Taking a new look at women of ISIS
LONDON - Unhappy with media reporting of three schoolgirls from East London who eloped to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, journalist Azadeh Moaveni explores the reasons women from across the globe ended up being ISIS brides in her book “Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS.”
Moaveni said she was struck by the anger and contempt displayed towards the girls. “They were described as concubines for the caliphate. Nowhere was there a sense that they were victims. It was hard not to see their race as being part of their excommunication from Britishness,” she noted while introducing the book at London’s Frontline Club.
In 2013, thousands of women poured into the caliphate. They were from North Africa and the Middle East, Europe, Russia, Australia and the United States. Women formed 17% of all European travellers to the caliphate. They included daughters of diplomats, trainee doctors, teenagers with straight-A averages as well as low-income drifters and desolate housewives.
The book follows 13 women — some very young, others older; some educated, some not — as they sought to join ISIS. It charts the various ways the women were recruited, inspired or compelled to join the militants, a process that often ensnared their lovers, relatives, teachers and neighbours.
The book is divided into five chapters: “Inheritance of Thorns,” “Gone Girls,” “Over and Out,” “Citizens of the Abode of Islam” and “Love, Mourn, Repeat” — telling the story of each woman and interspersed with developments and the demise of the caliphate.
In “Inheritance of Thorns,” Moaveni tells the story of Lina and her struggle in an arranged marriage. With her husband she moved from Beirut to Germany where she worked night and day in a restaurant owned by her in-laws. She fled after her husband allegedly tried to kill her and lived in a women’s refuge in Germany.
Through Facebook, she met Jaffar who described what life was like with ISIS. Would she be happier in a new life with an understanding, devoted, faithful husband, in a fractious atmosphere or alone in a women’s shelter in Frankfurt? The choice seemed obvious.
In July 2014, Lina flew to Gaziantep where she was met by a Turkish man waiting outside the security gate holding a sign with an agreed-upon name. The next day, she was driven with other women to the Syrian border where thousands of foreign fighters crossed with ease. By the evening she was in Raqqa in a women’s hostel. Jaffar met her and soon they were man and wife.
The couple lived in Tal Afar, a small Iraqi town on a dry desert plain near the border with Syria before it fell to ISIS. Jaffar worked in ISIS communications centre on the outskirts of the city and lost a leg when the centre was bombed by the US-led coalition.
In the spring of 2017, Lina and Jaffar moved to Raqqa in anticipation of Tal Afar coming under increasing attacks. Lina was pregnant. Jaffar’s mother was sending them money from Germany and begged them to leave. ISIS was collapsing and the Iraqi Army and Shia militias were reportedly executing ISIS detainees on the spot.
A smuggler was paid to take Lina and her two children to Turkey but went in the wrong direction and they ended up in northern Syria in the area controlled by the Kurds, who had no reason to treat fleeing ISIS women kindly.
Moaveni writes from the perspective of the women and provides background information that might make their actions intelligible. The context is there to illuminate not to justify and judgment remains the prerogative of the reader.
The “guest house” from which the book takes its name is an actual place of such deliberate inhabitability that few women couldn’t stay long without going mad. The discomfort is intentional; the worse the conditions in this limbo between marriages, the more likely the widows are to accept whichever husband they are told to marry next.
Moaveni drew attention to the fact that thousands of ISIS women and children linger in camps and detention centres across the Middle East, stressing the risks of stoking another cycle of precisely the same resentments that led to the creation of ISIS.
Moaveni has lived and reported throughout the Middle East and speaks Farsi and Arabic fluently. In November 2015, an article she wrote was published on the front page of the New York Times on ISIS women defectors and was part of the Times’ ISIS reporting that became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her writings have appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times and the London Review of Books and she teaches journalism at New York University in London.