Moaveni interviewed many women about their experiences. Some dreamt of travel, freedom and adventure. Others living in the region had little choice but to join, to guarantee their safety, protect their families or ensure an income. Many foreigners were actively lured.
Men in IS (referred to as ISIS in the book) were promoted and paid to recruit women; Moaveni argues the organisation’s gender strategy was crucial to its success. “It recruited young women and it used those recruitment circles to get more and more young women who weren’t married and could come over and marry the fighters, and slightly older women, saying ‘Come and you can have a role in the Caliphate, whatever you’re good at, come and do it’.
“It tapped in to all of this female energy that was not being addressed. All of these female anxieties country to country,” she says. In Saudi Arabia and Iraq, women are not allowed any involvement in politics.
When their husbands were killed, the women were forced to marry another fighter, housed in the guesthouse of the book’s title until ‘‘matched’’.
In the west, Moaveni says, we tend to view everything through the lens of terrorism, which “obscures what we’re really dealing with”. “It’s great to tackle English language as a pathway to assimilation, really good to look at institutional racism as it targets Muslims, but [looking] through an extremist lens is not helpful.”
The Syrian revolution and the invasion of Iraq, which gave rise to IS, reflect a broken architecture in the Middle East that will lead to generation after generation of chaos that groups like IS can exploit. She argues western countries are invested in long-term political instability in the Middle East. “They’re unstable, no one gets the upper hand, every 10 years the state implodes, you have to send all of your contractors and aid workers in to help rebuild.
“Exclusion from politics, country to country … was a big part of the draw for IS. All these terrible states that are dictatorial and terrible and they don’t govern well and whole swathes of people are excluded from politics and it impacts women in particular because if you’re a woman you really suffer doubly under a bad government because it’s a bad government and it’s patriarchal.
“This broken political map, at the level of the citizen – especially the woman citizen – is suffocating people.”
Many countries are trying to work out how to deal with the men and women – and their children – coming back from this kind of conflict. The challenges of rehabilitation are stark but there is a strong security argument for countries bringing back their own, she says. “At least you can watch them and have them under strict surveillance and you don’t have 1000 floating westerners moving between this unstable crescent … waiting to join the next generation of IS or whatever emerges.”
Many politicians around the world are against repatriation. “Who wants to be the government who brought back the jihadi people from Syria?”
For her, it’s the only course of action. “People need to know that these people who went have gone through some sort of justice process … Some sort of prosecution and public accounting of what happened would then make their return feel more acceptable.”
Moaveni says many of the IS marriages became protection marriages. “In the middle of a war zone you could get out of a guest house that was really horrible, you had someone who could protect you. The women started to see that, too. That’s something that we don’t recognise about IS – you couldn’t get out of IS.”
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS is published by Scribe at $32.99.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald