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When Women are the Criminals: Governing Violent Extremism in Malaysia

By Professor Zaiton Hamin and Saslina Kamaruddin, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) - Faculty of Law. Full tittle: When Women are the Criminals: Governing Violent Extremism in Malaysia Via 'Hard' and 'Soft' Modalities.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Objective - This paper seeks to examine the multiple roles of women in preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE) efforts and the existing legal ('hard') and non-legal ('soft') modalities governing such criminality.

Methodology/Technique - This paper adopts a library-based research methodology through not only the conceptual analysis but also content analysis and doctrinal legal analysis. The secondary data consists of the primary sources, which includes the terrorism-related laws and the Penal Code. The secondary sources include books, law reports, journals, and online databases.

Findings - The authors contend that despite the significance of women's role in preventing and countering violent extremism, the gender perspective is glaringly absent in the current Malaysian PVE/CVE initiatives.

Novelty - There is a dearth of research on the involvement of women in violent extremism in Malaysia, and their role in PVE/CVE. This paper is very useful in contributing to the existing literature on the role of womenin PVE/CVE efforts and beneficial for policy-makers and law enforcement agencies in curbing such criminality.

Keywords: Violent Extremism; Terrorism; Women; Law; Countering Violent Extremism; Preventing Violent Extremism

1. Introduction

The term violent extremism (VE) does not possess any single agreed definition. It is defined differently by different scholars and is often used interchangeably with terrorism. VE has spread since the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and is now entrenched in domestic and international discourse and practice as the principal ‘root’ of terrorism. Hussain (2007) argues that the definition of extremism is a preamble to terrorism. Despite the lack of definite meaning, VE suggests the willingness to use violence, or to support the use of violence, to further particular beliefs of a political, social, economic or ideological nature (European Parliament, 2017).

In recent times, there has been an increase in awareness and concern about the role of women in VE, including as suicide bombers, gathering intelligence and serving as recruiters and mobilizers for various reasons. For example, in February 2013, a female religious teacher, Halimah Hussein, had the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be arrested under the controversial Special Offences (Security Measures) Act 2012 or SOSMA and charged with abetting the infamous former Army captain and ISA detainee, Yazid Sufaat, in recruiting Malaysian women to fight for Islamic State (IS) in Syria. They were charged under section 130(G)(a) of the Penal Code which carries a potential thirty year term of imprisonment and a fine (The Star Online, 2013). She fled the country after being acquitted by the High Court, however, she is now currently a fugitive following the decision of the Court of Appeal to overturn the High Court's decision. Another notable example is Ummi Kalson Bahak, a 25-year-old assistant credit controller who was arrested in 2014 under SOSMA and charged under section 130J of the Penal Code for offering support to ISIS. She attempted to travel to Istanbul, Turkey via Brunei to marry an IS fighter and to become a member of the terrorist group (The Star Online, 2014).

Several commentators argue that terrorism and violent extremism are highly gendered activities (Fink, Barakat & Shetret, 2013; Couture, 2014; Ali & Husin, 2017). Hence, understanding the workings and impact of gender dynamics in perpetuating gender inequalities and encroaching on fundamental human rights are pertinent to guiding official and civil society responses to these challenges (Couture, 2014). Despite the increasing role that women play in such crimes, the potential for women to perform a crucial role as leaders in policy and planning to prevent and counter violent extremism, such issue has remained under-researched in Malaysia. In addition, despite the holistic initiatives and strategies adopted by the government, there is a paucity of research on the integration of gender perspectives based on UNSC Resolution 2178 (2014) and UNSC Resolution 2242 (2015) on PVE or CVE efforts. It is within this context that this paper aims to examine the role of women involved in VE in preventing and countering VE, as well as the existing legal framework and the non-legal modalities in dealing with VE.

The first part of the paper reviews the relevant literature on the role of women in violent extremism and PVE and CVE. The second part explains the research methodology, while the third part, which is the crux of the paper, presents the results of the research. The last part concludes the paper.

2. Literature Review

The literature on violent extremism in Malaysia indicates that the government successfully countered new extremist elements or insurgency during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) (Jani, 2017; Ahmad elMuhammady, 2016). That success informs the current strategies in countering radical Islamist tendencies and recruitment of extremist groups such as Al Maunah, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorists, Al-Qaeda linked terrorists and Islamic State (IS) (Jani, 2017; Ahmad el-Muhammady, 2016). The recent Global Terrorism Index 2016 published by the Institute of Economic and Peace ranked Malaysia at number 61, which is an increase from number 90 in 2012 of the countries facing the impacts of terrorism (Malik & Kepli, 2018).

