Azadeh Moaveni offers what is sure to become a modern classic, answering the question of how Muslim women become, as the Western media puts it, “radicalized.” In Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis, Moaveni persuasively argues that the West’s broad narratives of radicalization fail to account for the lived experiences of Muslim women. She seeks to remedy this by following a group of a dozen women over the last decade, each of whom individually (or occasionally, in a group) made the momentous decision to move to Syria to become the bride of a fighter in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
These women differ in nearly every conceivable way. Some are from Europe (Germany and England), while others are from Africa (Tunisia). Some are barely teenagers, while others are heading into middle age. From isolated divorcees to devoted little sisters, the propaganda of the Islamic State deeply resonated with these women, and they headed for a literal war zone to live under a government that promised to expressly adhere to the laws of Islam.
The stories are utterly captivating, particularly when Moaveni turns her attention to a group of teenage girls in East London who sneak to Syria under the noses of their astonished teachers and parents. Moaveni offers a deep dive into this story, providing a glimpse into the blogs these teens were reading, the images they were posting to social media and how Twitter enabled bloggers to act as direct emissaries to the caliphate. Indeed, the role of social media—from YouTube to Twitter, from Facebook to WhatsApp—cannot be overstated.
Moaveni not only provides granular views of particular women as they navigate this sociopolitical minefield but also situates these stories in a broader cultural context, rendering them legible in compelling ways. She raises as many questions as she answers, wondering, for example, what will fill the void left by ISIS and how the home cultures of these vulnerable women could have interceded in their responses to online rhetoric. I couldn’t put the book down.