Inside Looks at the Women of ISIS

Book review: Guest House for Young Widows, by Azadeh Moaveni (Amazon / Book Depository)

She looked at the girls in the shadows of the backseat, as they drove past grain silos whose towering outlines were visible in the dark. How little they knew what awaited them. They would soon find out that the caliphate ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi troubled itself little with the Prophet’s law. That his men used the ancient punishments meant to instill an otherworldly fear — the chopping off of hands, of heads — as bloody, nihilistic gang rituals. The girls seemed to imagine they were en route to some Romeo and Juliet scenario in the desert. How could they not know? Asma wondered what or who had bewitched these girls, that they would travel all the way across Europe and cross this desolate stretch of border in the dead of the night, in order to voluntarily become citizens of the place that, every day, made Asma question the existence of God himself.

In 2015, Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni wrote an article for the New York Times depicting life for some of the women and “enforcers” living under ISIS in Syria. It’s a moving read, and demonstrates choices and reasoning of women working for the Khansaa Brigade, the female “morality police” patrolling IS-held cities like Raqqa. It also shows their resolve crumbling as the punishing brutality of the regime hits its citizens ever harder.

But surely the choice that stokes the most curiosity is the one made by women from outside nations — Germany, Great Britain, Tunisia (although Syrians are also portrayed) — often educated and living safe, economically secure lives, to travel illegally to Syria, marry fighters and live under the bloody caliphate seen as terrorists beyond its boundaries. What made these women, some of them extremely young, choose to risk everything, their lives included, to support this brutal regime?

In Guest House for Young Widows, Moaveni expands on the personal stories of former female followers of ISIS, including those introduced in the article from the Khansaa Brigade. Among the others are the infamous Bethnal Green trio of teenagers from London, a housewife from Frankfurt, a German who converted to Islam, and several young Syrians who chose cooperation to survive. She recounts their personal and family histories, immigration backgrounds, and the complicated factors that led them to decide living under the caliphate was what they wanted, that it was the only way. Moaveni is not sympathetic with ISIS, but rather with the conditions and circumstances, including failures in the women’s families, communities, and adopted countries to address the issues that they sought solutions for in ISIS.

I started out wanting to write a book that painted milieus. If readers could be transported and helped to hear and see Tunis, London, Frankfurt, and Raqqa as these women experienced those places, they could perhaps start hating them a little bit less, and begin to understand the histories of loss that formed in the context of their deeds.

But in the course of writing, I quickly realized that a vivid portrait of milieu was not enough. A broader canvas was required, because the story of the women of ISIS is messy and sprawling, and encompasses so many strands that it could simply be described as the story of our present, and of our recent past.

Over a dozen women are profiled, all with very different biographies but common threads running through them. Moaveni’s writing is exquisite. You can get an idea from the article linked above, and although that piece stuck with me, I wondered how it would play out at book-length, which often means filler. But it’s brilliant — nuanced, sensitive, richly detailed, and most importantly, it illuminates the dark, seemingly unfathomable corners of this issue. It’s coming at a crucial moment too, as countries worldwide are faced with the decision of what to do with the hundreds of women and children, including former ISIS adherents, held in Middle Eastern detention camps.

Moaveni intersperses chapters from the women’s lives with chapters providing background and analysis on ISIS and the conflicts that gave rise to the group, including its genesis from the US-led War on Terror. This was well structured so as to be easily understandable — no small feat for this topic. This includes some exploration of the men involved, as it’s impossible to understand the women’s choices without understanding men’s roles and choices, or perceived lack thereof.

America’s War on Terror had created an enduring, transnational third dimension, a lethal space of limbo, untethered from the rules-based international order, in which suspects were passed around, held indefinitely, tortured, and executed. The West had become more extreme, and professed confusion at the extremism that arose in response.

Although it’s written page-turningly, it’s a book that requires you to pay close attention. Perspective shifts every chapter to a different woman. I found this easy to follow because the women’s identities and backgrounds are so thoroughly established that they become familiar and identifiable. It would be easy to get lost in though, because it reads like fiction with often poetic turns of phrase, with the reader getting to see, and actually understand, so much about the women’s inner worlds.

The gulf that separated belief and disbelief was impossible to cross.

That’s what’s ultimately so valuable here, and I would go so far as to say is unprecedented through Moaveni’s access, rapport, and patience in allowing her subjects’ thought processes to play out. Why did any women choose this path, or feel there was no choice but going to a war-torn place of restricted personal freedoms and shortages of nearly everything, where rape, immediate marriage, almost guaranteed widowhood, and quick remarriages regardless of assent awaited? Here’s how and why it happened. Here’s where things went wrong. It’s too important to ignore.

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS
by Azadeh Moaveni
published September 10, 2019 by Random House

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

27 thoughts on “Inside Looks at the Women of ISIS

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  1. Wow! For the life of me, I cannot construct a decent scenario where these women’s choices make sense and then you feature this book. That it would connect the threads to bring me a better understanding and, even more importantly, present some logic, flawed though it may be, fascinates me. I’ve got to explore this one.

    Outstanding review, Ren💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It’s a baffling thing to try and wrap your head around, but she paints their lives so vividly and all the steps that led to their decision. Their choices were often more limited than it seemed. I also think it’s vital to look at why women in particular chose this, since we’ve spent so much time dissecting why men did. It’s flawed logic, as you say, and sometimes teenage dramatic nonsense, but the bigger issue is that there wasn’t secrecy around these choices. Families, friends, community members knew at least in part what was happening, the progression into extremism isn’t subtle. And governments have to decide now what to do with these women, with the situations and circumstances that led to their choices still unchanged at home. It’s very tough but the author did incredible work in laying out why it’s happening. I hope you’ll read it, glad I could introduce you to it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for featuring such a relevant and illuminating book. Don’t know what I’d do without your contributions to my social science education💜 Yes, I love my fiction but it’s a way to balance my thirst for understanding this complex world we live in.

        I was able to get the audiobook! Someone needs to tell me this story.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m so glad to hear it was of interest to you and that you were able to get a copy! I also love when what you’re reading is not only great storytelling but helps to understand more about the world and current events. This one is phenomenal in that respect! Excited to hear what you think of it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I could persuade you — I promise it’s worth your time! I haven’t read anything else of hers besides her work in The NY Times. Is there one of her others you recommend? I loved her writing here.


  2. Adding this to my book wish list without hesitation. One of the ISIS brides from the UK was in the news not so long ago, she had a baby who died while she was in a refugee camp. The UK authorities did not want to let her back in the UK, I think they withdrew her citizenship, I don’t know what has happened to her now. All so sad and so difficult to understand why these young girls were allowed to travel to Syria.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it is such a sad situation. I think the one that was in the news you’re describing was one of the Bethnal Green girls, wasn’t she? Or was it a different one? I read that one was stripped of UK citizenship and Bangladesh refused her citizenship too. There’s definitely a big issue here about their family, friends, and communities dropping the ball on recognizing their intentions when there were sometimes opportunities to stop this or address the issues that were leading to them becoming more extreme. The book is amazing, hope you’ll like it and excited to hear your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I think she was from Bethnal Green. It’s strange, sometimes I get the feeling that people are very quick to intervene in the behaviour of teenagers for relatively minor things e.g. banning them in groups from corner shops or from hanging around the streets but then dropping the ball on serious issues – or maybe not wanting to get involved because it would be difficult and open up lots of issues…i think it’s complex, a friend of mine worked with teenage girls who were vulnerable to exploitation but even their own parents can’t stop them staying out all night, they seek excitement and escape (possibly from a difficult home life) and are outwardly very savvy and determined. Ack, what do I know?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know what you mean, and you’re so right. there’s such a difficulty because of potential intrusions on religious freedom. I really don’t know what the answer is, beyond the responsibility falling even more on people close by who see these kind of changes happening in someone, teenagers especially. But also taking responsibility ourselves for helping immigrants to better integrate and have opportunities so that sense of us vs. them doesn’t grow.

        Something here that was also tricky was the online life aspect – I’m sure you know as a parent that you can’t control or monitor everything that a teen is doing online, on their phones, etc. and unfortunately ISIS capitalized on that with online recruiting and charismatic preachers and young recruits. It’s so scary.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. thank you Ren for this excellent review.
    i also find the fate of ISIS widows and children very awful and how many states are refusing them to allow them back unfortunate it’s just like these children who are innocent are sacrificed for the sins of their parent.
    some of my relatives who lived in the UK have also joined this death cult and i feel sorry how easy some of Muslim youth can be radicalized easily through the internet

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember you telling me that, that you had some relatives who had joined. Unbelievable. I’m so sorry your family has had to deal with that. I think you’d get a lot out of this one. And you’re right, we have to come up with better solutions for their children or this cycle is just going to repeat.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. thank you Ren for this excellent review.
    I also find the fate of ISIS widows and children very awful and how many states are refusing them to allow them back unfortunate it’s just like these children who are innocent are sacrificed for the sins of their parent.
    some of my relatives who lived in the UK have also joined this death cult and I feel sorry how easy some of the Muslim youth can be radicalized easily through the internet


  5. I just saw that this book has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize. The longlist also includes The Five (the Jack the Ripper one) which by sheer chance I picked up at the library yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to look this up immediately, what a list! This one would absolutely be deserving, as would The Five. They were both amazing. I also loved Furious Hours but I think I’d prefer one of the other two. I’m a bit surprised that On Chapel Sands (“Five Days Gone” in the US) got nominated as I thought it was underwhelming. The others sound intense, I could imagine the one by the imprisoned Turkish journalist might win it. Thanks for sharing! Let me know what you think of The Five!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Will do! Have just finished My Friend Anna which I gulped down greedily, it’s like a friend telling you the huge muddle she has got in and there is, I admit, a little bit of Schadenfreude and relief that it did not happen to me, in my reaction. 😱


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