In her first live interview since joining Islamic State (IS), on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, 22-year-old Shamima Begum made her latest appeal to return to the UK. She is one of over 6,000 minors who became affiliated with IS, but ever since the grainy CCTV pictures emerged of her leaving the UK with two east London schoolmates in 2015, her case has captured international media attention.
Begum’s case first raises the issue of accountability of minors who become radicalised. At first, media reporting described the three girls as being “lured” into IS, comparing their childhood innocence to the monstrosity of their recruiters. The then education secretary, Nicky Morgan, wrote to their school saying, “We hope and pray for the safe return of the pupils”. In the rush to explain the fact that young girls could turn away from their lives in Britain to join a terrorist organisation, the “jihadi bride” narrative took hold – a catch-all phrase that focuses on girls’ romantic motives.
Yet this term is problematic, because it simplifies, sexualises and stereotypes women’s involvement with the group.
Begum claims that her motivation for joining IS was to “get married, have children and live a pure Islamic life”. However, growing research into women and girls’ radicalisation into IS has revealed varied and individualised motivations, including a desire for belonging, purpose, adventure, ideological fulfilment and even a thirst for violence.
In the terror group’s published articles, marriage and child-rearing were painted as women’s “jihad” and primary duty, but this was not the limit of their activism. Women adopted roles as teachers, doctors, bureaucrats and even frontline combatants and officers in IS’s infamous “morality police”. From innocent schoolgirls to “monsters”, these women are now viewed as a credible security threat.
However, IS’s strict, anonymising female dress code has left little evidence of individual women’s activities within the group’s territory. In her interview, Begum asserts: “I did not do anything in Isis apart from be a mother and a wife … the government don’t actually have anything on me.”
Begum is now demanding the opportunity to prove her innocence and has renounced her support for IS. For some, this notably includes her “new look”. When she appeared without her hijab and abaya, her interviewers on Good Morning Britain questioned her need to “look western” in an attempt to reflect an internal transformation.
There are two troubling assumptions here. First: whether or not her change in appearance is a public relations stunt, Islamic dress should never be construed as a marker or measure of radicalism. While IS mandated that all women within its territory should wear the full burqa, this does not, in any way, mean that all women who choose to wear the burqa are aligned with IS or support other extremist groups. These garments are items of religious dress, not an IS uniform.
Second, this comment normalises a “western” appearance as being without a hijab or other signifier of Islamic faith. It reinforces the discriminatory sentiment that Muslim women do not belong in western – or here, British – society. The social media accounts of young women and girls who joined IS consistently speak of a lack of acceptance, discrimination and overt Islamophobia as reasons for joining the group. Biases in our society that connect radicalisation and physical appearance are easily exploited by extremist recruiters.
In April 2019, IS lost control of its final enclave in Syria, pushing formerly affiliated women and children into secure camps. According to latest estimates, the largest of these, al-Hol, is home to over 65,000 women and children, with almost 10,000 foreign nationals housed in a high-security annex. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and limited access to healthcare have resulted in high infant mortality rates.
All three of Begum’s children are now deceased. Her youngest, Jarrah, died shortly after her arrival at al-Hol. She describes the shoestring medical facilities leaving her feeling that there was “nothing [she] could do to help him”. Whatever one thinks about Begum, the loss of these children is a tragedy. Born into these circumstances, they have paid the highest price for the choices of their parents. But while the death of baby Jarrah can be attributed in part to Begum’s travel to a warzone, it also could have been avoided if he (and his mother) had been allowed to return to Britain.
The UK government’s decision to strip Begum of her British citizenship (asserting that she has claim to Bangladeshi citizenship through her heritage) has sparked controversy. The 1981 British Nationality Act stipulates that a British-born individual cannot be deprived or stripped of their citizenship if they would be rendered stateless. In effect, this means that citizenship deprivation can only be deployed against the children of migrant parents or children of dual nationals, resulting in what some analysts have highlighted as a discriminatory “two-tiered system”.
Travel to Bangladesh, whether possible or not, should not be part of the debate. Begum is/was British. She was born in England and left Britain to join IS. Her actions have consequences that are the UK’s responsibility. Leaving her (and others) in makeshift detention centres only increases the strain on already over-burdened Kurdish authorities, the evidence of which is clear from recent jail-breaks and smuggling campaigns.
Begum has once again become a “poster girl”, this time for demonised former IS-affiliated women. Irrespective of states’ decisions to repatriate or prosecute their citizens, it is clear that many women like Begum have endured psychological and physical trauma during childhood and early adulthood. Their cases should be managed sensitively. Sensationalist questioning and stereotyping by media and politicians will hinder prospects for rehabilitation, feed into discriminatory and Islamophobic narratives, and even potentially reignite support for extremism.