Most teenage girls who dream in their bedrooms of becoming famous think they may be pop stars, perhaps actors or models, a few of them like Malala and Greta Thunberg do it through activism. Very few teenage girls dream of becoming a terrorist.
However this is what happened to Shamima Begum, a 15 year old from Bethnal Green, London who became radicalised by a school friend and travelled to Syria joining the Isis Caliphate.
The Shamima Begum story, a BBC documentary traces Shamima’s journey from shy Muslim girl struggling to find her place in a society where Islamophobia had been on the rise since the Iraq war, to child bride, grieving mother and her current state as a citizen stripped of citizenship and left in a refugee camp on the edge of a desert.
The documentary does not just speak to Shamima but several talking heads, the journalist who found her, a Canadian intelligence officer, a defense expert. Some people are vociferously against Shamima Begum ever regaining her British citizenship, as they see it a fitting punishment for the crime of aligning herself with a terrorist group that would seek to destroy the British state as we know it.
Other’s however are more sceptical about the threat that she poses. They argue that her young age, legally a child when she was groomed and delivered to Isis, then to escape the over crowded home she was living in (like women have for centuries and across cultures) she got married to a man eight years her senior, which is a significant age gap at fifteen. While her husband was in jail, she stayed with a man who rarely let her leave the house and was rumoured to be supplying arms to Isis. There are accusations that she stayed with him while knowing what he was doing and sewed suicide vests onto willing bombers.
Once her and her husband decided to leave the city they were living in they walked for days to find a refugee camp, both of their children died of starvation, the couple were separated, and Shamima gave birth in the camp to a third child, who also died.
It was while pregnant in the camp that a British journalist found her, and brought her story to the world. Rather than an outpouring of sympathy, there was an outpouring of anger against Shamima, as she was now an adult. Although it could be argued she possessed none of the experiences that a normal young woman would have between the ages of fifteen and adult hood that would help her mature, and shape her personality and world view. Her development as a person had been arrested, but it would take someone much more expert in this field to go into the implications of this for her decision making in the past, now and the future.
It seems clear that we have a child who was groomed, sex trafficked, abused and then forced to live in horrible circumstances while grieving the death of three of her children. Add to that the interviews that had her splashed all over the front pages of the UK press, were done when she was only two days post birth. Any person who has given birth will tell you two days after the event, and with little support, is not the time to think about how you present yourself or your case to the world. The only thing anyone should be thinking of or need then, is rest, healing and recovery.
I suspect the fact that she appeared wearing the large black jilbab and hijab, probably did not help the optics. Her flat affect may give many the suspicion that she is not being truthful, where as to me it looked more like a trauma response. Her comments that she was “unfazed,” by the sight of decapitated heads in a bucket could again be a trauma response, or a tactic to ensure she can survive in a refugee camp with other Isis brides, wives and children, who may not take kindly to any change in her attitude towards values they still hold dear. Very few of us are in a position to judge what one needs to say and do to survive in a makeshift refugee camp.
As if this isn’t a sorry enough state of affairs the documentary uncovers that there were opportunities where there could have been interventions both before Shamima left Britain, and also while she was being trafficked, by both British and Canadian authorities. As a child, she was clearly not safeguarded as we would expect.
It is puzzling that while there is so much evidence that Shamima is not so much the criminal here as a victim, why some are so angry and adamant that she is an unrepentant terrorist – rather than a girl who has had an incredibly harsh life lesson based on the kind of poor decision making that teenagers are known for.
The clue to what is really going on here comes from Shamima’s husband. When asked about how he got to know her he says “There wasn’t much of a person to get to know,” an incredibly insulting thing to hear from ones intimate partner and he carried on “she was like a blank page.”
