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Gendered Online Messaging, Women’s Insecurities and the Impact of COVID on Violent Extremism Throughout the ASEAN Region

Gendered Online Messaging, Women’s Insecurities and the Impact of COVID on Violent Extremism Throughout the ASEAN Region
30th November 2022 Dr Alexandra Phelan
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

The COVID pandemic has been leveraged by violent extremist groups to spread and proliferate mis- and disinformation, and to capitalise on ‘stay-at-home’ orders by increasing efforts in the online space to radicalise and recruit through social media. In the ASEAN region, regrettably, such efforts espoused online have also been used to justify and legitimise hostile views and violence against women. ASEAN member states are increasingly recognising the need to integrate gender perspectives into statements, frameworks and implementation plans to combat terrorism and violent extremism, such as within the ASEAN Manila Declaration to Counter the Rise of Radicalisation and Extremism, the Joint Statement on Promoting Women, Peace and Security in ASEAN, and the ASEAN Bali Work Plan 2019-2025.

However, despite clear implications for the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, specifically in terms of the gender-inclusive, gender-sensitive and gender-responsive protection of women and girls, P/CVE programmes throughout the region still lag in responding not only to the integration of gender but how COVID has impacted violent extremism in distinct ways. How can P/CVE policies respond to and mitigate the social and economic impacts caused by the pandemic through a gender-based approach, particularly in terms of the distinct insecurities experienced by women affected by violent extremism? 

Gendered Online Messaging, Women’s Insecurities, and Gateways to Extremism

Partnered with UN Women and Indonesia’s BNPT, our recent Monash GPS project Gender Analysis of Violent Extremism and the Impact of COVID-19 on Peace and Security in ASEAN: Evidence-based Research for Policy examined the changing dynamics of violent extremism in the context of the COVID pandemic, paying particular attention to the online/offline nexus. Specifically, we examined how far and to what extent misogyny and hostile views espoused online were fuelling violent extremism throughout the Southeast Asian region with a specific focus on Indonesia, the Philippines and southern Thailand and the degree to which these manifested in the offline space. Employing a mixed methods approach through survey dissemination and expert interviews throughout the ASEAN region, we found that not only had extremist actors throughout the region strategically ramped up their online messaging during COVID to further mobilise, strengthen their organisations and intensify their violent campaigns (both online and offline) but that some actors were also using propaganda disseminated through social media and online messaging to specifically espouse misogynistic and hostile views towards women. Concerningly, 67% of expert respondents acknowledged that they had seen this kind of extremist content, sometimes, often, or very often, while 65% of experts stated that they had observed social media content inciting violence towards women and girls.

For example, a participant from the Philippines stated that:

“Facebook has proven to be an effective tool, especially in today’s world where Facebook is ‘the internet’ for most people. I always see misogynist and sexist remarks towards women, especially from friends who label themselves as religious and strict ‘followers’ of Islam. Harassment also fills the comments sections of these so-called friends, particularly on women’s ability to lead. The majority of those orthodox Muslim individuals generally agree that women are not entitled to hold the leadership or the topmost public office- whether in a nation or university setting”

Multiple participants brought up the critique of women in leadership positions, with another respondent from the Philippines stating they had seen jihad being justified based on gender dynamics, observing seeing a Facebook post saying that “the Marawi Siege happened because the previous Governor was a woman, so the City was cursed by God”.

Other participants brought up how online narratives espoused online specifically created insecurities for women in the offline space. For example, an individual from Indonesia expressed their concern about pro-polygamy campaigns being espoused online:

“The polygamy campaign on social media is also quite influential in regard to social trends among hijra groups. Pro-polygamy narratives are usually discussed in line with narratives of gender conservatism, such as the role of women being only in the domestic sphere, control of women’s bodies, and religious narratives are used to dehumanise women”

Multiple participants in the survey also noted that much of the hostile sexism and misogynistic views that they had observed were regarding women’s roles in society and attempts to control the way that women dress and behave. A participant from Indonesia, for example, observed an extremist group online that “heavily criticised how women dress up and how they should abide by what the husband deems is right for them through pictures and (accompanying) comments. Although such misogynistic views overwhelmingly came from men, there were also cases of women espousing misogynistic attitudes. For example, an interview from Indonesia recounted that:

“I recall a moment with the promotion of the Draft of Law of Eradicating Sexual Violence (RUU-PKS), which regularly becomes the trending topic. It immediately raises harsh criticisms, predominantly from Islamic radical groups, arguing that the law is the product of Western feminism and will liberate women tremendously. Regrettably, a Muslim women lecturer delivered her criticism by Instagram and Facebook by inviting the public to deactivate the process of legalising the Draft. She falsified the Draft as if it was in support of free sex, legal abortion and legal prostitution. Eventually, the post was withdrawn (on these platforms) and deemed a hoax by the Ministry of Communication and Information”.

