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A gripping 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.
FINALIST FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
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 diplomats, trainee doctors, teenagers with straight-A averages, as well as working-class drifters and desolate housewives, and they joined forces to set up makeshift clinics and schools for the Islamic homeland they’d envisioned. Guest House for Young Widows charts the different ways women were recruited, inspired, or compelled to join the militants. Emma from Hamburg, Sharmeena and three high school friends from London, and Nour, a religious dropout from Tunis: All found rebellion or community in political Islam and fell prey to sophisticated propaganda that promised them a cosmopolitan adventure and a chance to forge an ideal Islamic community in which they could live devoutly without fear of stigma or repression.
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.
Azadeh Moaveni’s exquisite sensitivity and rigorous reporting make these forgotten women indelible and illuminate the turbulent politics that set them on their paths.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Guest House for Young Widows
Spring 2007, Le Kram, Tunis
After the niqab incident, Nour was suspended from school for ten days as teachers and the principal deliberated how to respond to a thirteen-year-old flirting with religion. No one summoned Nour to speak to her about why she had shown up at school wearing a niqab, or whether something was wrong at home. Nour just wanted to be virtuous, to be dutiful to her God and ensure her place in heaven; she was also an adolescent, and it made her feel alive to defy something and play around with her identity. But no one asked precisely why she felt that covering her face was her religious duty. Had they given her the chance to mention the YouTube sheikh, they might have informed her there were opposing and indeed stronger and more valid scholarly views. Instead the principal summoned Nour and her parents to the school and, in the presence of a disgusted-looking policeman, made her sign a pledge to never cover her face or hair again.
In the period that stretched from its independence from France in 1956 to the 2011 revolution, Tunisia was said to be a secular country, but the state’s approach to religion was not so much secular as simply authoritarian. The state controlled how Tunisians practiced Islam, down to the daily, physical details of their worship—dictating what women could wear, when men could go to the mosque—and it did so with the totalizing scrutiny of a police state. President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence, was enamored with the French model of laïcité—secularism in public affairs, aimed at bringing about a secular society—and, when he took office, brought Islamic learning and instruction under the full control of the state.
In doing so, he upended centuries of tradition. Tunisia was a country with a deep Islamic heritage stretching back to the late seventh century, when the Arabs wrested control of North Africa from the Byzantine empire. Though the boundaries of the Islamic world shifted continually over time, expanding as far as Spain and Sicily, the region of Tunis remained firmly within the heart of successive Muslim empires. Al-Zaytuna, Tunisia’s historic center of religious learning, dated back to 737 CE. When Bourguiba took power, he shut it down. He abolished religious courts, turned imams into civil servants, and bowdlerized religious texts used in schools. He sought to end fasting during Ramadan, arguing that Tunisians couldn’t develop without shedding such dogmatic habits; he drank orange juice on national television during the holy month to make his point. Like many of the Middle East’s twentieth-century nation-building modernizers, he believed that society needed growth and discipline to modernize and catch up with the West, and that Islam inhibited those qualities.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who seized power from Bourguiba in 1987, further instrumentalized religion to establish his authority. He allowed radios to start broadcasting the call to prayer, went on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and promoted folksy Sufi festivals, pushing a curated, “moderate” Tunisian Islam that, as an ethos, made full submission to the state a core principle.
In 1989, he allowed candidates of Ennahda, the religious opposition movement, to participate in elections, but when they fared well, Ben Ali tortured and imprisoned them. He also shut down mosques and expanded restrictions on wearing the hijab. Mosques were locked up outside prayer times, and police crept through the streets at first light, making note of who had risen for the dawn prayer.
Despite all this, the state did not manage to turn Tunisians into either state-friendly Sufis or secular proto-Parisiennes; the majority remained conservative, traditional Muslims. Under the chokehold of repression, asserting control of one’s religiosity became a means of challenging the state. Young women like Nour, who grew up curious about religion, often resorted to watching sheikhs on satellite channels broadcast from the Gulf countries, whose approach to Islam was far more rigid and puritanical than the “Zaytuna” school that had been native to Tunisia for centuries.
Generations of young Tunisians grew up identifying as Muslims, but their worship and religious identity were fraught with political meaning. For many, being religious became a language through which to demand freedom from the state’s intrusion into daily life.
