In the summer of 2014, a Tunisian mother named Olfa took her two oldest daughters to work with her in Libya cleaning houses. For some time, Olfa had been shocked by the teenage girls’ vehement turn toward strict religious observance. It had all started when Rahma and Ghoufran visited a dawah tent—dawah means to call, invite or summon in Arabic and encompasses many forms of religious proselytizing. These gatherings had proliferated since the Arab Spring had broken out in Tunisia more than three years earlier and the country’s all-powerful, anti-Islamist police state had crumbled. Ultraorthodox Salafist groups, whose supporters claim to live as the Prophet’s companions did, and who often act as the ultimate arbitrators of proper Muslim behavior, suddenly became visible and popular.
The father of Olfa’s daughters was an absent alcoholic. Olfa herself worked long hours outside her own home and often clashed with Rahma, who was hardheaded and outspoken. Rahma had started refusing to sit next to her nine-year-old sister at dinner, calling her a kafira—an unbeliever—because she didn’t cover her hair.
One morning Ghoufran didn’t show up for work in Libya. Rahma told her mother that her older sister had gone to join ISIS in Syria. The aftermath of this revelation is described by Azadeh Moaveni in Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS: “Olfa knelt down and began kissing Rahma’s feet, weeping and begging her daughter, ‘Tell me where she’s gone, don’t take your sister away from me.’” The fifteen-year-old remained implacable:
Rahma slipped a hand into her pocket, waved a scrap of paper with a phone number, and shoved it into her mouth. “I won’t say a thing,” she said. Olfa grabbed her throat. Rahma grasped at her mother’s hands, her eyes watery, and swallowed. … Rahma straightened her headscarf, pulled back her shoulder, and smilingly began to recite, “There is no God but God…”
At this point, Moaveni recounts, Olfa “smacked her in the face. ‘Shut up with your dawla bullshit!’” Dawla (“state”) is the common Arabic shorthand for ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist organization and rogue state that dominated the news and imagination of the world so completely just a few short years ago.
While definitive numbers are hard to come by, it’s estimated that between 2011 and 2016 as many as forty thousand foreign fighters traveled to Syria. A disproportionately high number of fighters, as many as six thousand, came from Tunisia, where after the collapse of the Arab Spring resentful security services did little to prevent jihadist recruitment. About five thousand people joined from Europe; 17 percent of them, Moaveni tells us, were women.
At first, recruits joined one of the various armed factions that formed after the uprising against the dictator Bashar al-Assad turned into a civil war. Later, a great number went to join ISIS after it was officially established in 2014 and would go on to absorb or eliminate other armed groups and gain control of large swaths of northern Syria and Iraq. Recruitment by ISIS peaked between 2014 and 2016, coinciding with its most spectacular acts of violence. There were beheadings of Western hostages; mass executions of Iraqi Shia soldiers (ISIS follows Sunni Islam and views Shias as heretics); public stonings and crucifixions; the extermination of men and sexual enslavement of women who were Yazidi, an Iraqi religious minority; terrorist attacks by its supporters in European capitals. ISIS made unprecedented use of social media to project terror as a form of propaganda and intimidation. (When it captured a Jordanian air force pilot, it conducted a survey with the hashtag #SuggestAWayToKillTheJordanianPilotPig, and settled on burning him alive.) It also produced slick promotional videos promising recruits a life of material ease, moral order and personal dignity.
In Guest House for Young Widows, Moaveni, whose previous books include Lipstick Jihad, a memoir about growing up as an Iranian American and returning to Iran as a journalist in 2000, tells the story of over a dozen different women who joined the Islamic State. She was able to interview some of them over the course of several years; the stories of others she reconstructs through the accounts of friends, relatives and the media. She tells us about Aws, Asma and Dua, a trio of women who are living in Raqqa when it is taken over by ISIS, and who go on to marry ISIS fighters or join its female morality police, which targets other women for alleged transgressions. Another recruit is Emma, a German convert to Islam who has changed her name to Dunya and fallen in love with a young Turkish-German man named Selim. In 2014 she follows Selim to Syria to support the Islamic State. Then there are the three fifteen-year-old girls who, also in 2014, sit in the living room of their absent friend and lie to her father, pretending they have no idea that she has left for Syria to join the Islamic State. The three are British-born daughters of immigrants from Ethiopia and Bangladesh. They get good grades in school, are well-behaved and well-liked; within months, they leave the U.K. on a flight to Turkey. (The British press wastes no time branding them the infamous “Bethnal Green trio.”)
Common threads run through the stories. Many of the girls are from single-parent homes. One teenager flees shortly after her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage; a young woman escapes an unhappy marriage to an unloving, abusive husband. Several recount as a turning point their decision to veil or wear the niqab—which covers the face entirely—an act that gives them a feeling of power and peace, and frees them from the need to worry about their appearance or social status. Several are recruited by women they meet at their local mosque who paint, in Moaveni’s words, a world of “Muslims pitted against the kuffar, the unbelievers; an epic global struggle of Muslim suffering in places like Palestine and Syria; the urgency of building a real Islamic state.”
In the caliphate, at first, life is exciting and the women are pleased with their new homes and their fighter husbands. But when a woman is widowed—which happens frequently—she is forced to stay in a “guest house,” a communal home for single women that is made as unpleasant as possible in order to encourage women to marry or remarry right away. Some women are solicited for marriage before the obligatory idda waiting period of four months and ten days stipulated by the Qur’an, one of many ways in which ISIS, while claiming to return to the origins of Islam, violates fundamental rules. The women discover that the utopian Islamic State they’ve been promised online is riven by racism and discrimination, hypocrisy and vicious squabbles over status. “A lot of us left our families and came to this place, because we wanted to live in a country that follows real Islam,” a woman named Khadija tells Moaveni. “I lived under the Islamic State for four years. I didn’t see a single thing that resembles real Islam. All they cared about was women, pleasure, money, and power.”
As the Islamic State comes under coordinated international military attack and the caliphate crumbles, living conditions become more and more dire, and punishments for suspected treason more draconian. Fleeing, particularly for women, is nearly impossible. Kadiza Sultana, one of the Bethnal Green trio, regrets her decision within a year. “I don’t have a good feeling. I feel scared,” she tells her sister on the phone. “If something goes wrong, like, that’s it.” She dies in an air strike before she can manage to escape.
In Guest House for Young Widows, Moaveni claims that Western observers have been too transfixed by revulsion at ISIS “to fully appreciate the conditions that gave rise to the group’s female adherents,” urging that “we must look at the women who joined the group with more nuance and compassion.” Having such a perspective, she comes to argue by the end of the book, would allow Western readers to understand these young women’s actions as the extreme manifestation of legitimate grievances against autocracy, injustice, Islamophobia and Western imperialism—grievances that must be heeded if the problem of extremism is to be addressed rather than written off as an unsolvable Muslim aberration.
Moaveni was appalled by the vicious treatment of the Bethnal Green girls in the British tabloids, which called them “in-house whores for Isis” and warned them never to come back. “I was struck by how the most noxious things said about these girls were said by other women, in fact women who would otherwise identify as liberal feminists,” Moaveni writes. As a counterweight, she sets out to humanize her protagonists and cultivate some empathy for them. Unfortunately, and despite her best efforts, she fails. With some exceptions—such as her account of the clash between Olfa and Rahma, in which the anger, grief and defiance of the Tunisian mother and daughter leap off the page—the women whose stories Moaveni tells do not come fully into focus as individuals. Instead, they remain a blurry collage of biographical details.
This is partly because Moaveni almost always chooses to paraphrase the thoughts and words of her protagonists instead of quoting them directly. When one Lebanese woman decides to leave her children and estranged husband behind in Germany and travel to Syria to join a man she met on the internet, Moaveni writes, “Would she be happier in a new life with an upstanding, devoted, faithful husband, in a fractious atmosphere—or alone in a women’s shelter in Frankfurt? The choice seemed obvious to her.” Again and again, Moaveni steps in to give a plausible account of what the women were thinking or feeling; but one is left wondering how much this account emanates from the women themselves and how much its terms are ones they would actually use—rather than being part of the author’s effort to fit them into a framework she and her readers are already familiar with.
Moaveni’s narrative technique actually has the effect of keeping her subjects at a distance. Often, the biggest decision in these women’s stories—to travel to the Islamic State, or to marry an ISIS fighter—passes in the blink of an eye, leaving more questions than answers. The narration creates the impression that Moaveni doesn’t quite trust her subjects enough to let them speak for themselves, that she feels the need to intercede on their behalf. For example, when we’re told how Asma, a university student with a boyfriend and no sympathy for ISIS, nonetheless joins a women’s brigade, Moaveni unpersuasively explains that Asma is putting her beliefs—about women’s right to study, work and have authority—into practice. Yet it is a claim we never hear articulated by Asma herself. Elsewhere, Moaveni writes that husbands told their wives that ISIS violence was a necessary and justified response to the violence of the Assad regime and the West. “How much of it they believed is something they could hardly say themselves,” she writes. Might she not have pressed them to explain themselves on this point, though?
