When discussing or analyzing terrorism in Bangladesh, the narrative usually revolves around the “violent Islamist male” while females are overlooked. Inequality of the genders has long been institutionalized in various aspects of life. Even in crime, women are considered less capable than men. For a long time, it was thought that a woman has very little capacity for topics such as violence or terrorism; granted, these assumptions were made mostly by men. Most of the time, it is thought that women only play a marginal role as a caregiver to the family of the Jihadi man. It is often forgotten that all members of a society have some form of agency, no matter how much people try to take it away from them. In every corner of the country in Bangladesh, women are not seen as equal to men in every aspect of life. However, we can safely assume that a woman can, in many cases, lead a life in which she can make her own decisions on many issues. From this perspective, let us take a moment to understand the impact of ‘the female’ on terrorism and counter terrorism in Bangladesh.
Looking back at the earlier days of Jihad, the amount of female participation from Bangladesh to the Afghan jihad of 1980’s is not really known. It is believed that women were not permitted to make the journey or to join the fight. This was perhaps because of the Jihadi ideologues and radical preachers who would not allow women to take any active part in Jihad. Only recently, the so-called Islamic State suggested more active participation of women. This call was also heard in Bangladesh and, as a response to it, various Bangladeshi Al-Qaeda supporting groups suggested that defensive Jihad is permissible to everyone, thus increasing the possibility of female participation.
With the spread of Jihadi ideology in Bangladesh in the early 2000’s, some women started to become exposed to it. It should be noted that the women in Bangladesh in the past were not devoid of religious knowledge nor of the ability to gather. Nor were they uninvolved in Islamic politics. Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami had female members and female student branches around the country. Hizbut Tahrir had a sizeable female membership before they were banned in 2009. There were other Islamic groups such as Hizbut Tawhid who also encouraged their female members to actively take part in proselytizing their version of the religion. But it is assumed that jihadi ideology initially reached the women in Bangladesh through their male family members who were active in violent extremist groups. Often, they were the wives of these men and were taught and radicalized by their husbands in order to teach the entire family to live in the same extremist religious way. JMB and HUJI members in Bangladesh often influenced their wives. There were also many female-only study groups around the country, where various ideas were discussed that went beyond the usual teachings on rituals and practices of the religion. Islamic politics, in the guise of a “complete Islamic life,” were not set apart from the conversations.
Until recently, a female conducting violent jihadi action in Bangladesh had not been observed. But this does not mean that the women had no part in Jihad. Beyond the traditional idea of supporting the Jihadi men, the female Jihadi sympathizers in Bangladesh conducted another project: radicalization. There are several instances of the wife, but sometimes also the daughter or the sister, radicalizing the man or men in a family. A wife influencing her husband to become more religious is generally appreciated in Bangladeshi society, and more often than not, supported by others. This has been exploited by some Jihadi sympathizers. Women have also carried out the work of spreading knowledge through their own networks, through various study groups and meetings, but also recently, through the avenue of social media, which has contributed significantly in radicalizing individuals.
A more violent incident initiated by a Jihadi woman took place when the law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh raided a terrorist hideout in 2016. A female member of that group detonated a grenade while charging at the police, carrying a child with her, killing both of them. It is assumed that her group was supporting the Islamic State. IS had promoted a more active role for the women. This had an impact around the world and, in 2018, it inspired a Bangladeshi girl to carry out a knife-attack on a man in Australia. When the Police went to her home in Bangladesh for an investigation, they were attacked by her sister, who believed in the same Jihadi ideology. These have remained the most well-known cases of active female Jihadis from Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, there is the issue of women being abused by Islamists for a long time. Islamists regularly appeal to the ego of men as protectors of the “weaker” women. In many of the radicalizing propaganda or media content, the message is that men must protect the women (and children) who can’t protect themselves. It is quite common to see the usage of Quranic verses that instruct or inspire the protection of the weak – mainly women, children and the elderly. The radical and terrorist ideologues use these verses to appeal to the idea of manhood and raise the question of masculinity of these men. As such they posit that pious Muslim men should find it a duty to protect the women. Such narratives assist in creating the social context/milieu for an individual to radicalize. According to these radicals, Jihad is the only religiously sanctioned method for fighting such oppression over the weak.
