Comment | Where does Shamima Begum exist?

Stripping Shamima Begum of citizenship teaches us, yet again, that even when People of Colour are born and bred in Britain, they are still seen as aliens within the nation, write Azeezat Johnson and Shereen Fernandez.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, February 23, 2019 19:35 - 0 Comments

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(Photo credit: muslimgirl.com)

In 2015, 15-year old Shamima Begum travelled to Syria. Having been groomed online, she was married into ISIL and became known as one of the three ‘Bethnal Green girls’. Over the past four years, Shamima — along with Amina and Kadiza — have been featured in Prevent training sessions as a ‘hard lesson’ to be learnt. Four years later, after her escape and the suspected extrajudicial killings of her two friends by drone attacks, Shamima emerged earlier this week on our TV screens. She was in a refugee camp in Turkey and was asking to come back home.

What followed has been a media frenzy where Shamima’s body and trauma are up for popular consumption. The persistent shoving of cameras in Shamima’s face has removed the pretense that there is any concern about the vulnerability of a young woman who had been susceptible to ISIL’s message in the first place. Commentator after commentator (including ourselves) have attempted to dissect the trauma of this 19-year-old woman within hours of giving birth to her third child in four years, two of which are now dead.

Within the mainstream media, it is clearly inconceivable that she should be treated as a victim of grooming or sexual abuse, when she’s already been vilified as a potential terrorist. As Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan has already pointed out, the media coverage has not been about who Shamima is or could be, or what her likes and dislikes are. It is not even about understanding how and why a 15-year-old British girl can be lured away from her home by people who perpetuate such horrific acts of violence. Rather, we are forced to discuss Shamima as an object that is external to who we are as a nation.

The prospect of citizenship deprivation became real when Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that Shamima would be stripped of her British citizenship. While several commentators and experts have questioned the legality of making her stateless, this is a pointless discussion that ignores the many forms of legalised oppression. What is really horrifying is how the Javid’s move has exposed the Government’s rush to expel her from the only home she’s ever known. In setting her citizenship up for debate and her body as a potential security threat to Britain, Shamima is automatically positioned as not of Britain.

Stripping Shamima Begum of citizenship teaches us, yet again, that even when People of Colour are born and bred in Britain, they are still seen as aliens within the nation. Right now, Shamima exists on the margins, in a camp; the responsibility for her and her child is thrown out of this country, and the 15 years she spent growing up (and being groomed) in Britain becomes irrelevant. Whilst her vulnerability is exploited by a media hungrily feeding off her trauma, we have to ask: Where can Shamima Begum exist?

We know the story about Shamima — a story that has become central to the Prevent narrative. At a Prevent training course we recently attended, it was at the forefront of everyone’s mind that ‘we cannot have another case like the Bethnal Green girls’. As part of the “Bethnal Green girls”, Begum has been routinely treated as a victim who just needed the ‘right kind of support’. As a result of her case, teachers and other public sector professionals have been required to monitor and report any ‘signs of extremism and radicalisation’ in their interactions with the public.

However, over this past week, Shamima has been set up as a villain who is not even worthy of retaining her citizenship and is not worthy of returning to her home. Despite the fact that she would have been a victim of statutory rape, the grotesque and dehumanising “jihadi bride” headlines prevent us from seeing a traumatised young woman. This positioning of her as either a ‘victim’ or a ‘villain’ leaves no space for us to see her as living a flawed and complex life. Her life is thrown out as a problem of a faraway land rather than a product of the contradictions that exist within this country.

In the past few days, Shamima has gone from British to Bangladeshi to stateless. The histories of colonisation and immigration have been erased from her body (and the bodies of People of Colour in Britain), even as our parents travelled to this heart of the British Empire for opportunities and resources that were systematically stolen from their colonised countries. Whilst the Home Office continues the deportation of elders within the Windrush generation that arrived here as British nationals (and were literally involved in rebuilding this country after WW2), People of Colour continue to be imagined as a potential threat to be thrown out of the British nation. In denying Shamima Begum her citizenship — and conducting drone attacks similar to the ones that are suspected to have killed Amina and Kadiza — the British state is clearly saying that there is nowhere for her to exist.

In the media coverage that has followed her plea to return, we are (yet again) asked to recast a woman into a perfect victim before we can recognise her trauma. The erasure of the way race and religion intersect with gender must also be connected to the government’s inability to understand and effectively tackle grooming and sexual violence in this country, whether it occurs in Parliament, celebrity circles, homes, or online. Shamima’s story exposes the hypocrisy embedded in counter-extremism measures that claim to be tackling extremist grooming. Whilst the “Bethnal Green girls” are used as the poster children for Prevent becoming a statutory safeguarding measure, Shamima is squeezed out of any domains where she might receive the help she needs, and is instead told she can never return to her home.

And so, we must refuse narratives that require Shamima to be an idealised victim or villain before we can see her involvement with ISIL as a consequence of how we confront inequalities in this country. Rather, we must ask: what does it mean for Britain to turn its back on this 19-year-old child without confronting the conditions that lured her out of this country in the first place? How do we reclaim the humanity that is erased as her life and trauma become food for the public’s consumption? Where, if not here, can Shamima Begum exist?

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Azeezat Johnson

Azeezat Johnson is a postdoctoral research fellow at QMUL School of Geography. Her research focuses on Black feminism and the clothing practices of Black Muslim women in Britain. She is one of the editors of The Fire Now: anti-racist scholarship in times of explicit racial violence. She's on Twitter at @azeezatj

Shereen Fernandez

Shereen Fernandez is a PhD researcher at QMUL School of Geography. Her research examines the impacts of the Prevent Duty and fundamental British values on school, teachers and Muslim communities in London. She's on Twitter at @shereenfdz

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