SCREENSAVOUR: The Nowhere Girls

What is it that transforms seemingly ‘cool’ youngsters from the West brought up on liberal ethos to suddenly abandon their lifestyles and seek meaning in radical Islam and join the ISIS? Though this has not become a trend, but occasional reports of such attempts by European youth, especially girls belonging to moderate Muslim families have provided a wide handle to Islamophobes to stereotype Muslims and paint them as unmitigated evil.

Even if we discount the Islamophobes, this kind of a journey has literally flummoxed the common man and inspired writers and filmmakers to probe into the nature of such radical transformations that belie all logic.

Acclaimed Indian writer Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane is a novel that traces the radicalisation of two Yorkshire Muslim girls – Ameena and Jamilla who clandestinely leave their country of birth – UK, and volunteer to work for an orphanage in Syria run by ISIS fighters and their womenfolk. Amongst the two girls, Ameena who stays with her divorced, liberal mother hailing from Bangalore, is the archetypal ‘cool’ girl who smokes and sleeps around without any moral qualms; while Jamilla wears the hijab and conforms to her family’s conservative ways without ever questioning the significance of religion in her life. The two could not be more different – but paradoxically, they are the best of friends.

But when Ameena’s boyfriend Alex leaves her for another girl, something happens in Ameena – she withdraws into a cocoon but gradually emerges from there to accompany Jamilla to the local mosque where the two girls are swept away by the sermons of a radical preacher. Ameena begins to wear the hijab and study the Quran, that scandalises her mother; while Jamilla’s widowed mother and brother put pressure on her to marry a boy of their choice. She has no problem, but she wants to continue with her studies. The two girls begin to stay together and fall prey to online radicalisation sites and brainwashed by a female recruiter – the wife of a Daesh fighter – to join the cause.  

Seen from the point of view of Jamilla, the novel explores the conflicts and doubts that begin to befuddle her at the war-ravaged region but leaves her friend Ameena absolutely untouched as she marries a jihadi and moves out of the orphanage. The reality of ISIS campaign where

good looking girls are ‘married’ off to fighters while not-so-good looking girls

 are brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers gradually dawns on her – apart from other atrocities, and all her illusions regarding the Islamist cause begin to crumble.

In a brilliantly wrought out climax, the conflicts are resolved but leaves the reader with a tremendous sense of loss. Jamilla, eventually freed from her circumstances, has nowhere to go now – definitely not England, where she anticipates a long litany of interrogations and incarcerations.

Dutch director Mijke de Jong’s Layla M (2016) deals with a young girl of Moroccan origin in Amsterdam – Layla, who believes in her religion and enthusiastic about soccer. Highly opinionated, she is critical of her family who remains nonchalant on the face of racial and religious discriminations; she hates her brother who does not protest after being hauled up unfairly and then released by racist cops.

Like the two friends in Jihadi Jane, she begins to flirt with the fringes of radical Islam, begins to study the Quran seriously and falls prey to a young radical Islamist online and marries him clandestinely. She drops out of school and accompanies her husband Abdel to a jihadist camp in Belgium, and from there to Jordon to lead an ideal Islamic life which she never found in the country of her birth.

But like Jamilla, she is very soon disillusioned when she discovers that she is treated like a second-class citizen in a stifling patriarchal society where she cannot even step out without being accompanied by her husband. She escapes back to Amsterdam where she stares at an uncertain future as she is immediately accosted by the police on her arrival.

Both the film and the novel convey a tremendous sense of loss; there is something monumentally tragic about the realisation that what you believed in is a pack of lies, but your older life is equally problematic!

Ranjan Das