Moaveni compensates for a lack of depth with a dense tangle of narratives and a trail of vivid but at times extraneous details. We learn the color of a dog sleeping at a bus station in Istanbul, what kind of sandwich a woman ate on her trip to Syria—but not what was going through her head. I’m not faulting Moaveni for failing to make all of these women’s decisions intelligible to me. I doubt that’s possible. The problem is not that I can’t fully understand these women. It is that I can’t quite see or hear them.
Reading Guest House, I couldn’t help thinking of two books published in recent years that offer startling insights into people who lived under the Islamic State, and with voices that resonate distinctly and at times disturbingly. In his 2016 book Les Revenants (published in English as The Returned), the French journalist David Thomson interviewed young French men, and a few women, who traveled to Syria and eventually returned to France. Keeping his own commentary to a minimum, Thomson allows them to tell their stories in their own words, sharing details about their home life, their education and eventually their day-to-day life in the Islamic State. Several of the interviewees eloquently describe their adolescent disenchantment with the vacuousness of modern life, their desire to find a higher, heroic calling. The women, like the men, discuss the appeal of the dawla as a means to invert relations of power, to move from being the dominated to the dominant. A woman named Safya says to Thomson: “I would tell myself that power in France only belongs to unbelievers whereas it should belong to Muslims. … I felt inferior before I joined the dawla. When I joined the dawla I felt powerful, above everybody. Like: ‘Yeah, I’m with the Islamic State, what about it? You don’t have the right to say anything to me, I’m better than all of you.’”
The interviewees discover that ISIS is corrupt, racist and hypocritical, yet nevertheless they still support its goals, which they believe have been imperfectly realized. Safya only returns to France because she is pregnant and doesn’t want to give birth in Raqqa’s primitive hospital without an epidural. In her denunciation of France and the West, she is callous, unrepentant, contradictory, virulent. She is also vivid; reading her words one feels the shock of coming up against a human being with a frighteningly different view of the world.
A complement to Les Revenants is the extraordinary The Beekeeper, in which the Iraqi poet and academic Dunya Mikhail collects the stories of Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS but managed to escape with the help of the titular beekeeper, a Yazidi man running an underground railroad out of ISIS-controlled territory. In these stories, women in ISIS households often abet the abuse of Yazidi women, but sometimes they are their allies.
Zuhour, for example, is captured, auctioned at the slave market in Raqqa and bought as a servant for an ISIS fighter and his two wives. When she is too exhausted to work, the wives complain, and the fighter beats her. Her next “master” starves her and her three children. They escape; walking down the street, they slip into the first open door they see. It is the workshop of a seamstress named Reem, who unhesitatingly hides Zuhour from the fighters searching for her throughout the neighborhood. But the seamstress’s own father fights with ISIS, so every three weeks, when the father returns from the battlefield, Reem has to hide Zuhour and her children in a storeroom, with a stash of food and instructions to be very quiet. They hide for 69 days; Reem and Zuhour become friends. Finally, by calling random numbers in a Kurdistan phone book, they reach Zuhour’s uncle, and a rescue is arranged. Reem refuses any compensation for her help; nonetheless, they send her a thousand dollars. Reem calls Zuhour to thank her. “I wish I had gone with you,” says the daughter of the ISIS fighter to the escaped Yazidi woman.
In another story, a Yazidi woman has lost her father, mother, three brothers and other relatives. She has escaped an ISIS fighter who used to tell her that it was part of jihad for him to rape her every night and who also used to rent her to other fighters when he needed money. “In the past, we used to walk down the street, meet people, and feel good about seeing them,” says this woman, after she has been rescued and taken to a refugee camp. “Now it’s just the opposite. I don’t want to see anyone. I want to be alone—but I’m not very comfortable when I’m alone either. Inside of me there’s something enormous, something enormous but broken into pieces.”
In Guest House for Young Widows, none of the women Moaveni has interviewed speak this nakedly of their aspirations or regrets. Generally, they are disinclined to introspection; they may come to regret the consequences of their actions, but they don’t express remorse. Quite a few think of themselves as misguided, manipulated, victims of circumstances beyond their control. Moaveni seems to accept this narrative, if not to help craft it; she appears hesitant to probe too far into the women’s ideological commitment or complicity.
Yet some of the women remain true believers. One Tunisian woman Moaveni profiled, married to an ISIS fighter, stopped wearing the veil after years of brutal and pointless police harassment in Tunisia. But in 2015 she admits that she supports three coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, which have just killed hundreds of civilians: “They kill our people. They don’t play by the rules. Why should we?”
Moaveni’s narrative ends in 2016. At this point, Rahma, the Tunisian teenager, is in a detention camp in Libya, where she had gone to join an affiliate of the Islamic State. Dua, Aws and Asma, the Syrian women who married ISIS fighters and worked for ISIS, have fled Raqqa and live as refugees in the Turkish town of Urfa. When we last see Dunya, the German convert, she has left Selim and is dithering in a village in northern Syria, worrying about how to bring the cats she adopted in Syria back to Germany, obsessively changing her WhatsApp profile and planning, after serving time back home, “to go off religion for a while.”
Last year, Shamima Begum, one of the surviving British schoolgirls, was discovered by a journalist in the al-Hol refugee camp, where about seventy thousand people who lived under the Islamic State are being held (two-thirds of them are children). About nine thousand children and women—including the foreign ones and the most radical elements—are being held in a separate and reportedly particularly miserable section of al-Hol. Many European countries have so far refused to repatriate their nationals from the camp.
As Begum made her way to the camp, her two small children died. She gave birth to another child in the camp and wanted to return to the U.K. In an interview with a BBC journalist, days after giving birth, Begum was prodded to express contrition. It would have furthered her chances of getting home, and yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to follow the script; she said she was sorry about the innocent women and children killed in a recent terrorist attack in the U.K., but then immediately pointed out that the women and children of ISIS who had suffered under bombardments were just as innocent.
I can’t say I’m surprised by Begum’s overall affect. She was shell-shocked, bereaved, nineteen years old; she had lived under the Islamic State for four years. When I watch the interview, her numbness and her obduracy make her real to me. “I think a lot of people should have, like, sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through,” Begum told the media. To the contrary, the U.K. foreign minister stripped her of her British citizenship; she recently lost an appeal of that decision. Begum’s baby boy died of pneumonia.
Moaveni wants us to feel sorry for all these women, to view them as victims as much as collaborators. Her underlying argument is that the West needs to acknowledge its role in their predicament, having sponsored “the overarching wars, conflicts, and authoritarian repression that have created the grievances and space for extremism to thrive.” Instead, Moaveni argues, terrorism experts have “sought to promote the idea, which culminated after 9/11 in the War on Terror, that the West was up against enemies of such unfathomable evil that engaging with their causes or motivations was pointless.”
While this claim ignores the nuanced work of many academic scholars of terrorism, what Moaveni says is true of the general tenor of media and policy discourse. It has been easier to dismiss ISIS as monstrous—which is exactly what the group wanted to be to a Western audience—than to take responsibility for the part the West played in the collapse of Iraq and Syria, where years of war created a vacuum in which the group could grow; or for the alienation of second-generation Muslims in Europe, where they are the victims of discrimination and a strident anti-Muslim discourse.
But Moaveni makes another argument that I find less persuasive: ISIS was effective at recruiting young Muslims because it represented the extreme manifestation of a widely shared worldview and sense of grievance. ISIS’s “overarching portrayal of the state of the Middle East and its apportioning of blame on Western state interventions and policies,” she writes, “was so widely shared it could not in fairness be called the ISIS view at all, but the broad sentiment of many Muslim and Arab publics, in the region and in the West, that was simply articulated by ISIS with its own twist and political agenda.”
It is certainly true that many Arabs and Muslims blame Western policies and military interventions for bolstering authoritarianism and inequality in their countries, and for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. I blame them for it myself. But ISIS’s view goes well beyond a critical or even conspiratorial view of Western foreign policy. It calls for an endless no-holds-barred war between the adherents to its version of Islam and everyone else. ISIS’s sickening violence and brief but dramatic territorial expansion obscure the fact that it was only able to recruit a tiny number of Muslims in the West and across the Arab region to support it. ISIS was a terrifying yet fringe phenomenon; its young supporters, many of whom did not have a strong religious education, broke with the Islam of their parents and communities, getting their ideas from other teenagers and online jihadist influencers rather than from the local mosque.
“What is the difference between an extremist and a very upset Muslim?” Moaveni quotes Olfa, the Tunisian mother, as asking. The obvious answer is: a huge one, grounded in the actions they take. Most of us are very upset about a great number of things in the world today, yet very few of us act on our discontent by cutting ourselves off from our families, traveling across the world, risking our lives and actively supporting a genocidal millenarian militia.
Moaveni questions the very idea of “radicalization,” putting the term in scare quotes and describing it skeptically as “some fuzzy ideological process” and “a notion that reliably elicited Western donor funding to local civil society organizations.” But what these women did strikes me as very radical indeed. I’m not sure how else to describe their often extremely rapid journeys, encouraged by resourceful online groomers and recruiters, into adopting an extreme, intransigent worldview.
Moaveni suggests that these young women might not have supported ISIS if they had been aware of “other avenues for dissent and other ways to help vulnerable Muslims across the world,” such as “human rights law and political activism, or postcolonial studies or conflict reporting or humanitarian work.” Because it does not fit with her overarching narrative, Moaveni does not consider the possibility that the women she interviewed may have been attracted to ISIS precisely because it was extreme—a dream of absolute certainty, power, transformation; the chance to commit, body and soul, to a totalizing ideal. Maybe for this small group of teenagers, the embrace of a radical choice wasn’t a default for lack of better options; maybe it was what they wanted. The years required to become a human-rights lawyer, the drudgery of activism, the complexities and compromises of humanitarian work: Would they have found that appealing? Moaveni doesn’t ask them.
I agree with Moaveni that the women she profiled and their children should not be left to rot in al-Hol, and that the reaction of Western governments has been hysterical (the repatriation of one alleged female ISIS supporter recently fractured the government in Norway, when the ministers of one party withdrew in protest). The question isn’t whether these women are guilty, morally and legally, of supporting terrorism. I would argue that they all are. Even in the case of the very young, of the very lost, there is a kind of stupidity that, for all intents and purposes, is indistinguishable from evil. But there is no reason to declare this evil exceptional, their guilt irredeemable—no reason not to submit them to the test and limits of our legal systems. If serial killers and mass shooters can be tried in court, then so too can “jihadi brides.” Rendering them and their children stateless is a shameful abdication of responsibility.
But I don’t agree with the assumption, on which Guest House for Young Widows seems to be based, that empathy leads us to justice. The book acts as a long argument for the defense, in the case of the West versus the women of ISIS, and at times it is even a convincing one. Yet I can’t help feeling that our rights should not be based on the ability of someone to make us seem likable, pitiful or sympathetic.
And like a defense lawyer, Moaveni has to keep things simple, emphasizing superficially humanizing detail, straining for narrative arcs that make the women relatable to her audience. The result is that she often shies away from the uncomfortable questions and skips past the gaps and contradictions that lie at the heart of their stories.
Where Moaveni and I part ways, I think, is in our conception of empathy—of the kind of understanding of others and ourselves that writing can offer. Empathy can only be directed at individuals who come to life in our imagination. But rather than digging deep into a few women’s stories, Moaveni works to fit many incomplete accounts, like puzzle pieces, into a bigger picture—an argument about who is ultimately responsible. To do this, she portrays dozens of women from different countries and backgrounds who have nothing in common except their decision to join ISIS. She describes the many political, cultural and socioeconomic factors that could explain these women’s actions—but since those factors affect millions, the question lingers: Why did this particular woman make the leap she did? There are individual mysteries that the book, bent on building its broader case, only grazes.
And there are flashes of complicated insight that the specifics of one life and tale can sometimes ignite, even or perhaps all the more when that life shocks or disturbs us. I was left wishing that the book had focused more on that kind of insight than on well-intentioned advocacy. I wanted to get to know some of these women better, regardless of whether it would have made me like them better.
“She had choices and she made this choice,” says Olfa, the furious, guilty and heartbroken Tunisian mother, of her unrepentant daughter. There is another kind of empathy, more difficult and yet worth risking, than the one Moaveni pursues: when we acknowledge as human what is ugly, blind and fierce, what repels us even as we cannot help but recognize it.
Image credit: Lorenzo Meloni, Magnum Photos