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.
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.
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.
early December and the mall was draped in glowing stars and lacy angels,
teeming with women carrying bags of Christmas shopping.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
community, it was commonplace to go; virtually every travel agent on the high
street advertised Haj travel.
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.
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.
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.
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
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;
global struggle of Muslim suffering in places like Palestine and Syria; the
urgency of building a real Islamic state.
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.
extract from Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh
Headline: What makes a teenager give up her Western life to join the Islamic
Sydney Mornig Herald