PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–When the father read the letter aloud, his wife and two children stopped talking and listened painfully to the words his teenage daughter had left behind for the family.
Ines’ father agreed to read the goodbye letter aloud in a meeting with Women’s eNews, adding that he had declined media offers to purchase the document.
In very simple terms, Ines, a French-Algerian, explains in the letter that she decided to leave France because it is a country that doesn’t accept her as a Muslim. She writes that she is going to a country where she will live her Islam freely. While reading the letter, Ines’ father broke down in tears, joined by his wife and his other daughter. “I haven’t read the letter since the day we found it,” he said.
After a few minutes, he resumed reading the letter to its end.
“Until now I didn’t find the strength to read it,” said the mother in an interview in the family’s three-story house just outside of Paris.
Their daughter Ines, only 14, left her family on June 18. She is now one of up to 150 French women who have joined since 2012 the ranks of either the Islamic State or Al Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. When she left home in June it was just a few days before she was supposed to take Le Brevet des colleges, a national exam for high school students.
Ines made headlines in France when she disappeared in June. Over the past few months, other stories involving young French men and women leaving for Syria have been a recurrent topic. Ines is the youngest French woman to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria, said her father, citing French police.
The Islamic State – Al Dawla al-Islamiya in Arabic – is an extremist group waging a religious war against the regimes in Iraq and Syria to reestablish an ancient Muslim territory, or caliphate, that spans the modern borders of the two states. It is also referred to as ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (the Levant also comprises Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Palestine and Israel). The Islamic State competes with al-Qaida for influence in the region. Tensions between the two led al-Qaida to disavow the Islamic State early this year.
Since Ines’ national exam required her to produce an identification document she used it as a chance to ask her parents, shortly beforehand, for her passport. A few days before the exam, on June 18, she was supposed to attend a test preparation course.
Instead, her family members said, on that prep-test day she used her passport to make her journey to Syria. First, she took a train to Belgium, from where she traveled on to the Netherlands by another train. From the Netherlands, she boarded a plane to Istanbul.
Abandoned by France
Like other families interviewed by Women’s eNews and whose stories will be coming next, Ines’ family denounces French authorities’ lack of interest in intervening on behalf of their daughters. They also have many questions.
Since 2013, a minor carrying an identification document is allowed to leave France; parents’ authorization is not required for travel inside the Schengen borders, which includes 26 European countries that have abolished passport and any other type of border control at their common borders.
But since that excludes Turkey, how was a minor able to board a plane in the Netherlands bound for Turkey without her parents’ permission? Why isn’t France’s Ministry of Interior communicating or working with the family on an investigation? Why is the government not providing the family with any psychological support? What will happen to these French women if the United States and its allies strike positions in Syria held by the Islamic State? Last week, President Barack Obama announced a plan to do just that.
Contacted several times by phone and email, the Ministry of Interior didn’t return requests for an interview.
On the morning of her departure, Ines–her real name and that of family members interviewed for this story are not being used for their protection– sent a text message to a friend saying she would be going “over there” with “two sisters.” In Islam, the term sister is often applied to other women of the same faith.
Later that same day, Ines sent a text message to her father, who was at work, telling him to look under the mattress to understand the reasons she had gone.
This was his first realization that something was going on. Panicked, he called his wife. Knowing something bad had happened, she didn’t have the strength to look under the mattress. It was their other daughter who looked and found a three-page, handwritten letter signed by Ines.
Ines’ family says she never showed interest in international conflicts involving the Muslim world. They think she started to get brainwashed in 2013 via contacts she made on Facebook.
“She got approached by a woman on Facebook who urged her to leave France,” her sister told Women’s eNews. This woman, who was not identified, would harass Ines online for days. At one point, Ines deactivated her Facebook account to cut off contact. But after about a month, Ines returned to Facebook and the woman’s pressure on her to leave France and help the religious fight being waged abroad resumed, her sister said.