Yet, when the state attempts to enact new laws, or reforms old ones in order to promote and protect the interest of women, these very men find it as an assault on their religion. Attempts at reforming the existing personal laws in Bangladesh have ended up with the same result. Personal laws in Bangladesh are religion-specific. A Muslim person, most of the time, is judged according to the Islamic laws in terms of marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. While secular legal provisions are there, very few tend to use them, or are even aware that it is possible to use them. As such, in Bangladesh, a female child typically inherits less than a male child, and this is in accordance with the law of the land.
Bangladesh’s government attempted to change this inequality among the citizens with the National Women Development Policy in 2011. It is easy to question how much this would have truly created equality and how much the women would have benefited from it. However, in the end, this policy did not see the green light. This policy, among others, was seen as anti-religious and as an assault on Islam, perpetrated by rulers who have a non-Islamic agenda and are supported by their puppet religious scholars. There was an uproar among the religious conservative men in the country. This issue of legal reform for women’s rights, along with other issues, gave an impetus for the rise of the religious conservative group Hefazat-e-Islam from a relatively unknown cluster to a nationally influential movement. They felt the need to protect Islam from the onslaught of anti-religious policies and to protect women from such travesties. Terrorist groups and radical preachers in Bangladesh held similar values. Bangladesh had become anti-Islamic, ruled by anti-Islamic rulers, and as such Jihad was permissible and obligatory on every man – they proclaimed. An observer could surmise from this that the issue is less about the protection of women, and more about the control over women. Unfortunately, this is just another aspect of the patriarchal system that is deeply rooted in the country. This control over women does not end with inheritance or legal rights but covers many other aspects of their lives. Girl’s education is another one of these aspects, which the same religious conservative group wants to control. It is important for us to recognize this patriarchal system and to empower women to rise above it.
Thankfully, women have played a strong and constructive role on the other side of this violence-spectrum. Bangladeshi women have carried out innumerable activities in counter terrorism within the country in various capacities. Their names will be not mentioned in this article due to the fact that CT work can lead to the threat of violence or actual harm. This is unfortunate because their valuable work to society truly demands our recognition and respect. Female security researchers have contributed significantly to our understanding of terrorism in Bangladesh. They have allowed the research community to find nuanced understandings and greater depth to the analyses. Many are continuing this work daily and risking mental trauma or physical harm. The women in our law enforcement agencies similarly deserve recognition for their work. Their contributions often remain invisible to the public eye. More must be done to integrate female members in all aspects of anti-terrorism work within the law enforcement agencies.
Furthermore, in counter-radicalization work, female experts of mass communication and the media have made significant contributions to the country. In many cases, they have led national campaigns to raise awareness and promote peace and tolerance. They have initiated dialogues to promote social and religious harmony and have empowered the youth in pursuing non-violence. Women in the roles of teachers, mothers, and guides carry out this work around the country regularly, and this needs to be recognized. Even on the international level, Bangladeshi or Bangladeshi-origin women have significantly contributed to peace and security as well as to counter-terrorism. But it is a matter of great importance that we include more female decision-makers and policymakers in active roles of countering violent extremism and radicalization in the country. The more we realize the potential of our women, and the more we empower them to work in these fields, the safer and more secure we all are. Above all, we need to realize that safeguarding and improving the condition, status, and the rights of women lead to a more tolerant and progressive society which is peaceful for all. Let women be an equal partner in facing the challenges of violent extremism.
Asheque Haque is an independent researcher on politics and security in South Asia. He can be reached on twitter @ashequeh.