The extant literature on women’s involvement in VE shows that traditionally women have merely served as supporters or sympathizers of such radicalism. For instance, Sulaiman et al. (2016) argue that women had played significant antagonist roles in assisting and giving direct support to violent extremism. Women have played active roles not only in the recruitment of fighters but also in financing and fundraising terrorist activities (Commonwealth Institute, 2016; Bagenal, 2017; Hogg, 2014). Similarly, Cragin and Daly (2009) identify three significant roles of women in VE, particularly as facilitators, propagandists and as a group’s historical conscience.

The literature also observes a significant shift in their tactics to a more aggressive level. For instance, Sulaiman et al. (2016) observe that women involvement in terrorism can be traced quite far back. Over time, the role of women has seemed to have changed, and they are increasingly more likely to become suicide bombers. He gave an example of a Palestinian woman named Wafa Idris who blew herself up in downtown storical conscience. The literature also observes a significant shift in their tactics to a more aggressive level. For instance, Sulaiman et al. (2016) observe that women involvement in terrorism can be traced quite far back. Over time, the role of women has seemed to have changed, and they are increasingly more likely to become suicide bombers. He gave an example of a Palestinian woman named Wafa Idris who blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem killing some of the Israeli army. Similarly, Huey and Witmer (2016) contend that women are also playing significant roles in VE and some had planned and carried out killings of targeted individuals.

The literature on the role of women in PVE suggests that women, families and community leaders play a crucial role in efforts to prevent violent extremism (PVE). For example, the UN Security Council CounterTerrorism Committee (2015) observes that women play a significant role in PVE and CVE due to their great influence on families, communities, and government, which can affect positive change. Moreover, they are best placed to detect and identify early signs of radicalization, discourage its occurrence and intervene before individuals become violent (Ali & Crosby, 2016) and censure extremism and radicalization which their spouses and children might possess (Ali & Mohamed Hussin, 2017). Similarly, research in Australia demonstrates that women are often ‘first responders’ to the possibility of radicalization within their communities (True & Lee-Koo, 2017).

The literature indicates that women can serve as force multipliers to raise awareness among communities about such kinds of threats (UNOAU, 2017). The study in Singapore also suggests the positive nature of women’s role in that they are suitable to nurture an environment that instils positive values of tolerance, peace, inclusiveness, and respect for others (Ali & Mohamed Hussin, 2017). These informal support systems are able to assist such persons to take different steps, which would inevitably promote peace and instil respect for diversity and non-violence (True & Lee-Koo, 2017). One of the push factors and protection of gender equality, including within religious communities, is found to be the most significant counter-narrative to extremist ideology (True & Lee-Koo, 2017). On the other hand, the literature indicates that the absence of social, peer and family support, the lack of skills or ability to identify and develop non-violent and practical solutions to their grievances has fuelled violent extremism and radicalization (Couture, 2014).

The literature also shows several international instruments have been established to promote women’s positive role in PVE and CVE. The United Nations has established international instruments to recognize the role of women in dealing with such violence. This effort is evident in Security Council Resolution 2129 (2013) that affirms the Security Council's intention to increase its attention to women in the area of the threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts (UN Women, 2017). Resolution 2178 (2014) encourages Member States to develop strategies to counter the violent extremism narratives that can incite terrorist acts and address the conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism, including by empowering women. In Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2014/21) the Security Council noted that violent extremism frequently targets women and girls, which can lead to serious human rights violations and encourages Member States to engage with women and women's organizations in developing CVE strategies. The UN Secretary-General’s Preventing Violent Extremism Plan of Action 2015 identifies gender equality and empowering women as one of its seven priority areas for action (UN Women, 2017). The latest Security Council Resolution is 2242 (2015) which calls for a gender perspective to be a significant component in the creation of official prevention responses.

Suggested Citation:

Hamin, Zaiton and Kamaruddin, Saslina, When Women are the Criminals: Governing Violent Extremism in Malaysia Via ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Modalities (February 20, 2019). Global J. Bus. Soc. Sci. Review 7 (1) 48 – 53 (2019). Available at SSRN:


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