It is precisely this blankness, her immaturity and lack of belonging and roots, that allowed people to project their own uncomfortable feelings on to her including a love of Isis and their anger at the atrocities many of us have watched unfold on the news. I do believe that she should be able to come back to Britain, and face a trial for the crimes that are alleged against her,. Innocent until found guilty is after all meant to be one of the central tenants of British justice, stripping Shamima of citizenship is a sentence which undermines our justice system. It appears to me that the biggest flaw in Shamima Begum was not having a strong enough sense of self, and being too easily swayed by those around her. Something that many of us suffered from in our less confident younger years, and something that makes young people vulnerable to all sorts abuse, neglect, and crime.
Given that Britain is perpetuating her lack of belonging by essentially exiling her like some medieval wrong-doer without proper trial, this begs the question, are we not just punishing her, but also denying her any chance of rehabilitation furthering that sense of non-belonging that possibly was a factor in the start of this saga? If so, does increasing that othering good for anyone? Are we leaving her in limbo so we can focus our ire on her whenever we need to exercise our anger, confusion or fear at international politics we have little ability to change or influence? Will this treatment send a message to British Muslims that although we claim they are our country men and women, we are willing to cut them off the moment they don’t conform and therefore increase their sense of alienation, essentially feeding the beast that is extremism?
There is much speculation about how much Shamima’s skin colour and religion are part of the anger against her. I do not know of any white Isis brides who we can use as a comparison, but probably the closest case is that of Patty Hearst. Patricia Campbell Hearst was a teenage American heiress, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, held captive, abused, tortured, raped and then forced to take part in bank robberies and other terrorist activity. Hearst was eventually sentenced to 35 years, and the people who kidnapped her eight for her kidnap, although they did have sentences for other charges.
It is a flawed comparison given the different time and the fact that Hearst was initially taken by force. Shamima was groomed, but as a society that is only just starting to come to terms with the existence of psychologically coercive control this does not appear to factor into some people’s assessment. Hearst also came from a much wealthier background, and was part of what could have been considered the elite, privileges that Begum cannot claim. However so strong is they myth of individual responsibility and the great man theory of history, that in people’s imagination others can always rise to the herculean task of defeating the ancient rooted structural inequalities around them.
So how was Hearst treated? Her sentence was reduced, and she was eventually pardoned regaining all her civil rights, after her release from jail she went on to marry, have children and is reported to be active in charity work. It is still too early in Shamima’s story to tell if her life may be able to establish a life in Britain, as Patricia did in America, but it is interesting that once Hearst moved from kidnap victim, to bank robber complete with iconic photo, the attitude of the American public hardened. It’s a testament to the power of images.
That picture of Hearst in front of the Simbionese Liberation Army logo holding a machine gun is indelibly marked on the minds of a generation, and our younger one may always think of Begum swathed head to toe in voluminous black sitting in a dusty camp, even though she has obviously made an effort to now appear more western in interviews; light coloured shirt, sun glasses, baseball cap, hair and shoulders on show.
While the comparison of Hearst to Begum is not completely flush, they both illustrate that when the heat of a terrorist moment is going through it’s slow dissipation an area that consistently holds with the patriarchal conceit our culture is built on is that to be a woman and have others accept your victimhood, one has to conform to a strict set of rules that others impose on you, regardless of what you needed to do in the moment to survive.
Remarkably, still to this day how a woman looks, how she dresses, is fundamental to how much a victim she is allowed to be. It is a straight line from the rape victim who is told she was “asking for it,” because she wore a short skirt, to the woman who is shunned and spat at because she chooses a veil. They are essentially just different sides of the same coin.
Once publicly marked, one is marked forever with the shame of having not conformed to the prevailing victim stereotype. It appears that people then become angry at you because they have a finite amount of sympathy and compassion at their disposal and these women have been caught in the act trying to sneak it away from others like a thief in the night. Hearst however did find some compassion in America through Carter and Clinton – her full pardon being one of Clintons last acts as president in 2001, twenty seven years after her initial kidnap. For the moment it remains to be seen if Britain has enough compassion to allow Shamima to return home and face the justice system here, rather than the limbo punishment without trial we have left her in.