Guest House for Young Widows: Love, mourn, repeat: the hellish life of Islamic State widows

Lisa Smith isn’t included in Azadeh Moaveni’s fascinating account of 13 women and teenage girls who left their homes and families to join Islamic State, but it’s impossible to read Guest House for Young Widows and not think of her. From Dundalk, and a former member of the Irish Air Corps, Smith moved to Isis-controlled northern Syria shortly after her conversion to Islam. Under investigation here for terrorist offences, last March Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the “compassionate thing” would be to allow her to return.

London teenager Shamima Begum, whose story Moaveni features, was shown no such compassion: earlier this year, the then British Home Secretary Sajid Javid made the controversial decision to remove her British citizenship.

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In early 2014, the Islamic State clinched its control of Raqqa in Syria. Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, urged Muslims around the world to join the caliphate. Having witnessed the brutal oppression of the Assad regime in Syria, thousands of men and women responded. Guest House for Young Widows follows the stories of Shamima from east London, Nour from Tunis, Emma and Lina from Germany, and nine others, all of whom left their homes and families to heed Baghdadi’s call.

But the exalted social position and wonderful new life each believed was waiting for them doesn’t exist: instead of finding a promised land of justice and piety, one by one they find themselves living within the most brutal terrorist regime of the 21st century, trapped in a world of chaos and violence. This hellish new life contains the permanent threat of widowhood: the “guest house” of the book’s title is a place, “of such deliberate uninhabitability that few women could stay long without going mad”. The word deliberate is crucial: by keeping newly-widowed women in terrible conditions, they are far more likely marry again quickly and compliantly (a process summed up perfectly by the title of the book’s final section: ‘Love, Mourn, Repeat’).

Moaveni rejects the common stereotype of the ‘Isis bride’ as a malevolent woman intent on destruction and murder. With her in-depth exploration of each woman’s individual reasons for going, she shows us that, rather than blind faith or teenage folly, there were multiple and sophisticated motivations behind each decision. There is a sense of diverse forces exerting a form of coercive control in some of the accounts, such as when a charismatic imam persuades Emma, the daughter of a German mother and Spanish father, that “wearing hijab makes you a message… you become a happy signal”.

Lina, also from Germany, can’t make her father and stepmother understand “how faith soothed her”. Nour, whose story opens and closes the book, we first encounter as a 13-year-old in Tunis in 2007. “Had Nour been born to an upper middle-class family… she might have rebelled by piercing her tongue,” Moaveni tells us. “But she was a daughter of Le Kram, a working-class neighbourhood in a country where the state micro-policed people’s piety, and putting on the niqab was a natural act of defiance for a teenage girl.”

Having listened repeatedly to a sheikh on YouTube argue why the face veil was obligatory for Muslim women, Nour wholeheartedly believed that, “it dimmed the visible differences between rich women and poor women, dark and fair, beautiful and plain: it was a reminder that God loved all His creations equally”.

Our last sight of Nour is in Le Kram 11 years later, being interrogated for weeks in a detention centre and even when released, harassed by police on the street.

Occasional slightly glib comments jar, such as when we are first introduced to Asma, a marketing student from Raqqa in Syria, with the line: “She was on Facebook and Instagram, listened to Coldplay, and, like women the world over, felt there was something ineffably unappealing about Angelina Jolie.” But, with its decision to put individuals rather than ideology front and centre, combined with painstaking research and a strong structure, it’s no surprise that Guest House for Young Widows has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non Fiction. A journalist who has reported throughout the Middle East for two decades, Moaveni is completely in control of her material in this hugely complex subject.

She wants us to consider where is the line between victim and collaborator? These 13 women have inflicted pain but have also suffered hugely. How are they to be judged? In the epilogue she notes: “I am acutely aware that these stories do not tell the comprehensive story of all Isis women… the context is there to illuminate, not to justify.”

She closes by wisely reminding us that, “judgment remains that prerogative of the reader.” Judgment yes, but also, when we consider the future of those like Shamima Begum, still only 19 and having lost all three of her children, compassion.

Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni Scribe, hardback, 338 pages, €23.79

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