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Book review: Jihadi Jane, the Women who ‘love’ ISIS

By Parvin Sultana for Twocircles.net,

Author: Tabish Khair

The holy month of Ramadan was marked by frequent attacks by ISIS in different parts of the world. From Iraq to Bangladesh to the graveside of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), ISIS managed to unleash its brutality. Among many other things the incidents especially the Dhaka killings have again brought forth some problematic issues – a prominent one being why affluent young men would go and join ISIS.

Tabish Khair in his new book Jihadi Jane engages with a similar topic: why relatively privileged women would decide to go and become jihadi brides. Intermittent news of women joining ISIS fighters as wives voluntarily, women being forced to do so and being sold as sex slaves have flowed in. Jihadi Jane traces the radicalization of such young women.
Based in Yorkshire, the book revolves around two friends Ameena and Jamilla. They are anything but similar – Jamilla is the daughter of an orthodox Pakistani migrant, while Ameena is the daughter of Indian Muslims who have migrated to Britain. Ameena would often take a dig at Jamilla – the serious hijab wearing pretty girl. But problems in school and a bad break up left Ameena down and alone. It was then she took to visiting the local mosque with Jamilla where they met other women and talked about religion. Coming from a broken family, Ameena found respite in Jamilla’s home and family. The changes in Ameena’s outlook were slow and subtle but could not escape Jamilla’s eyes. Ameena traded her jeans with loose trousers and started wearing a hijab. Taking part in animated discussions with Jamilla’s brother Mohammad and his friend Ali, she would often make a case for doing something against the persecution of Muslims. While Mohammad and his friend would enjoy a moral high ground talking about such things, Ameena’s agitation was real.

It was around this time, that many sympathizers of ISIS started using social media to reach out to people. And the girls came in touch with someone called Hejjiye – an entrancing woman working with the ISIS. They cannot pinpoint why they took to liking her – was it her beautiful cat Batala, her stylish Gucci bags, her amiable relationship with her co-wives or just her righteous take on the fight? She would talk to these girls about their duty – that is to be wives to the jihadis and support the cause. Ameena’s decision was an ideological one, while for Jamilla it promised a kind of freedom – to live a life as a pious Muslim without being gawked at and to escape a marriage which her mother was pushing her into.

Left with too few options, they both made their way to Syria to fight for the ‘cause’. On reaching there they started working in Hejjiye’s Orphanage and school for young girls. Ameena was soon married off. While the war torn cities of Syria already took away some sheen from the cause, the conditions in the orphanage further disillusioned Jamilla. Convincing young girls to become suicide bombers was one such. When a young teacher Halide mentioned that Quran forbids killing oneself, she was severely punished. All these paved the way for skepticism.

Ameena’s own life saw many ups and downs. Hassan’s cruelty knew no bounds and made Ameena doubtful about her own convictions. For her the breaking point was when a young servant boy Sabah was beheaded for being Yazidi and Ameena was lashed for trying to save him. Ten year old Sabah was almost a son to Ameena.

Ameena comes back to the orphanage and she is left to repent. It is here that she decides her future course of action. When Kurdish soldiers attack the orphanage, Ameena decides to become a fidayeen and cause casualty to the Kurdish. Convinced of his wife’s repentance, Hassan agrees. But at the last moment Ameena blows herself up killing Hassan and his men – her revenge for Sabah and so many other things.

This entire book written in a captivating way is a telling tale of the high costs of religious fanaticism. However there are few interesting things that Khair’s book points out. For Jamilla, the escape was an escape from a marriage that she was not ready for. For Mohammad, who was an orthodox Muslim, jihad was limited to following a restricting limiting version of Islam. For Ameena, who felt let down by her own family, her romantic interest Alex, the respite was a new purpose of life in the form of jihad.
The book traces radicalization that starts in small subtle ways. And radicalization that draws relatively privileged women to take extreme steps. This becomes important at the instances of the entire world witnessing instances like the Dhaka killings – where educated youths became fidayeens. The book beautifully maneuvers its way through various paradoxes – the Islamophobia in the west that Jamilla faces along with the acceptance of her teachers and classmates that she enjoys, the doubt that creeps into Jamilla’s heart along with her piety about the ‘jihad’, the disillusionment about Islam in a world under ISIS that both the girls understand with much loss and much pain.

The book gives one a peek into the raging debates of our times – what makes young men and women from the West mainly take up such causes? Is it alienation or Islamophobia alone? Or is it a dangerous cocktail of religious leaders sowing ideas in the fertile minds of those looking for an answer to the problems that the Muslim community is facing? The book rightly points out to the shrinking space that West at times provides for religious expressions, pushing many pious Muslims towards radicalization. The need of the hour is an engaging interaction or else between an Islamophobic West and Xenophobic ISIS, Jamillas and Ameenas will continue to be trapped.

The aurhor is Assistant Professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Assam. She blogs at parvinsultana.blogspot.com.