Rahmah and Arina, his marriages cemented a connection to families who were sympathetic to the broader jihadist movement, if not his specific aims and methods. According to a police source interviewed by the Jakarta Globe, Noordin married Arina in order to ensure the loyalty and protection of her father Barhudin Latif, or Baridin.
Second, Noordin’s marriages provided him with the capacity to blend into local communities, although neighbours thought he was a somewhat mysterious figure in Cilacap where he lived with Arina, their two children and her parents. Even though locals knew that Baridin hated America and he had a reputation for being ‘hard’ (keras) in his religious belief and practice, it seems no-one ever questioned his new son-in-law’s identity. Noordin was able to hide behind the persona of being Arina’s husband, a religious man who travelled often. The oddity of his behaviour – the fact that he only ever arrived and left when it was dark, on a motorbike wearing a helmet, the fact that he never spoke to anyone, that no-one had ever seen his face, not even at the celebration following his marriage to Arina in 2005 – all this was accepted because he was Arina’s husband.
Finally, less tangibly, Noordin’s marriages gave him the opportunity to lead a normal life, to relax and feel himself part of a family, for short periods of time at least. Before his death in a raid by police on a house in Solo on 17 September, Noordin was on the run for over seven years; hence the psychological importance of having a comparatively safe ‘home base’, not to mention a legitimate sexual outlet.
Wives as victims?
But what of the women he married? What benefits did they gain from their relationship to Noordin Top? After all, he was the most wanted man in Indonesia, and a key figure in organising every major bombing in the country starting with the 2003 Marriot bombing. In personal terms, they gained a husband, and both Siti Rahmah and Arina have had children. But the Indonesian media has focused on the costs incurred by the women, on their suffering, and the shock and stigma they have endured since finding out that they were the wives of the man who was Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist.
Media coverage of Noordin’s wives has been largely sympathetic. Journalists have presented Arina, in particular, as a victim. She was married to a man she had not met before in a marriage arranged by her father, she never met his family, and never knew the most basic things about him. She is a victim by virtue of the fact that her husband was a terrorist when she thought she was married to a man by the name of Abdul Ade Halim involved in Islamic education in Sulawesi. She has now lost a husband and the father of her two children, not to mention her own father who is also on the run. At times Arina is also presented as a victim of the state – many (though not all) of the local reports of her arrest by security forces in Cilacap mention the number of police involved, and the fact they broke down the door of the house where she was staying with her uncle and aunt. The police, on the other hand, have been careful in their treatment of her, her two small children and her mother, obviously seeking to deflect claims that she was harshly treated by overzealous officials. She and her family have been kept in a safe house, the children have access to toys, are being looked after by a bevy of female police officers, and are doing well, the public has been told.
Noordin’s marriages gave him the opportunity to lead a normal life, to relax and feel himself part of a family, for short periods of time at least
But the media presents the other wives as victims too. Like Arina, Munfiatun, his second wife, claims not to have known who her husband was when she married him. She subsequently served three years in prison for hiding him. The spotlight was placed on Noordin’s first wife, Siti Rahmah, when the police needed to use DNA taken from her eldest son to check the identity of the man shot dead by police in a raid on a house in Temanggung, Central Java, on 7-8 August. Interviews with her father and a spokesman for the family were widely reported. Reports emphasised that Siti Rahmah had not seen her husband for many years and had received no income support from him in this time. She had to bring up the three children on her own, with the help of her family and had been subject to pressure from the Malaysian police. All of these facts made her a victim also.
Where does this sympathy for the wives of terrorists such as Noordin Top come from, and why is it so dominant in the media’s portrayal of these women? Behind this sympathetic portrayal of these women are a number of assumptions. The first is that these women have had no agency in the misfortune that has befallen them. It is assumed that the women themselves have not been involved in the process of selecting a marriage partner, but have been ‘forced’ into marriage as in the case of Arina, or duped as to their husband’s real identity, as in the case of Munfiatun. Second, the women do not know anything about their husband’s activities. And third, it is assumed that the women are telling the truth. The stories of the women are not treated with any scepticism.
Underlying these assumptions and the sympathetic portrayal is the wives’ status as victims. The willingness to ascribe victimhood to the women is in part because of what we think we know about them, and in part because of what we do not know about them. With regard to the first, the experience of women such as Arina fits with our perception of how women in fundamentalist Islamic groups are treated. The common picture of women in such circles is that they are not permitted to seek their own marriage partner but instead are passively married off without their consent. They are subjected to polygamous marriages, often without their knowledge. Further, once they are married, the wife is fully subject to her husband’s authority; she has no right to question what he does, or where he goes and must obey his commands.
