All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

on October 23, 2019

Guest House For Young Widows: Among The Women Of ISIS 
Azadeh Moaveni
2019, 352p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

An intimate, deeply reported account of the women who made a shocking decision: to leave their comfortable lives behind and join the Islamic State.

In early 2014, the Islamic State clinched its control of Raqqa in Syria. Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, urged Muslims around the world to come join the caliphate. Having witnessed the brutal oppression of the Assad regime in Syria, and moved to fight for justice, thousands of men and women heeded his call.

At the heart of this story is a cast of unforgettable young women who responded. Emma, from Germany; Sharmeena from Bethnal Green, London; Nour from Tunis: these were women — some still in high school — from urban families, some with university degrees and bookshelves filled with novels by Jane Austen and Dan Brown; many with cosmopolitan dreams of travel and adventure. But instead of finding a land of justice and piety, they found themselves trapped within the most brutal terrorist regime of the twenty-first century, a world of chaos and upheaval and violence.

What is the line between victim and collaborator? How do we judge these women who both suffered and inflicted intense pain? What role is there for Muslim women in the West? In what is bound to be a modern classic of narrative non-fiction, Moaveni takes us into the school hallways of London, kitchen tables in Germany, the coffee shops in Tunis, the caliphate’s OB/GYN and its ‘Guest House for Young Widows’ — where wives of the fallen waited to be remarried — to demonstrate that the problem called terrorism is a far more complex, political, and deeply relatable one than we generally admit.

This is such a hard book to review because I don’t know where to start. There’s so much packed into this that to talk about it coherently is a task because there’s so much I want to say that it all overlaps in my brain. But this was such a fantastic read, an attempt to investigate and explain what made women (and in many cases, girls) leave behind comfortable existences in wealthy countries to travel to Syria and join ISIS.

It isn’t actually that simple. For the most part, these women and girls weren’t leaving to join ISIS – they were leaving to join what they thought was going to be a new caliphate, a new Muslim nation where they’d be free to live their life the way that they wanted to. Many were devout Muslims disillusioned with their homelands, the ways in which they were judged or even forbidden to cover their hair, the fact that their religion was something to be hidden away. They wanted to be able to live openly in a way that they believed they were intended. What they got, for the most part, was something incredibly different. It was in most cases, bombed out war zones, marriage to ISIS soldiers, motherhood, widowhood, remarriage to another ISIS soldier and then sometimes, death.

It’s so easy I think, for people to think that these women deserved what they got – and that’s certainly the way that western media chose to portray them. As terrorist sympathisers or even gleeful, willing participants. And for certain, there were probably some just like that. But for many others, this was a chance they took to do something that they felt that they were supposed to do. To be a part of a new Muslim nation that would place those values first. And this book tries to examine why women and girls from some predominantly progressive countries turned their backs on their upbringing and journeyed into Syria. But there was something, in these vulnerable and often oppressed women and girls, that made them susceptible to the dream of a new life. They were canvassed online, they were canvassed at the one place they were free to socialise unrestricted – their local mosque. Sometimes they were women fleeing domestic violence and disillusion in their marriages and lives. It seemed somehow like something better was being offered.

We all know it wasn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact of what these people were seeking, how they were searching for something that they didn’t think they could have where they were. In some cases, these girls were fifteen. That seems like old enough to make their own decisions but it’s heartbreakingly young. These girls had their families vilified in the press, that it must be their fault, that they must’ve raised them like this. That Britain, in particular, were harbouring hoards of baby would-be terrorists and that is the problem with immigration isn’t it? It fed and nurtured a racist rhetoric, creating even more of a divide in communities. Like chucking a hand grenade and then sitting back to watch the fallout. There’s a whole section on how after the first girl from Bethnal Green fled, the police (Scotland Yard) interviewed her friends. They didn’t do it with parental consent and participation, instead they gave the girls themselves an actual note to take home to their parents. The girls didn’t bother to pass the notes on and not long later, three more of them left for Syria. There was a chance, to stop those three girls from following their friend and yet one of the supposedly best counterterrorism organisations ‘forgot’ to inform the families of these girls who were considered a risk to join, that their friend had left for Syria. That their own daughters were considered possibilities to follow her. They were fifteen. They should never have been interviewed or spoken to without their parents present. My oldest child is 11. Just four years younger than those girls…..and four years is nothing. The British Foreign Minister said that the girls knew they were travelling to a country without an embassy and now they must face the consequences of that. Once again, they were fifteen and who the fuck even knows anything about embassies and what they do and where they are and where they aren’t at fifteen? And even if you do know, it’s like abstract knowledge that doesn’t actually mean anything to you. At fifteen, you’re not actually old enough to understand the consequences of making such decisions.

