Review | Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS – Azadeh Moaveni

About the Book

An account of thirteen women who joined, endured, and, in some cases, escaped life in the Islamic State—based on years of immersive reporting by a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Among the many books trying to understand the terrifying rise of ISIS, none has given voice to the women in the organization; but women were essential to the establishment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. 

Responding to promises of female empowerment and social justice, and calls to aid the plight of fellow Muslims in Syria, thousands of women emigrated from the United States and Europe, Russia and Central Asia, from across North Africa and the rest of the Middle East to join the Islamic State. These were the educated daughters of the middle-class as well as working-class drifters and desolate housewives, and they set up makeshift clinics and schools for the Islamic homeland they envisioned. Guest House for Young Widows charts the different ways women were recruited, inspired, or compelled to join the militants and how all found rebellion or community in political Islam.

It wasn’t long before the militants exposed themselves as little more than violent criminals, more obsessed with power than the tenets of Islam, and the women of ISIS were stripped of any agency, perpetually widowed and remarried, and ultimately trapped in a brutal, lawless society. The fall of the caliphate only brought new challenges to women no state wanted to reclaim.

352 pages (hardcover)
Published on September 10, 2019
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This was a library loan.

I put off reading this book for a while, but recently I saw the audiobook on my library’s website and decided to give it a download. It’s not an easy listen. The subject matter is divisive and difficult, and there really aren’t any happy endings. There’s a saying that basically goes, there are no winners in war, and I think the conflict in Syria is the perfect illustration in that. No one won. Everyone lost. And, arguably, it is still happening in one form or another. 

The thing that has always fascinated me with Isis, that you just never saw with other radical movements, was this vast swath of people relocating for the cause. No one really did that for Al Qaida, but for Isis, men and women were picking up and moving to Syria in droves, sometimes alone, sometimes their entire families would come along. And, perhaps the plight of the women was the most interesting to me. These (usually) young women from countries all over the world, relocating to arguably play a role in their own subjugation. Why… why would anyone want to do that? 

And it’s been discussed. Of course it has been discussed. Entire documentaries have been created that talk about the Isis movement, but usually all of this discussion is from a very Western point of view, and a lot of the issues that move women to join Isis are so bogged down in Western jargon and perspective that it makes no real sense why something like (insert thing here) would inflame a sixteen-year-old girl enough to just pick up and leave. 

This book isn’t like that. Written from a very pro-Muslim point of view, it really dissects social issues in a way that I, frankly, have not seen done before. From the Arab Spring, to issues surrounding the media in the UK, to the clash of cultures with Muslims living in Western countries, and general life dissatisfaction, all of this is covered here, and in a much different light so, while I don’t agree with the sentiments these women felt, I understand, more or less, where they were coming from and why they would feel the way they felt—an outsider in their world, and why the appeal of this far off place was so strong for them. 

That being said, this book is a lot about radicalization, and that’s what surprised me more than anything else. How these people in these radical Muslim groups seemed to know just who to target, and just how to do it. They had their marks—the depressed, lonely, dissatisfied, misunderstood, misfits, etc. They knew exactly who to ply with their messages, and they knew exactly how to twist their Muslim faith just enough to sell their product to these desperate, lost youths in just the right way. They’d slowly suck the lives out of these people. It would start with a friendly introduction, and then it was activities every day, and constant text messages, and Youtube videos and on and on, until these women were eating and drinking this stuff all the time, constantly. Until there was nothing else for them to absorb but this call to Syria and the great glory of this Islamic state. 

And outside of those Muslims who live in Western societies, a few of the women covered in this book are from Tunisia, where there was huge political unrest, and poverty, destitution, and societal insecurity drove a whole lot of men and women to Syria, because that appeared to be the only opportunity they’d have to make money, and do something other than hope that tomorrow would be better. 

As we know, nothing ended up the way anyone wanted it to. Not those under Isis, and not the rest of the world. Now, there are huge refugee camps, and one of the largest relocations of people in human history. Despite the fall of the caliphate, there are still ardent, devout believers. Women, who have given up everything, are living out there either believing, or not believing, in the thing that brought them there in the first place. Countries around the world are trying to figure out how to deal with their citizens who moved to Syria to fight in this war. There are still a whole lot of Isis pockets around the world. It’s not gone, and I do worry that the next generation is growing up equally as indoctrinated as those who joined the caliphate in the first place. An entire generation of children living in refugee camps are still growing up knowing nothing but war, and someday we, the world, will have to reckon with that. 

So yeah, this book is not comfortable, and it’s not happy. It’s a hard, incredibly disturbing read about the slow slide into radicalization, and the often-catastrophic results of said journey. Not every woman the author covers survives to the end of the book. Not every family gets reunited. I don’t think any story ends happily. I don’t think I expected them to, but I also don’t think I expected to be this… bothered… by it. And it’s not that any of this really surprised or offended me on any real level. I knew what I was getting going into this book. What bothered me, perhaps, is just how sick and pervasive this radicalization was, and how it just blew apart and shattered so many lives. I suppose destruction is different when it has a face and a voice. When it’s humanized.

I can’t imagine being the sixteen-year-old girl leaving school in London to join Isis. I equally cannot imagine the hardship her parents must have faced after they discovered their daughter missing. 

I cannot imagine the mother who had to get the phone call that her daughter was never coming home because she died in an air-raid. 

I can’t imagine being one of the mothers raising their children in a refugee camp. Children who, quite literally, will likely never know anything but war, fighting, and poverty, the likes of which none of us can understand. 

In the end, I do feel like books like this are incredibly important. To understand radicalization, to understand how movements like Isis even begin, we have to know how people are being pulled into them. We have to know why dissatisfied people decide to become suicide bombers, rather than write the local newspaper, or effecting change on a local level. We have to understand what is being said, and why it appeals to people. 

It’s like looking in a mirror just so we can examine our ugly spots, as a society. That’s never something any of us want to do, and it’s never comfortable, but it is absolutely necessary. To stop tragedies like this from happening again, we have to understand what allowed it to happen in the first place. 

But my god, this book made my soul hurt. 

On a more writerly note, in the end I decided to minus a star from this book’s rating because there were so many women covered, and there was no real order to their stories, that sometimes I had to go back in the book a bit to remind myself who was who, and what they were up to the last time the book touched base with them.

I also would have liked a lot more of life under Isis. In this book, what is mostly covered is how these women got involved in Isis in the first place. There are some highlights of their lives under the caliphate, but not many, and then there are a few escape journeys told, but again, not many. While I think the focus of this book was correct, with its focus on indoctrination, spliced with current events and how local Muslims in various areas could have interpreted them, my personal curiosity regarding life in the caliphate wasn’t really satisfied. Then again, that’s not really what the book is about so this point is really neither here nor there.

I will also say that I do think sometimes the author went a bit out of her way to be overly sympathetic with some of these characters. While I do think it would be very hard to divorce yourself emotionally from stories as fraught through as these, there were some occasions where I did feel like she bent over backwards to paint these women in a better light than they, occasionally, may have deserved. 

In the end, I am really glad I read this book, and it is not one I am likely to ever forget.

4/5 stars


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