From teenage goths to jihadi brides – why did two girls run away to Islamic State?

'It was time for us to speak up': Eya and Tayssir, front, with the actresses playing their sisters in Four Daughters, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
'It was time for us to speak up': Eya and Tayssir, front, with the actresses playing their sisters in Four Daughters, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania - Kino Lorber

“It’s a tragedy. I hate girls. I didn’t want to have any daughters,” says Olfa Hamrouni in Four Daughters, the Oscar-nominated documentary that seeks to ­explain why her two eldest children fled their home in Tunisia to join ­Islamic State. Like Shamima ­Begum – who lost her appeal to ­regain British citizenship last week – Ghofrane and Rahma Chikhaoui were teenagers, aged 16 and 15, when they became jihadi brides.

“When the story first hit the news, there was so much judgment,” Kaouther Ben Hania, the film’s director, tells me, via video link from Paris. “People were judging the girls, judging Olfa – calling her a horrible mother. I wanted to understand why these two young girls were attracted to this morbid path.”

Four Daughters is a slippery film, repeatedly wrongfooting viewers as it blurs the boundary between documentary interviews and dramatic re-enactments. In the ­latter, the absent elder sisters are played by actresses, while the younger two, Eya and Tayssir – who were 11 and 8 when their siblings left – appear as themselves. “I usually hate re-enactments in documentaries,” says Ben Hania. “They’re such a cliché. But then I remembered what Hitchcock said: better to start with a cliché than to end with one.”

Ben Hania places the mother at the centre of the story. “From the first time I saw her, I was fascinated by [her] contradictions,” she says. “On the one hand, she’s a powerful, independent, charismatic woman. On the other hand, she violently enforced these very strong patriarchal ideas on her daughters. I asked why she would do that.”

One answer lies in Olfa’s own childhood: she was raised alongside her sisters by their single mother, in a culture where the girls were constantly vulnerable to attacks by local men. Little Olfa became her family’s defender, dressing as a boy, cutting off her hair and using her fists to protect her home against intruders. Eventually, she was married off; on the wedding night, her sister urged the bridegroom to take Olfa’s virginity, by force if necessary, then demanded a bloody sheet to wave outside the marital bedroom, in accordance with tradition. Olfa obliged by breaking the nose of her new groom and smearing his blood on the linen.

When Four Daughters restages this moment, the actress playing Olfa breaks character, turns to her real-life counterpart and asks, appalled, if it’s true that the sister she had once protected encouraged her husband to rape her. “Yes,” Olfa nods, her blunt confession carrying an emotional force that surpasses any re-enactment.

Olfa goes on to explain that her husband would never kiss her and only slept with her to impregnate her: over the following years, four daughters were born. The girls’ father took to wandering into their bedroom at night to question their virtue and call them whores. Their mother policed the girls’ virtue with equal ferocity. Then, in 2011, Hamrouni left her husband, taking her daughters with her.

Next, things took an even darker turn. Olfa fell in love with Wassim, a convicted murderer, who moved into their home and started to sexually abuse her daughters. As one tells the cameras: “He loved her by night and us in the day.” Olfa is shown on film calling this man her “angel”, even now. “Wassim is a complicated topic for Olfa,” sighs Ben Hania. “For the first time, she allowed herself to have feelings, to fall in love. There’s so much guilt and shame at play for her.”

'Better to start with a cliché than to end with one': director Kaouther Ben Hania
'Better to start with a cliché than to end with one': director Kaouther Ben Hania - Tim P. Whitby

In Four Daughters’ most haunting scene, the actor playing Wassim lies on a bed while the two real sisters sit at his feet, toying with a knife, detailing his crimes. The actor can only take so much and asks to leave. “None of it was scripted,” says Ben Hania. “He didn’t know what would happen.” During filming, she was “shaking, asking myself what I thought I was doing by putting these people in this situation. But we had this little girl, Eya, reassuring us – she was the one saying, ‘I want this scene, I want this story told.’”

It’s little surprise that the elder daughters grew into troubled teen­agers. Ghofrane became a goth: she dyed her hair blue, listened to rock and fantasised about being buried alive. “I think these extremes of sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, have a pull on most teenagers,” says Ben Hania. “Their identities are changing and even their bodies. They are reaching for strong ideas without an understanding of the consequences.”

A British girl dressing as a goth wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But in Tunisia, Ghofrane was challenged by men on the street. At home, after noticing she had shaved her legs, her mother beat her senseless. ­Rattled by a mob who told Gho­frane she’d be punished for her behaviour in the afterlife, the girl destroyed her records and embraced extreme Islam.

Throughout the film, Ben Hania’s camera exploits the girls’ movie-star beauty – the director tells me she was inspired to light them the way Ingmar Bergman lit his heroines – but she’s also acutely aware that such beauty is a double-edged sword in traditional Arab cultures. “As a teenager, becoming beautiful you have to take on a defensive attitude,” she says. “Covering that beauty can be a form of armour.”

'Covering that beauty can be a form of armour': Eya Chikhaoui and Nour Karoui in Four Daughters
'Covering that beauty can be a form of armour': Eya Chikhaoui and Nour Karoui in Four Daughters - AP/Kino Lorber

In Tunisia, the veil had been banned under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship, and following the revolution that led to his ousting, it acquired a rebellious allure. Young people adopted the hijab as an anti-establishment gesture; for Gho­frane, it allowed her to flip the power dynamic in her home – suddenly, she was more godly than their strict mother. She gave her urge to self-harm a holy zeal by self-flagellating for her sins; she whipped her sisters for skipping prayer and fantasised about stoning other women to death. It was the first step on the road to radicalisation: within a matter of months, in 2015, both elder daughters had fled to join Islamic State in Libya.

Ben Hania hopes that her film will help Western viewers understand that although Four Daughters is “an intimate individual story, set in a particular geopolitical context”, there are universal impulses at play: maybe it’s not a million miles away from a British teen being pulled into the world of Andrew Tate, or an American child lured in by QAnon conspiracies.

Having survived the bombing of an Islamic State compound in which they were living, both elder daughters are now in a Libyan prison, awaiting trial. “They are paying a very heavy price for a very unconscious, very crazy choice,” says Ben Hania. “They regret it a lot.” At the time of her incarceration, Ghofrane had just given birth to a daughter, Fatma, who is now eight and has no experience of life beyond the prison walls.

Via WhatsApp, Eya and Tayssir – who have embarked on new lives in Egypt – tell me that they speak to their sisters once a month over the phone. They are glad that the film helped open up communication with their mother – and hope that its release will put pressure on Libya to return their sisters and niece to Tunisia. “Even if this doesn’t mean they are freed, at least let them face the justice system in their country,” they say. “We need to show our niece the world, send her to school, and show her that there is life outside prison.”

Eya is studying sports and Tayssir is training to be a nurse. They tell me that their mother has re­married. Making the film, they say, taught them “that it was time for us to speak up… that we needed to be more honest and open with each other”.

Above all, they tell me, “We learnt that we are stronger than anything. Nobody can scare us or can stop us living our lives.”

Four Daughters is in cinemas now