As an increasingly conservative wave of Islam engulfs the globe, literalist Salafi interpretations of the faith have become prevalent in Malaysia. While there are several Islamic schools of thought in the country, including those deemed “deviant”, the loudest voices are always the more extreme.
Over the past year, there has been increasing recognition of women’s roles as recruiters, financiers and influencers for radical Islamic groups. More women have been arrested for their support for and involvement in the Islamic State (IS), but much of the focus has been on their desire to marry a jihadi soldier or channel funds to the cause. In Malaysia, these women (including returnees from IS) are seen to be followers, not decision-makers or active agents in extremist action.
While Malay-Muslim women were both economically and socially active prior to colonization, patriarchal norms are now commonplace because of Islamic and Western conventions, as well as increasing conservatism in society.
Women do have agency in the home, however, and exercise this power and centrality within the private sphere by wielding religion as a tool to exert influence over their spouse and children.
More attention needs to be paid to mothers as potential nurturers of extremist interpretations of Islam. Their actions in active support of non-violent extremism and intolerant exclusivity could have far-reaching effects given their unrivalled influence in the home. Their need to achieve social recognition through religion, coupled with increasing Salafi infiltration into mainstream Malaysian society and Islam, could be highly detrimental in multi-faith Malaysia. At the very least, these women may not report family members who intend to participate in terror; at the worst, they may encourage it and sanction jihadi theology and action.