It is rare to see writing that details female members of the militant group, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with the nuance, understanding and empathy that gives a fair insight into the various factors underpinning the phenomenon of young people — especially girls and women — fleeing to join ISIS.
American-Iranian journalist and academic Azadeh Moaveni’s Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis profiles 13 women to offer that very nuance that is lost in the age of sensational soundbites and the well-trod path in portraying the extremist group.
Who were the women of ISIS and what motivated them to leave home and travel to Iraq and Syria? Were they idealists seeking an Islamic utopia? Extremists fired up by their hatred of the West? Or is the reality more complex? The book challenges many stereotypes and asks some very hard questions of the West, and Western liberal feminism in particular.
A big motivation for Moaveni to write this book was to counter and unpack the narrative building up when four London schoolgirls fled to Syria. Consequently, tabloids and public opinion began a hysterical, obsessive and dehumanising portrayal of the young girls, as if they were perpetrators of their own exploitation.
Moaveni seeks to correct the narrative. The schoolgirls’ case was one of grooming and human trafficking — terminologies otherwise absent for the young females who joined ISIS. She asks why we could not discern their context and these dynamics when we did so readily in other cases. To find out, Moaveni travelled to the troubled region in search of these girls, who had captivated the imagination of many in the United Kingdom.
Profiles of 13 women provide essential reading for those interested in understanding the plausible root causes of radicalisation
“There were many things that a young girl could do with rage. But it took an attentive, intact family, living rooms with books, a sensitive school, layers of protection that often didn’t exist around working-class girls from East London, to introduce those ideas.” Moaveni highlights the fact that there’s no space in British society for girls such as those four to discuss their anger. Female anger played a big role in their radicalisation, and the pertinent question — ‘why did they channel it to ISIS that has violent control of women at the heart of its project’ — is one Moaveni delves into.
For context, it is worth mentioning that last year, a correspondent of the British newspaper The Times, found one of the four schoolgirls, Shamima Begum, languishing in a filthy, freezing camp in Syria. Begum was heavily pregnant, had already lost two children and was begging to be let back in the UK for the sake of her unborn baby. She lost her third child soon after his birth.
In a decision stemming largely from public outcry to refuse the 19-year-old back in the country, former British home secretary Sajid Javid divested Begum of her British citizenship. ‘She’s no longer our problem’ was the common argument. Sounding more confused by the day — as a traumatised and groomed young person would — Begum said: “A lot of people should have, like, sympathy for everything towards me.”
To which Moaveni writes, almost as a lone voice: “But sympathy was not where public sentiment was headed ... The fact that she had been groomed and recruited as a 15-year-old, primed and indoctrinated by the Islamic State, evaporated from the national conversation about her. That she had been a child bride, married before legal age, that two of her children had recently died, did not deter reporters from interrogating her for dispatches read voraciously back home.”
The 13 women profiled belong to Tunisia’s conservative and working-class suburbs, Syria’s middle-class, secular households, London’s immigrant communities and Germany’s working-class areas.
The book opens with 13-year-old Tunisian Nour, who is reacting against her school and a community that frowns on her wearing a niqab [veil]. Deeply religious, she’s quite possibly rebelling just as her more affluent fellow teenagers would by taking drugs, or getting their tongue pierced.
For German Muslim convert Dunya, being part of a community and family after a neglected childhood is what draws her to ISIS. Lina, who left an abusive husband and then had a compromised life in a women’s shelter, finds the promise of a husband and some freedom attractive. For the four Londoners, joining ISIS is not just teenage rebellion — akin to Nour’s decision to wear a niqab — but also a search for a purpose and meaning, despite being exceptionally bright and popular at school. The common denominator is ISIS propaganda exploiting their vulnerability.
But life in ISIS-held territory is grim. What the new female recruits endure is a far cry from what they were initially enticed with. Many Syrian women, such as Asma — left with little choice but to join ISIS — become part of a morality police. They find themselves subjecting others — often loved ones — to corporal punishment. Despite the promise of equality among Muslims, they experience unfair treatment, figuring low in the hierarchy, with European compatriots at the top. There is, therefore, much worldly intrigue, jealousy and hatred among the women.
Then there are the guesthouses for widows, after which the book is titled. After their husbands perish, women are sent there and forced to remarry, often multiple times, without being given the grieving period mandatory in Islam.
Moaveni spent two decades in the Middle East as a reporter and now works as a gender analyst for a London-based international crisis group, making her a capable writer on this controversial topic. In her work, she takes a broader lens to understand how preceding life events provide a better explanation for women’s decisions, and applies the same approach in her book in search of such meaningful reasons. She explains how, during its rise, ISIS was described in the media as a problem of religion and there was a bewilderment about why so many women were flocking to it.
Moaveni understands that absent from the explanation, coverage and context was the Arab Spring that had preceded the rise of ISIS. Women were very much at the forefront of the uprising, demanding freedom, opportunity, dignity and an end to repressive governments. But their hopeful energy was crushed. There was either greater repression, or civil war, and it didn’t lead to the aspirations these women sought.
It was then that ISIS began directing its focus to many women from these societies, who had wanted peaceful pathways to legitimate aspirations and had seen that trampled. ISIS offered an attractive alternative. Seeking to draw the vibrant feminine energy so vital to its own project, it promised answers to frustrations and desires, but ended up being hugely exploitative.
As Moaveni presents an alternative explanation that largely opposes popular stereotypes, she runs the risk of being accused of sympathising with ISIS. She mentions in her book that, in 2015, the National Youth Theatre of London commissioned a play, Homegrown, which explored a similar theme of youth radicalisation. It was shut down two weeks before opening night.
The theatre’s artistic director said the play lacked “balance” and the “insensitive” language troubled him during rehearsals. Moaveni calls this cowardice: “To swirl in a morass of suppositions and half-truths seemed safer, in London of 2015, than to hear what a youth theatre group born and raised alongside those girls had to say.”
The author tackles a pertinent question of how a country such as Tunisia — seen as the region’s “democratic hope” — ended up exporting a high number of foreign fighters to ISIS. Nour, who experienced harsh treatment and incarceration without any charges after her husband joined ISIS, and was later released after paying a bribe, answers Moaveni’s query: she stopped wearing her hijab as a result of being hounded aggressively by Tunisia’s secular elites, but says she’s “living a lie.”
When asked whether she still supports attacks on Westerners, her response is chilling: “They kill our people. They don’t play by the rules. Why should we?” It’s a revealing answer to the most fundamental question concerning radicalisation, yet the problem of radicalisation is far from over.
Many such females languish in camps across Syria and Iraq, waiting for their home countries to decide their fates, about which there seems no sign of moving forward. Moaveni’s strong, compelling arguments punctuate the reckoning with the post-9/11 world order: aggressive surveillance and hostile media attention that portrays Muslims in a negative, binary light, leaving limited options for them to voice their opposition to Western interventions.
More than ever before, a deep understanding of ISIS and religious radicalisation is needed, if Western governments — and many Muslim ones, too — are able to break the vicious-cycle narrative of the ‘war on terror’.
Guest House for Young Widows is essential reading for those interested in understanding the plausible root causes of radicalisation, rather than jumping on to the bandwagon of symptom-focused mantras.
The reviewer is a freelance journalist. She tweets @SadiaKhan10
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS
By Azadeh Moaveni
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 8th, 2021