During COVID, multiple participants expressed their concerns with both the effects of ‘stay-at-home’ orders and increased reliance on online spaces, and also the spread of misinformation and disinformation. 70% of survey respondents agreed that online radicalisation and extremist propaganda had proliferated throughout the ASEAN region, 80% of respondents agreed that COVID had resulted in more significant insecurities for women affected by violent extremism.

Despite commitments by ASEAN states to further address the nexus between gender and violent extremism, participants expressed that work needed to be done- especially in dealing with the online/offline nexus that exacerbated insecurities for women. An interesting case, however, is Indonesia, which presents potential lessons learned for other ASEAN countries in moving towards greater gender responsiveness in P/CVE policy and strategy. To respond to the unique consequences that the nexus between COVID, the online space, and heightened insecurities for women, the Indonesian case demonstrated that the broadening of P/CVE ownership as a shared agenda between governments and the grassroots level can in fact contribute to meaningful participation which in turn plays a key role in enhancing the success of P/CVE strategies and tailoring P/CVE policies.

Lessons Learned from Indonesia: Integrating Gender Responsiveness in P/CVE

In recent years, counterterrorism in Indonesia has shifted away from an overwhelming focus on a ‘hard approach’ to prevention, towards integrating a gender-sensitive perspective. This is particularly in light of the Surabaya bombing in May 2018, perpetrated by a woman and family unit. Furthermore, the role of young female actors in recruitment through online channels has played a key role in strengthening the discourse on preventing violent extremism in Indonesia, where women have played active roles in previous acts of terrorism in the country as recruiters, supporters, child indoctrinators, in addition to being victims.

Our research also examined Indonesia as a case study for collaborative leadership playing a role in facilitating how gender was incorporated into the development and implementation processes of the National Action Plan for Counter Violent-Based Extremism That Leads to Terrorism (NAP P/CVE). The Indonesia NAP P/CVE was established due to, among others, widespread concerns following the rise in terrorist acts by women, kids, and family units. What is unique in the Indonesian case is that civil society organisations and BNPT collaborated using a ‘whole government and whole society’ strategy to create prevention instruments within a national action framework. Many women’s organisations, especially Komnas Perempuan (Indonesia’s National Woman Commission) supported by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry for Women Empowerment and Child Protection, offered suggestions during the planning stage to ensure that the content of the NAP P/CVE is more gender-sensitive. The framework uses programme-based strategies to combat the radicalisation of extremist groups, including programmatic approaches specifically targeting the potential for online radicalisation. At the same time, other programs accommodate gender perspectives through women’s leadership roles, including at the community level to engage local and civil society organisations in decision-making processes. For example, substantial efforts have been made to promote peace, including the implementation of interactive digital literacy education by women-led organisations for both young women and activists, and the development of positive narrative campaigns through various social media outlets, including attempts to push back against misogynistic and sexist narratives.

Lessons Learned for Policymakers

Our findings not only have implications for ASEAN member states, but also for the broader WPS agenda as part of regional and global consequences for peace and security. Women throughout the region are actively participating online in extremist activities, misogynistic activities and behaviour in offline environments. Especially during the pandemic and in light of ‘stay-at-home’ orders, our survey and interviews mentioned the importance of ‘men-only’ and ‘women-only’ forums on social media platforms in radicalising individuals online. By examining these spaces, a greater understanding can emerge of the gender-specific push and pull factors that are being used towards women and men to justify and legitimise extremist activity, as well as the repercussions for offline spaces. Often these gender dynamics are reinforced by extremist groups, potentially presenting a dual challenge for policymakers where women are both targeted as victims and agents of violence. 

Gender sensitivity and gender responsivity are key to mitigating the social and economic impacts caused by the pandemic, including insecurities experienced by women affected by violent extremism, and the heightened participation of women in violent extremism both in online and offline environments. As in the case of Indonesia, policymakers mustch consider the degree to which women are actively or passively influencing their families, or broader communities, including within the online space, with violent extremist ideas. 

Our research demonstrated that both women and men play key roles in attempting to counter such narratives and activities at the community level and that gender-responsive approaches to violent extremism prevention benefit from enhancing and ensuring the participation of grassroots CSOs. Capitalising on such work, the Indonesian case demonstrates government acknowledgement that P/CVE implementation initiatives at the local level, which in turn develops greater coordination between national and local agencies, can allow for the broadening of P/CVE as a shared agenda, especially when communities affected by violent extremism can participate actively in the substantive conversation of drafts. Throughout the region, more than half the expert respondents agreed that the growth of online misogyny and hostile beliefs toward women was not reflected in current P/CVE policies and programmes. Policymakers should take seriously the fact that radicalisation can indeed be gendered, participation can be distinct amongst women and men, and that responsive policies could address the gender-specific dimensions of increasing online radicalisation and its impact on both men and women’s offline recruitment to violent extremism, particularly in terms of offering alternative support venues for those using online spaces for feelings of purpose, solidarity and a sense of community.