Guest House for Young Widows: among the women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni


Azadeh Moaveni set out to write this book because she ‘was disturbed by media accounts of the Bethnal Green girls’ disappearance, and the special culpability that was assigned to them as consorts of evil, despite their very evident youth.’


‘This book follows thirteen women—some very young, some older; some educated, some not —as they sought lives in, or in support of, the Islamic State.’

The women come from the UK, Germany, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya and Iraq.  Each of these women travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

I read this book looking for some insight into why these women made their choices.  Each story is slightly different: motivations are personal.  But the one thing the stories have in common is that each woman was seeking to move from a world in which they felt disenfranchised to one where they would belong.

In early 2014, the Islamic State controlled Raqqa in Syria. Muslims around the world were urged to join the caliphate.  And some men and women did.  Those recruiting preyed on the vulnerable, those who were religious enough to feel drawn but not educated enough to know better.

Azadeh Moaveni makes the following important point:

‘Immigrant parents were poorly equipped for the challenges of contemporary parenting in the urban twenty-first-century Europe.  They behaved as though they were still back at home in Bangladesh or Ethiopia, where there was a surrounding cushion of extended family and friends supporting their parenting, casting a protective eye on all the children around them, because that is the way children had always been raised, collectively.’

Change, discontent, a feeling of being different and of not belonging.  In a world where social media is ubiquitous, recruiting is made easy.  In Syria, many were widowed.  The pressure to remarry was intense:

‘To be a widow in the Islamic State was to be condemned to a rough, deprived existence in a guest house for widows.’

I found this book difficult to read.  While I now have some insight into the choices some of the women made, I can’t agree with them. And yet, should those who are still alive be condemned to live uncertain lives as a because of a choice (or choices) that at least some of them now regret?   And what about their children? I don’t know.  And not knowing makes me uncomfortable.

‘All the women in this book are singular, real people.  I have changed the names and some minor biographical details of some, in order to ensure their privacy and security.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith