As a Human Rights Activist, I am Challenged by Shamima Begum’s Case

Shamima Begum, one of the three Bethnal Green girls who fled London to join the Islamic State group, has recently dominated headlines after saying she wants to return to the UK in an interview with the Times and Sky News.


A heavily pregnant Shamima talks about her experiences in IS, and her wish to return to the UK so that her child can survive and have better prospects in life. The response in the UK highlights the challenges in reporting about jihadi brides and women who choose to join Islamic State. The biggest headlines focus on her lack of remorse, but fail to emphasise the fact that she was a fifteen year old girl who was groomed online to join IS, married before her sixteenth birthday, suffered the loss of two children and was constantly surrounded by violence and death. There have been debates about whether or not she should be allowed to return to the UK, with no mention of the fact that she is British and has as much right to live in this country as anyone else with the crimson passport. The colour of Shamima’s skin acts as a further barrier for her return; her lack of whiteness confirms her lack of true Britishness.

Yet, labelling Shamima as a victim is dangerous and reductive. It takes away from the experiences of real victims of ISIS: the Yazidi women and girls used as slaves, the thousands of innocent civilians displaced or murdered by IS, and the victims of attacks carried out around the world by the terror group. Shamima picked up her bags and chose to leave the UK. She wasn’t forced to join the caliphate. Although she claims that she didn’t commit any crimes and was simply a ‘housewife’, she still made the decision to be part of a violent terror group that has committed heinous acts against humanity. She knew full well about the beheadings, murders and decapitations of innocent civilians, yet still got on the plane. The fact that she admits that despite all that she’s been through, she still stands by IS beliefs is evidence that she may not be able to abandon her radical belief system. As bystanders, this leaves us in a conflicting position. Can we think of Shamima as a victim of sexual exploitation who has been brainwashed and indoctrinated? Or do we look at her as an unremorseful woman who made her own decision to join a murderous caliphate? And where does she stand in terms of the law?

The Role of Jihadi Brides in Extremism

While Shamima claims to have been a simple housewife during her time in IS, this is likely far from the truth. After leaving the UK, she became a poster girl for jihadi brides. It’s easy to slip into the stereotype that Jihadi brides lack agency, and their actions are the direct result of the corrupting influence of older muslim zealots. This rhetoric is a breeding ground for Islamophobia and the criminalisation of the Muslim faith. The Islamic State is not representative of Islam, and comparisons should never be drawn between the two.

Many Jihadi brides consciously make the decision to marry terrorists. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports that these women are ‘more than just stay-at-home wives or mothers’. Many work as ‘propagandists and recruiters and often, these female propagandists and recruiters lace their discourse with misinterpreted religious narratives, hashtags and younger slang, making them relatable to youth’. Shamima’s actions may have inspired an unknown number of copy-cat jihadi brides. This further complicates the analysis of her situation. While she may have been groomed at the age of fifteen, as an adult she continues to display a lack of remorse and regret for her actions. We can’t say that Shamima is an innocent victim as a Jihadi Bride. She represents a fundamental aspect of Islamic State’s structure that enabled the caliphate to keep going strong for so long.

Should Jihadi Brides Be Allowed Back in the UK?

The roaring debate around Shamima Begum all boils down to one point: whether or not Jihadi Brides and terrorists should be allowed back into the UK. Opinions have divided the nation, with some believing that she doesn’t deserve to come back after acting against the nation, and others arguing that Britain must show compassion to the young woman. Home Secretary Sajid Javid adopted a hard-line stance, stating:

"Whatever role they took in the so-called caliphate, they all supported a terrorist organisation and in doing so they have shown they hate our country and the values we stand for” and insisting that he would do all that he could to ensure that people like Shamima aren’t allowed back into the country.

Meanwhile, Former Finance Minister George Osborne reiterated that Shamima should be allowed back into the country, pointing out that as a British citizen, she is Britain’s “problem”. He claimed:

“I don't think it is possible for Britain to say this is all someone else's problem (and that) we are going to leave them in some other part of the world or not allow them to enter the U.K. I think it's a bit of justice and actually a bit of compassion. Just making people stateless is not really a solution and it is asking other countries to deal with our problems when they've got their own problems”.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, there’s no question as to Shamima’s right to return to the UK. Revoking her citizenship makes her more susceptible to being further radicalised as a stateless individual. The 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness states that it is illegal to revoke an individual’s citizenship if it will result in being reduced to stateless status. Yet, on 19th February 2019, it was announced that Sajid Javid had ordered the move to take away her UK citizenship. Although she can apply for Bangladeshi citizenship, she has been left in a vulnerable position of statelessness in the meantime. The Home Secretary’s actions represent the idea that non-white British citizens have an inherent ‘otherness’, and thus can be left to be dealt with by ‘other’ societies. These rules aren’t applied to white Brits who commit crimes abroad. No one traces back their scandinavian, Irish or other European roots to take away their citizenship. So why is it allowed to happen to her? The system failed her when she was fifteen and not identified as an at-risk youth. The system shouldn’t fail her again by stripping her of her basic right to her nationality. The UK shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to send a rescue team to bring her back. However, if she has the resources, she shouldn’t be prevented to reenter the country, and should be processed, investigated and punished for potential crimes, just like the hundreds of IS fighters , both men and women, who have so far returned to the UK.

As onlookers, we must not allow ourselves to form opinions without properly analysing and understanding the implications of the situation. We have to be self-critical and catch ourselves when we see our biases creeping up: no one situation is black and  white. Shamima’s story can be distorted to present her as both a victim of sexual exploitation and an unremorseful villain. Her case can be seen as an opportunity for punitive example or compassionate recourse. Labelling Shamima as a victim takes away her accountability and is an insult to the true victims of Islamic State. Yet we can’t ignore the fact that she was groomed as a child when she made a decision to join the caliphate. I don’t know what the correct answer is, and that’s what complicates her story. As human rights activists, we always try to act in the most compassionate way to ensure that no human is stripped of their basic rights. Yet cases like this pose as a real challenge for us all.  

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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