Shamima Begum: ISIS bride, mother, 19 years old, refugee. Should her country Britain allow her back?

Shamima left home in 2015 to join the ISIS. After being in marriage to a jihadi, in a war and having buried two children, she is now desperate to come back. Can she ever return?

 |  5-minute read |   19-02-2019
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Should Britain allow Shamima Begum — 19 years old, new mother, British citizen and ‘ISIS bride’ — to return?

Shamima, along with two friends, ran away from their London homes in February 2015, to join the ISIS in Syria. Immediately after they left, the girls’ families managed to contact them and asked them to come back. All three girls refused, steadfast in their determination to serve the ‘Caliphate’.

Now, almost four years later, one of the girls is dead, another is still at the ISIS’ last stronghold, and Shamima, separated from her husband, just given birth to her third child — the other two died of illness and malnutrition — is desperate to come back home.

Shamima Begum is 19. She is stranded in a refugee camp in Syria, with a newborn son. Shamima Begum is 19. She is in a refugee camp in Syria with a newborn son, two of her children already dead. (Photo: Twitter)

‘Home’, however, is none too welcoming.

While her family has been pleading that Shamima be allowed back so they can raise her son, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has taken an unsympathetic stand. “My message is clear: if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return,” he has said.     

Shamima was found in a Syrian refugee camp by a journalist from The Times. When the three girls had left London, the ‘Bethnal Green case’ — their school was the Bethnal Green Academy — hit the headlines.

The journalist recognised Shamima from her London accent.

A section of the British media has been at pains to highlight that Shamima has refused to show much remorse, and says her life in Syria was ‘fine’ till the ISIS started losing. The Mirror has been particularly unkind, saying the teen was “smirking” in her interview and claiming that it would be ‘difficult to rehabilitate her’ to British life.

But castigating and dismissing Shamima as someone who crossed over to the dark side is so easy.

It’s also very lazy.

Shamima’s case is anything but black and white. Yes, the teen is not sorry she left. Yes, she has talked about seeing a ‘severed head in a bin’ and being ‘okay’ with it. She says her time in Syria helped her become a ‘stronger person’. She misses her husband, Yago Riedijk, a convicted Dutch terrorist who surrendered during fighting, and with whom she has had no contact for some time.

But not allowing her to come back is neither humane, nor sensible.

Shamima was all of 15 when she was radicalised. She is ready to face the legal consequences of her actions. All she wants is to not be separated from her child.

Shamima’s actions cannot be isolated from her context. She is far from alone in being lured by the ISIS — around 2015, hundreds of American and European girls were doing the same. The ISIS may be near defeat now, but the dangers of radicalisation and teens falling for a glorified description of violence are just as present, and as lethal.  

Once back, through proper counselling and under legal scrutiny, Shamima may prove to be an important asset in understanding how these online radicalisation rings operate.

ISIS luring away young girls does not get as much attention as 'boys picking up arms'. Jihadi groups luring young girls does not get as much attention as 'young men picking up arms'. (Photo: Reuters)

Also, she is an important example of the brainwashing of young girls — as prevalent, but not getting as much attention as the popular narrative of young men leaving behind their regular lives to pick up arms.

Shamima and others are part of a “jihadi, girl-power subculture”.

Unlike the Al-Qaeda or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the ISIS is not just a band of random travelling fighters. They intended to establish a ‘Caliphate’ — an entire society governed by their version of Islam.  For these, they needed wives and mothers: women who would be the scaffolding to the male fighters.

Shamima has repeatedly said she did nothing criminal while she was in the ISIS: she was ‘just a housewife, caring for my husband and children’.

Also, women recruits are important in winning the bigger war — the war of ideas.

The fact that girls in liberal Western countries with access to education are ‘choosing’ to be ISIS brides has, dangerously, given the ISIS legitimacy.

The ISIS, thus, has strong motives for recruiting young women. And it chooses its targets with poisonous efficiency. Reports on most UK girls who left their homes for Syria have shown common traits — very good in academics, bright, capable.

The kind of girls more likely to notice subtle discrimination on account of their identity. The kind of girls who would recognise, and question, small injustices. The kind of girls who would have the fire for rebellion.

Teen minds are fertile grounds for planting any seed. If 15-year-old Shamima deserves to be condemned for falling for the ISIS seductive rhetoric, the system that made her vulnerable, and did not recognise her slow change, is also to blame.

The pre-flight scribblings of Shamima and her friends, and social media posts of other radicalised girls, show that apart from their newfound ISIS lingo, their concerns were like any other teens — advising other ‘sisters’ to carry enough bras when they make the flight from their home countries, for Syrian bras are apparently “the worst”, advising ‘sisters’ to stay away from ‘brothers’ on social media, because “many brothers whom you contact and chat to are married. Have some self-respect and don’t be a homewrecker :)”, and tipping each other off on ‘brothers’ who were known flirts.

Shamima's son should not have to grow up in a refugee camp. What is his fault? Shamima's son should not have to grow up in a refugee camp. (Photo: Reuters)

Shamima’s media-highlighted comment about finding the prospect of rehabilitation difficult has been unkindly snipped. What she said was: "It would be really hard because of everything I've been through now. I’m still kind of in the mentality of having planes over my head and an emergency backpack and starving, all these things."

Shamima deserves to be removed from this kind of life. She deserves a chance at a future. Even perhaps, a better one.

The fate of ISIS-linked civilians is especially uncertain: while the fighters might end up as US prisoners of war, the civilians, if not allowed back in their home countries, stare at refugee camps or nothing.

Shamima has already lost four years of her life, and two babies.

Isn’t that punishment enough?

Also read: Sheikha Latifa's story: A princess, an escape, India’s ‘role’ and what this tale tells us about Dubai

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