And now the question remains, what happens to some of these girls? The ones that are still alive, that is. They are only 19 or 20 and widows now. Some have given birth to and lost children in refugee camps with little in the way of medical treatment. Some regret the mistakes they made, buying into the paradise they were sold, others have become so radicalised by their recruiters and the movement, that they still support the ISIS achievements, even if they no longer support the failed group itself. Whose responsibility are they now? In many cases, the countries they grew up in have (or have tried to) wash their hands of them, stripping them of citizenship. Technically you’re not allowed to leave a person stateless, so countries are arguing over whether or not some of these recruits have claim to citizenship of other countries through their immigrant parents. I don’t know what the answer is – some of them were just children but above the age of criminal responsibility. Others were adults, suffers of trauma or oppression, some just seeking what they thought was a better life. Some probably did and witnessed deeply terrible things. But I’m not sure you can just abandon citizens, simply because they broke your laws or supported something that was deeply problematic. And it’s not as simple as “they’re all terrorists”. Some of them definitely went there looking for a way to cause pain and enjoy violence – but a lot of them did not. There were a number of reasons why people were drawn to this and I think until there’s an acceptance of all of them, it’s going to be difficult to move forward. And now, with tensions rising in that area yet again, it’s even harder for the people that are still in refugee camps there. Displaced Syrians and Kurds as well as leftover ISIS brides and the like. Do they bring them home to their relevant birth countries and pursue them there under terrorism laws? Do they attempt to rehabilitate them, with counselling and education? Or do they leave them there, forever. And the ones that escaped to Turkey and nearby countries after they realised they had to get out? What do their futures hold?

I enjoyed the way that this book alternated chapters of the women’s stories with ones that highlighted the history of the relevant areas, because it’s incredibly complex and there was a lot I didn’t know, particularly the sections about Tunisia. There was a lot I found myself sympathetic to – not ISIS itself, or its methods and regimes, but definitely people who longed for a place where they felt they could be themselves. And I wondered about the vulnerability of young people that made them ripe for this style of recruiting. Young girls who felt like they didn’t belong, girls who had lost their mothers, women who had endured arranged and violent marriages to distant husbands. Girls who wanted to be more devout with their religion and felt they couldn’t do that in places where they lived. Men who desperately wanted to find work and couldn’t, in a country that was going through vast political change and upheaval, where corruption was rife and it was impossible to get work unless you knew the right people. These are all people who felt like their options were exhausted. It’s impossible to learn from something unless you understand it.

It’s not a perfect story – although I did like the format, sometimes I wanted more about the girls and women themselves and a bit less history, because those sections are dense and detailed. And it has to be limited in who it introduces, so there are plenty of other stories out there and I’m sure it cherry picked some of the more complex ones, some of the more sympathetic ones. Sometimes keeping each of the thirteen women straight was a challenge, especially when they changed their names or had very similar names – like Shamima Begum and Sharmeena Begum (no relation but both were from Bethnal Green).

I’d love a follow up of this in a few year’s time, to see where some of these women are now and what has happened since.


Book #169 of 2019


4 responses to “Review: Guest House For Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

  1. I have not forgotten that I’m to read my copy soon so we can discuss. Bumping it up after this review!

  2. […] Guest House For Young Widows: Among The Women Of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni. A divisive book, I have no doubt. This tells the story of some of the {young} women who were lured to join a new Muslim caliphate. In some cases, they were as young as 15 and married off almost immediately to ISIS soldiers. A lot of them are widows, some have been widowed more than once. And now the debate rages about what to do with them. My review. […]

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