By Azadeh Moaveni
November 3, 2019
It was a truth universally acknowledged that all young women traveling from Britain to the Islamic State needed to go shopping first, and in that strange winter when girls started to go missing, Westfield Stratford City, a sprawling mall in east London, emerged as a favourite final destination before the journey.
It was almost dark as the four teenage girls got off the Jubilee Line. They had come straight from school, Bethnal Green Academy, where they excelled in their studies and were admired by teachers and fellow students alike as examples of fine young women: intelligent and well-spoken, joyful and vivacious.
They were all 15 or 16 and best friends, passionately close as only adolescent girls can be, and so protective of their group friendship that they often tweeted warnings about the danger of keeping secrets.
It was early December and the mall was draped in glowing stars and lacy angels, teeming with women carrying bags of Christmas shopping.
The four girls walked past the trendy steak place with the halal menu they would now never try, past the champagne bar where the bag-laden women took refuge, past an advertisement for the film American Sniper (“The most lethal sniper in US military history”).
Sharmeena needed a new mobile phone and some winter clothes because it was already snowing in Syria, the clothes she’d ordered online from Forever 21 had not arrived, and she was leaving the next day.
Button-nosed, with a soft, round face and steely eyes, Sharmeena was the fast-talking, opinionated personality in their group. Her friends watched her face carefully for reactions, the flickering lights behind her eyes that meant she was deliberating, the few moments it would take for her small mouth to open and tell them they were being either ridiculous or perceptive. Everything that came next, everything that followed, turned on her, for Sharmeena was the first among them to walk through real darkness.
A year prior, Sharmeena’s beloved mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and died after six months of illness. Sharmeena was stunned it could happen that quickly; how a mother, still a young woman in her 30s, who seemed radiant and perfectly sound, could speed-decay from the inside. She became skeletal and wheezy in a few short months, at the end barely able to speak, coughing up her insides through a tube that her daughter held to her mouth.
Sharmeena had grown up with her mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in a small council flat in Bethnal Green, a neighborhood in east London. The plan was always for her father, who was back in Bangladesh, to join them once he saved enough money, but in 2012 the UK government imposed a new income threshold for spouses coming to Britain that was beyond what her mother made, and so her father lingered in Bangladesh.
Sharmeena knew him only as a faint, questioning voice on the phone: How is school? Are you being good? When he eventually made it to London, she was already a teenager. He was convincingly her father: her face was precisely mapped on his. But she scarcely knew him.
After her mother died, her father secured a council flat in Shoreditch, but he worked long evening shifts as a waiter, returning home well past midnight. Often Sharmeena stayed at her grandmother’s instead. When her mother was alive, it hadn’t mattered so much that they lived, like so many immigrant families, not in a nuclear unit but with extended family. But now that her mother was gone, Sharmeena felt orphaned, as though she had no proper place anywhere.
She started spending time nearly every day at the mosque in the backstreets of Whitechapel, a short walk from home. It had a separate building for women, with a spacious, softly lit, warm prayer area on the second floor.
Stepping inside instantly soothed her. She often didn’t realise her body was clenched and that she was holding her breath until she knelt down and put her forehead to the inviting turquoise carpet. She felt such release that she stayed in that position for long moments.
Sometimes, after evening prayer, Sharmeena would linger at the mosque and read a book, delaying the return to the home where her mother’s absence filled all the space. Other women from the neighbourhood did the same.
There weren’t that many places for young Muslim girls from conservative families to go to in east London that were socially acceptable to their parents. To meet your girlfriends regularly at a dessert cafe was excessive, bound to elicit a “Weren’t you just there yesterday?” and the suspicion that your true motivation was boys, not waffles. The mosque was an immaculate, incontestable destination.
Walking past one of the cobblestoned roads that led to the back entrance of the mosque, Sharmeena passed an apartment building, one of the high-ceilinged factory conversions that made this former garment district so attractive to young professionals. She looked up to see if the three Bangladeshi sisters were at their perch.
She didn’t know their names, but the girls were always leaning out of the window watching passers-by, waving at those they knew, their heads in public space, their bodies in private. Split in two. Not having waffles with boys.
Life at home was harder for young Muslim girls here; mothers and families cosseted boys, spared them chores, let them roam outside freely. But girls were expected to come home straight after school, stay pure, demure.
Earlier that summer, when her father had suggested that they go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Haj, Sharmeena had been eager. The pilgrimage to the holiest site in Islam, the city in modern-day Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born and received his first Quranic revelation, was one of the five pillars of the faith, a journey required of all Muslims who could afford to travel.
In her community, it was commonplace to go; virtually every travel agent on the high street advertised Haj travel.
She started covering her hair ahead of their trip. While they were there, circling the Kaaba, walking the plains where the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had walked, Sharmeena wept openly. Her father considered this a most natural reaction. She had recently lost her mother and was on a pilgrimage that deeply stirred almost everyone’s emotions.
Indeed, that was the very purpose of Haj, a spiritual shake-up, a reminder of the temporality of this dunya life, a reminder that growing close to Allah and walking His path would hopefully unite us with our loved ones in the akhirah, or the afterlife, which, unlike this one, would last forever.
Apart from the security services, no one quite knows who in east London noticed Sharmeena adrift and lonely that autumn of 2014. Two women, it is said, began sidling up to her at the mosque and making conversation.
They were solicitous and friendly, eventually interrupting her sad reverie with their sincere, rapt attention. They began texting and calling her regularly, and invited her to women-only discussions, ostensibly about religion, that she soon found to be hot-talking political grievance sessions laced with some Islamic terminology.
Sharmeena liked sitting and listening. Listening to strangers was actually easier than talking to people she knew, who inevitably asked her how she was coping, which forced her to arrange her face into some semblance of okayness she didn’t actually feel. The strangers who had befriended her talked about the world in stark, finite terms: Muslims pitted against the Kuffar, the unbelievers;
an epic global struggle of Muslim suffering in places like Palestine and Syria; the urgency of building a real Islamic state.
They asked Sharmeena if she was sincere in her iman, her faith, and if so, whether she was willing to act upon it. They told her there was an Islamic state emerging in Syria, where she could practice Islam freely without harassment and live a life infused with deep spiritual meaning. They encouraged her to contact other women who had travelled to Syria from the West.
Edited extract from Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni
Original Headline: What makes a teenager give up her Western life to join the Islamic State?
Source: The Sydney Mornig Herald