Title: Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS
Author: Azadeh Moaven
Publisher: Scribe UK
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.
I thought this was a thought-provoking and at times shocking read, about the women from all over the world who, for whatever reason, decide to become a part of ISIS. I think Azadeh writes with humanity and respect for these subjects, showing how they go to the point of abandoning their own lives to become an Islamic State wife, and how some of the political history of the Middle East has influenced their decisions – but of course doesn’t excuse them.
I have seen some reviews lambasting these women, and the author for portraying them in a sensitive way – ‘because how can anyone share these views?’ But I think this just highlights some readers’ ignorance on the subject. I absolutely do not condone these women’s actions or views, and felt a lot of revulsion when reading many parts of the book – I can honestly say I despise anyone who carries out the actions of ISIS – but we have to understand that there are some reasons for why people feel the West has so harmed their communities. We’ve carried out so many atrocities in other countries, often for terrible reasons too, so I think it would be short-sighted if the author had not highlighted these and shown that there are some reasons for these women feeling the way they do.
However, I absolutely felt uncomfortable reading a lot of this book because the idea of wanting to run away and join an organisation such as ISIS just so alien to me – but then I am also not a Muslim so I can never imagine the attraction of wanting to join and help build the Syrian caliphate. I don’t feel like this is a bad thing – I can’t imagine anyone would feel no sense of unease reading about the horrendous actions of ISIS and the way these women were drawn into joining them. The suject matter is, after all, shocking and disturbing.
The womens’ stories are told throughout the book in alternate chapters, and peppered throughout is information about Middle Eastern history and politics which I found really helpful but hard to process at times. There are a lot of names in this book, which at times felt a little confusing to keep track of, but then again the book does follow many women and their stories.
It’s interesting to read about some of the women’s experiences in life and how, although many grew up in very different countries to our own, such as Tunisia and Syria, parts of their lives are quite similar. It was surprising to hear them talk about pop bands I’d heard of, and experience the same problems and considerations as British women. This helped me think of them as actual people.
I found the beginning of the book a little slow at times but did find myself drawn in as it continued; I think the second half of the book was my favourite. Guest House for Young Widows is an interesting and thought-provoking read, and around a subject that deserves to be explored more, despite having been so widely discussed and covered in the media (particularly the Shamima Begum in British newspapers). It’s refreshing to read an alternative account of what happened in many of thes cases, even if we as readers don’t agree with all of the views of these women.