BookBrowse Reviews Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

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Guest House for Young Widows

Among the Women of ISIS

by Azadeh Moaveni

Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni X
Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni
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    Sep 2019, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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About this Book



In this in-depth account of ISIS, Pulitzer Prize finalist Azadeh Moaveni profiles thirteen women who chose to join the terrorist group following its ascent to power in the 2010s.

In her fourth book, Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni presents a riveting study of young Muslim women who searched for purpose by joining ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the turbulent years following the 2011 Arab Spring.

Covering the years 2007 to 2017, Moaveni—who has reported on the Middle East for two decades—profiles thirteen young women who grew up in Germany, Great Britain, Tunisia, and Syria. As different as their backgrounds are, each chose to become a muhajirat, a female traveler who emigrates from her home to live within ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate. Over time many became disillusioned by the contradictions they noticed between the teachings of the Quran and the atrocities they witnessed within ISIS. For example, women were severely punished for slight dress code violations and ISIS fighters unflinchingly killed other Muslims. Most of the young women's jihadist husbands also died in combat, leaving them traumatized and vulnerable, often with infants to raise. Trapped in a cycle of violence, they found themselves pushed to remarry another fighter.

The author probes the social and emotional tensions that likely influenced each girl to abandon her home. We meet Tunisian-born Nour, who first rebels against her community by deciding to cover her face with a niqab at high school. Nour is punished because the secular government in power forbids girls and women to cover their heads in schools. In Germany, Lina becomes radicalized after a disastrous first marriage, and Emma decides to join ISIS after learning about the group on social media. Four teens from one well-regarded high school in London become known as the "Bethnal Green girls" after they run away from home, determined to marry fighters in the caliphate. All thirteen women have led compelling lives, but it's difficult to keep track of such a large cast of players. Moaveni also skips around in time as she alternates between recounting more of each woman's tale, making the storylines even harder to follow.

In spite of this, the author carefully renders the complex geo-politics of the Middle East. She discusses Tunisia's 2010 Jasmine Revolution that ousted unpopular President Ben Ali but ultimately led to greater social instability. She also surveys the 2011 Arab Spring, when thousands of women participated in large public demonstrations calling for change. Their grievances were myriad and included demands for human rights, inclusion in the workplace, and educational opportunity. Yet, change is difficult; millions of people remain discontented, unheard, and underserved by authoritarian power systems, which rely on brute force. The author makes it painfully clear that oppressive political regimes across North Africa and the Middle East are propped up by violent police suppression.

Much of the book excavates political undercurrents in Syria, digging up the history of the nation's complex civil war, which began in 2011. War had destabilized Syria to the extent that a charismatic, ruthless militant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could declare an Islamic State and seize a vast territory of land. At its peak in 2015, armed ISIS terrorists controlled a region about the size of Great Britain. In one especially memorable passage Moaveni sums up the origins of ISIS's rise to power:

It is the story of the Syrian civil war, the failure of Arab nation-states to provide lives of meaning and security to citizens, the failure of the Arab Spring to rectify that. It is the legacy of the American invasion of Iraq, the Sunni Iraqi insurgency that followed, and the War on Terror itself, with its dissolution of legal rights and norms.

As of October 2019, following years of conflict, the region is still unstable, with ISIS forces scattered but still active. The situation has been worsened by the Trump administration's sudden withdrawal of a thousand U.S. Special Forces troops who had been deployed in Syria to contain the jihadist group. On October 13, hundreds of supporters of ISIS easily escaped from a detention center in Ain Issa, in northern Syria.

Some of the young women interviewed by the author remain stateless. Emma, for instance, escaped from ISIS to a town near the Syrian-Turkish border, but encountered resistance when she petitioned the German consulate for help. Shamima Begum, one of the Bethnal Green girls from London, was still at the Al Hol refugee camp in late September 2019 after having been stripped of her British citizenship. Kadiza, another Bethnal Green student, was killed by an air strike in Raqqa.

Reading this book has expanded my view of the contemporary world, and altered my thinking about a wide array of topics, but I had some trouble navigating the text. I often felt lost without a map to show particular regions and towns in England, Germany, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The absence of a timeline such as this makes it hard to track the rise and fall of ISIS in relation to the Arab Spring and other major events of the decade (See also Beyond the Book for an overview of ISIS). I also would have appreciated a glossary. Especially for Anglophone readers, the text's many locations, people, organizations, and Arabic words are intriguing, but hard to remember at once; I had to toggle between the book, a map, and the internet in order to fully understand the text.

Still, Guest House for Young Widows offers unprecedented insight into the recent history of Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq as well as the rise of trans-national political movements. Moaveni, who recently penned an impassioned op-ed about migration and ISIS, is a talented writer, and this detailed book is an essential addition to library and academic shelves. Readers and book groups willing to dive into the many complex themes presented here will find provocative ideas for discussion and peace-building.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

This review first ran in the October 16, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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