When school started back up a week later, Nour showed up at breakfast in her pajamas. Her mother told her she was too young to make her own decisions about her future, and that she had better go get dressed. She consented. But the incident had doubled Nour’s conviction to wear the niqab, and now, instead of changing surreptitiously by the bakery after she left the house, she put it on openly at home, wore it through the streets, and only took it off outside the school. In the classroom, she felt like a specter, a girl the teachers refused to look at or speak to.
“You should be wearing it too,” she told her mother reprovingly. Nour’s mother, a housewife with four other children to look after, didn’t know what to say to this aggravating teenage daughter. Nour often lectured her mother about taking Islam more seriously. Her mother, it seemed to Nour, had no thought-through position on why she didn’t cover her hair, apart from it saving her humiliation on the street and visits to the police station. These were weak positions, Nour thought; not even positions, just a base instinct for self-preservation.
President Bourguiba had famously called the veil “that miserable rag” and banned it from schools and public offices in 1981. There was grainy footage of him pulling the white scarf off a middle-aged woman’s head, on the street on the day of the Eid festival at the end of Ramadan; the woman looks startled and embarrassed, and her fingers flutter to pull it back up, but the president pulls it down as if correcting a child, and pats her cheek indulgently. Since 1981, Tunisian women were obliged to go bareheaded in public spaces such as schools, universities, banks, and government buildings.
Like other modernizers in the region, Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Bourguiba didn’t explicitly advocate that women abandon Islam, but he made clear that he wanted them to act secularly: to mingle bareheaded in mixed company, to dress in modern Western fashion. Along with this, he granted women sweeping rights in voting, marriage, and child custody that rapidly made Tunisian women the most literate, educated, and independent in the Arab world. liberator of women is engraved on Bourguiba’s mausoleum, but whether it was liberation for all women or just for some women would become clear in later generations.
Nour’s mother, like many in her generation, went along with this model pragmatically, because there were more people than jobs in Tunisia, and she had a family to support. Everyone saw what happened to the families of the resistant women in the neighborhood, the stubborn women who insisted on covering their hair and engaging in religious activism. These families were nervous wrecks, in and out of police stations, living at the brink of poverty, with fathers, husbands, and sons who were imprisoned or in exile for dissident activity. Nour’s mother recounted these ghoulish stories often, hoping her daughter’s ears would catch some basic truths: the story about the woman who married an Islamist and arrived at the wedding reception to find it swarming with police ripping the headscarves off guests; the stories about nighttime home raids of those suspected of “religious” activity.
She told Nour about a woman three blocks over who was raped by policemen one night during a raid on her house and went mute for a whole year. “A whole year, Nour, she didn’t utter a word. Every week, we would ask, ‘Has she said anything?’ And they always said, ‘No, not yet.’ ”
Nour understood these stories were meant to scare her, but she remained stoic. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a test then, would it? Allah loves those most whom he tests the hardest.” That was true, according to the Quran, but that line had also become a rose-filtered meme popular among teenage Muslim girls.
A few months into her existence as a specter at school, Nour told her parents she’d had enough. “At least finish and get your certificate,” her mother said. But Nour could not see how it was possible to learn anything when she felt herself reviled by the teachers. Nothing entered her head anyway, not how to graph an atom or the qualities of a hypotenuse. What was the point?
She quit school in 2009. Now, instead, she spent her mornings at home helping her mother clean and cook. After lunch she read the Quran. The neighborhood mosque had a prayer room where girls could meet to talk and discuss religion, and it was here that the imam’s wife befriended her.
Nour liked the imam’s wife’s spirited laugh and genuine conversation, the small lessons she gave that illuminated aspects of the religion—lessons about the mindset to bring to prayer and the importance of charity, and how it would ennoble a person. She told Nour stories about the prophets, about Moses and Jesus, and most of all, stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s qualities. The Prophet said: “Guard yourself from the Hellfire even with half a date in charity. If he cannot find it, then with a kind word.” Nour could manage half a date, and feeling like she could help others, even when she herself had so little, was heartening. She wasn’t as powerless as she thought. When the imam’s wife invited other women over for a circle of discussion, Nour was often too shy to say very much herself. But she listened avidly and took it all in.
Azadeh Moaveni is the author of Lipstick Jihad and the co-author, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, of Iran Awakening. She has lived and reported throughout the Middle East, and speaks both Farsi and Arabic fluently. As one of the few American correspondents allowed to work continuously in Iran since 1999, she has reported widely on youth culture, women's rights, and Islamic reform for Time, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times. Currently a Time magazine contributing writer on Iran and the Middle East, she lives with her husband and son in London.