The Indonesian media has focused on the costs incurred by the women, on their suffering, and the shock and stigma they have endured since finding out that they were the wives of the man who was Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist
While this common picture is an oversimplification, many of these elements appear to ring true for Arina. If Arina did not know who her husband was, she surely also did not know that he had at least two other wives, although perhaps she suspected that his long absences were connected to visiting another family back in Sulawesi.
It is reported that Arina’s father, now also a fugitive, was a strict parent, who told his wife to mind her own business when she questioned him regarding the absence of witnesses at Arina’s marriage, and the failure to meet any members of the bridegroom’s family. Such matters, he said, were the affairs of men.
While these women surely are victims, is this the full story? This brings us to the second point; what do we actually know about any of these women, the wives of Jemaah Islamiyah members, or other jihadists? Take Arina, for example. Despite the thousands of words written about her and her marriage to Noordin Top, she herself has at no stage spoken directly to the media or been interviewed. All the information concerning her comes either from villagers where she lived in Cilacap, particularly the village head and his wife, from the police, or from her lawyers.
If it is difficult for journalists and researchers to interview male jihadists, who may be unwilling to talk to outsiders for ideological reasons, or in prison, it is even harder to gain access to their wives. Interviewing a jihadist’s wife requires the permission of her husband. And whereas terrorists such as the Bali bombers Mukhlas, Imam Samudra and others have written extensively concerning their ideology, motivations and experiences, only two women in Indonesian jihadist circles to date have written detailing theirs. Paridah Abas, the Malaysian first wife of Mukhlas, wrote a diary chronicling her experiences for a two year period following the arrest of her husband in December 2002 for participation in the Bali bombings. Fatimah Az-Zahra, the wife of Abu Jibriel also recently published a book detailing her life as the wife of a jihadist. Paridah Abas has given a couple of media interviews, and Rahayungingtyas (Ning), the wife of the fugitive Zulkarnaen, has also given one mid-length interview, but that is the sum of information publicly available on women in the Indonesian jihadist movement.
Where does this sympathy for the wives of terrorists such as Noordin Top come from, and why is it so dominant in the media’s portrayal of these women?
All of this is not to argue that Arina and other women in her situation are not victims, but rather to say that until more research has been done, we should be cautious in generalising to all women in the movement from the few well publicised cases discussed in the media, especially that of Arina. For one thing, my initial research in this field shows that although Arina and some other women that we know of were married off by their fathers without knowing the true identity and jihadist activities of their husbands beforehand, other women have chosen their own husbands in full knowledge that they are jihadists, and indeed, appear to have sought a husband from among jihadist circles. Munfiatun, for all her claims not to know her husband was Noordin M Top, certainly knew he was a jihadist sought by police for terrorist activities. Other women have also elected to marry jihadists, at times even when these men were in prison for their involvement in terrorist actions, and at times even with the knowledge they were already married.
Veterans of the Afghanistan war who trained in the JI military academy are said to be sought after as marriage partners, both by parents and the women themselves. Mukhlas, when he was on death row, reportedly received many offers of marriage from women wanting to attain the status of a martyr’s wife. Imam Samudra’s wife Zakiyah is now a celebrity on the preaching circuit because she is his widow. And while some women suffer greatly from polygamous marriage, particularly the first wives, others embrace it and the independence it gives them when their husbands are absent. Just as they wear the cadar, leaving only their eyes visible, as a badge of honour, emphasising their difference from those around them, they flaunt their status as a multiple wife.
Then there is the question of how much women know about their husbands' activities, and whether they are complicit in them. In general, the secret nature of jihadist organisations and their extra-legal functioning extend to the women as well; women do not know exactly what their husbands are doing because they are not allowed to know. Further, the men are often away for long periods, engaging in jihadist activities, and their wives may not know where they are. But in reality, it is hard to imagine that the wives are completely ignorant, despite the separate spheres that men and women inhabit in social interaction in fundamentalist circles.
I suspect that the extent of women’s knowledge varies greatly. There are some women who know next to nothing, either because they do not want to know, or because they are only privy to limited information. But it is also clear that there are others who know quite a bit, and indeed actively support their husbands’ activities through efforts such as fundraising, managing finances, hiding their husbands or husbands’ jihadist colleagues, and teaching their children jihadist doctrines. Some women, and Arina appears to be a case in point, may be victims, but others are not, and would certainly reject that status. Women, too, can chose to join jihadist movements for ideological reasons, through the best means available to them in Indonesia: marriage. ii
Sally White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher at the Australian National University. Her research is part of a group project examining the origins and development of Islamic terrorist behaviour in Indonesia, funded by the Australian Research Council.