Families See Captivity
The family doesn’t know the exact role this woman played in the indoctrination and departure of Ines. But they believe that their daughter, as a minor, belongs in their home and could not make a mature decision to join the Islamic State. Even though she left France under her own free will, they refer to the people with whom she now lives and who govern her life as captors.
“She is between their hands now. I don’t know how she can leave,” said her father.
The simplicity of the wording and vocabulary in Ines’ goodbye letter contrasts drastically with the language used in the text messages and Facebook correspondence established with her family since her arrival in Syria. Ines’ family estimates her arrival in Syria around June 20. In her messages after that, the sentences are polemical and contain several references to religious belief. While in other texts, she simply inquired about her siblings and her cat. Once she asked her mother if her belongings were given away yet. Ines’ family believes that many of the messages are dictated by the people they call her captors.
Several of Ines’ messages, her family said, are similar to the ones received by other families whose daughters are also held in Syria by extremist groups.
Ines has been corresponding with her family since the day she left. On June 19, from Turkey, she sent her first message on Facebook to her sister saying she was fine. A few days after that, Ines provided details about her journey to Syria via another Facebook message.
In one exchange, she told her sister she spent a few hours visiting Istanbul where she was held by the police but then “they let me go.” In a later exchange, she told her sister about the difficulties crossing the border with Syria on foot because of “barbed wire.” At that point, she had to get rid of clothes in a suitcase.
They were clothes that she had bought with her father and sister a day before leaving. “We didn’t see anything coming,” said her father, who still appeared stunned by his daughter’s departure.
“She got tricked,” her father repeated several times.
“She had anything she could ask for,” he said. “We don’t understand.”
The family had never forced or even pressured their three children to follow certain beliefs. Ines’ father, who is not conservative, was surprised when she announced her intention to wear the hijab two years ago. She was only 12.
“I thought she was too young, she hadn’t had enough experience,” her father said. “I wanted her to pursue her education, to be an adult and then make a well-thought decision.”
Studying Arabic to Read Quran, Pray
Ines refused to listen to her father and expressed her wish to live in a Muslim country. At the same time, she began studying Arabic so she could read the Quran and perform her prayers in Arabic. Her Arabic-language teacher was a neighbor known by the family and who never talked religion or politics, said Ines’ mother.
Ines was turning away from her father and strengthening her bond with her mother who, unlike her father, prays. In several Facebook exchanges from Syria, the young teenager praised her mother for praying and derided her father for not following the religious practice.
Her father has contacted her several times on the instant-messaging phone application Viber telling her how much they love her and to come back. “Where are you? Do you want me to come take you back? Call me. I am heartbroken,” he wrote at one point. Ines’ response: “I love you too, I am in Syria. No, dad don’t come over. It hurts me to hear your voice and that is why I cannot call you.”
Ines informed her family about being in Syria as soon as she had arrived. She was first welcomed in “the house of women,” said her mother, who added that about 15 other women were being held in the same house.
After about a month and half, the family learned that in Syria the leaders of Ines’ new community were arranging for her to marry a French man, older than she. Unusual in the Islamic tradition, they did not ask for her father’s permission.
Ines explained to her family that her father is no longer her “wali” — tutor in Arabic – since he doesn’t pray. This is a common theme that emerges from several interviews with other families whose daughters are now living under the Islamic State. Fathers who are considered “not Muslims” for not following the Islamic faith are not consulted about their daughters’ marriage arrangements.
Ines’ family has learned about certain trends in these marriages: French are married to French and converts are married to converts.
Ines now lives with her husband in Syria. Her family, who fears retaliation for talking to journalists, prefers to keep the location secret. She was first trained on how to be a woman. “For a month and a half, she was taught how to cook, clean and do all the traditional chores,” explained her mother.
So far, Ines has expressed no desire to come home. But her family believes she is beginning to have regrets. Her last messages sent on Facebook sounded like “farewell or maybe regrets,” said her mother. Ines has now deleted all her family members, including her mother, from her friends’ lists on the social media platform.
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.
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