Guest House for Young Widows: The Women of ISIS

By Azadeh Moaveni

Random House. 338 pp. $28

Reviewed by Erica Pearson

The night before running away from her London home to join ISIS, Sharmeena hopped on the Jubilee line with her three best friends to go shopping. The warm clothes the teen had ordered online from Forever 21 hadn’t arrived yet.

Guest House for Young Widows: The Women of ISIS is full of these kinds of contradictory details, combinations of ordinary and extreme.

Journalist Azadeh Moaveni uses years of powerful, intimate reporting, including interviews with women who joined the Islamic State and their families and communities, to show how smart young girls, girls who watched The Princess Diaries and went to Zumba classes, became radicalized.

She brings the reader inside kitchen table talks between families and to places inside the caliphate, like the “guest house for young widows,” where they wait to be remarried after their fighter husbands die.

Moaveni, a former Time magazine Middle East correspondent and the author of the memoir Honeymoon in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad, shifts between the stories of Sharmeena and 12 other women from 2007 to 2016 while telling the broader history of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the impact of the U.S.-led war on terror, Syria’s civil war, and the Islamic State’s rise and fall.

All the detail and history allows Moaveni to describe these girls in a way that’s both relatable and admirably anchored in context. Still, because the book is structured chronologically and metes out just 20 pages on one girl’s story before going on to the next, moving from Tunisia to Germany, to England to Syria, it was hard to hold onto the thread of each account until it came around again many pages later.

I found myself wishing Moaveni had focused more deeply on fewer characters, especially Sharmeena and her London girlfriends, and a Tunisian woman named Nour.

The book begins at the moment that Nour, influenced by a sheikh she watched on YouTube, decides to veil her face with a niqab and go to school even though the covering was banned. Her literature teacher yells at her to “take it off” and ends up shoving her, hard, provoking tears and a riot among fellow students. For Nour, wearing the niqab was a rebellious teen decision.

As Moaveni details the ways that Nour and the other young women become more religious and yearn to live a different life, she shows the powerful influence of YouTube clerics, women blogging from inside ISIS, and savvy local recruiters.

Moaveni details ISIS’s cruelties, beheadings and hypocrisies — but that isn’t the focus here. Much of the book is, instead, about the moments before these women make the decision to join ISIS.

Moaveni writes that she felt frustrated that most accounts of ISIS’ women either depicted them as “naive jihadi brides” or “calculating monsters.” In Guest House for Young Widows, she shows that their decisions were much more complicated, and that many of them were children when they made them.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune.