Terrorism is a reality today and it springs easily and equally from places both expected as well as unexpected. It leaves you scared and afraid of tomorrow yet we adapt and learn to cope with it in the best way we can. Jihadi Jane by Indian author Tabish Khair is a story of innocence turned rebel.
Title: Jihadi Jane
Author: Tabish Khair
Publisher: Penguin India
Published: June 2016
Format reviewed: Paperback
City [s] set in: Yorkshire and Syria
Time period: Contemporary
Professions of main characters: Students
High-school best friends Ameena and Jamilla couldn’t be more different: while one smokes cigarettes in their school playground, the other is a member of her mosque’s discussion group in suburban Yorkshire. When heartbreak and doubt leave Ameena bereft and alone, she turns to Jamilla’s beloved Allah for solace and purpose. It is then that both girls find themselves entranced by a powerful Internet preacher—Hejjiye, a woman running an orphanage home in support of the men fighting in the name of jihad. Leaving their families and country behind, they run to join the Islamic State in Syria to serve a cause they unquestioningly believe in. However, things begin to change for the worse once Ameena marries Hassan, a jihadi leader, and suddenly Jamilla begins to see the world that she left everything for differently. Getting out is almost impossible, but there is one way. Will the girls choose a path which might change their lives beyond recognition?
Heart-wrenching, masterful and stunningly powerful, Jihadi Jane paints a vivid picture of militant-brides operating around the world and the terrifying cost of religious fanaticism.
Terrorists! Fanatics, antisocial! Crazies! Radicals, Scary, Enemy!
These are just some of the words that come in our mind when we hear about deadly attacks and bombs exploding in busy areas around the world. Hearing about such acts we are left with one too many unresolved questions so we either give up any and all hope or we try to grasp, understand what would make some people commit such acts, blow themselves up in pieces or motivate them to die and kill for a purpose they believe in. It gets trickier when women commit such violent acts and makes us wonder what was so bad in her life to make her blow herself up in pieces along with a whole market filled with people.
Jihadi Jane is a story probably of the very first wave of women from developed countries who left their lives behind to join a war to defend their belief. Jihadi Jane is a term we are hearing more and more since the past few years, used to describe women terrorists from western countries. It throws some light on the mindset of women in terror situations, what makes them become a jihadi – the interpretation we see of this term in today’s world is that of a terrorist, a group of people committing violent, fatal acts around the world to wipe out their enemies. Who are their enemies you might ask – it is anyone and everyone who comes in the way of them and their religion being the supreme power in the world. This story will tell you what goes on in the mind of regular, hard working middle class families with firm religious believes; and how some of them cross the imaginary yet explosive line from being a firm believer to a fighter.
Ameena and Jamilla are two teenage girls living in a working class neighborhood in Yorkshire where they aren’t surrounded by local white people but by families similar to them: working class immigrants from Asia. Ameena lives with her mother, her parents are divorced and her father lives a very comfortable, rich life in an affluent neighborhood. On the other hand, Jamilla’s parents live with their two children –Jamilla and her elder brother. Both the girls after having a rocky start become best friends and are inseparable. Their friendship is so deep that Jamilla, a conservative, religion practicing girl, soon has such a deep influence on Ameena that she goes from being a rebellious teenager to a conservative and starts practicing religion in a way stricter than Jamilla. Ammena dedicates herself with gusto and whole heartedly to traditions and crams as much religion into her life as she can.
Jamilla though happy with Ameena’s transformation and still a firm believer starts dreaming of a regular life of university, work, financial independence and then marriage in the future, in short all the dreams that Ameena’s parents harbor for her. But Ameena is not satisfied just being a conservative believer she wants more, she wants to fight the fight not just talk the talk. While Jamilla’s family pressures her to get married, Ameena’s resolve to be in the middle of action is getting stronger by the minute. Soon, both friends feel the need to escape and leave their comfortable lives in suburban England and head to Syria – right in the middle of the fight against their enemies. When they start their new lives – Ameena as wife of a fighting soldier and Jamilla as a teacher at an orphanage grooming women and children as future fighters of their purpose, everything feels right. They revel in their new roles and freedom to practice their beliefs and religion in the way it is meant to.
You see back in England they would often be bullied, teased or worse for just being themselves – conservative, fully covered and reserved in their interaction with others. Their traditions seemed funny to people around them at school and outside of their homes. They often faced scorn and ridicule at something as basic as their clothes. But in Syria they are comfortable in the way they dress; their daily lives are disciplined and packed with praying, reading religious and a few select appropriate texts. Besides praying and religion they only have a few basic necessary tasks required to live a minimal life like cooking and cleaning. No celebrations no frivolities and no dreams, yet they are happy and satisfied with this routine. To outsiders, the reader it may look like being in a cult or a prison but we forget that this is the only way these girls have known all their lives and believed to be the right thing all their lives. So what may seem like a prison to us is the righteous or only way to live for them! But that doesn’t mean their minds don’t change, soon they feel more and more alien from their chosen purpose and they decide to have a very different ending to their stories than we can imagine.
What this story will do is help you understand how regular people around you may cross from being regular to someone who can be extremely violent and bring harm to people around them. It will take you through lives of at least two women who have a firm belief in their religion and being unsatisfied in just that how they insert themselves in the middle of a war. How while keeping their own believes strong they decide to end their association with the war in a way of their own choosing. Don’t expect it to resolve your fears but it will surely solve some of your questions and satisfy a bit of your curiosity. The reasons of war in this story are not the only but few of the reasons why some people choose to express their belief in a violent way.
About the Author
Tabish Khair is a critically acclaimed author and poet whose recent novels have been shortlisted for the Encore Award (UK) and the Crossword Prize (India). He has won the All India Poetry Prize, and his novels have been shortlisted for various major awards and translated into several languages. The Thing about Thugs was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize (2010) and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (2012). His works include Where Parallel Lines Meet (2000) and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012). Having worked as a journalist in India, he currently teaches English at Aarhus University, Denmark.
Connect with the Author via his website
Reviewed by Bharti