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When the presenter on Good Morning Britain (GMB) introduces Shamima Begum she is silent. Sitting quietly, Shamima plays with her hair as she patiently waits to speak. It is the first time UK audiences see her without the hijab and the black abaya she was first filmed in.
Shamima is speaking to an audience of millions, and she has one main message: she wants to come home. The image stands in stark contrast to previous interviews where the young woman was filmed by journalists following the fall of ISIS.
It is also the first time Shamima has spoken to the media after the release of a new documentary, ‘The Return: Life after ISIS’, which follows the realities faced by many women who, like Begum, fled Islamic State territory and now remain stranded in northern Syria.
The documentary follows Muslim women from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and their lives in the camp. They receive regular workshops delivered by a small group of Kurdish women, focusing on helping these women come to terms with what they saw, experienced and abetted while they were in ISIS. In addition, the Kurdish women run a writing workshop where the women get the chance to explore their emotions, one of which includes writing a letter to their younger self who was determined to join ISIS.
Shamima Begum: Then and now
Shamima Begum first appeared on our screens in 2015 after she had absconded to Syria with two of her friends from Bethnal Green, East London. So much was written about this — about what it meant for Britain, where she belonged. Things then went quiet for a few years until she reappeared on our screens in 2019, when Sajiv Javid, then Home Secretary, revoked her British citizenship, a question which has been an ongoing battle for Begum and her legal team ever since.
In the summer of 2020, three Court of Appeal judges ruled that Begum should indeed be allowed back into the UK to challenge the revocation. However, after the case was taken to the Supreme Court, it ruled in early 2021 that while Begum does have a right to challenge the decision, she should do so from outside Britain due to “security concerns”.
Begum’s fleeting (re)appearances over the past six years have thus been used as a mirror through which the United Kingdom had the chance to self-reflect and consider its moral complicities and crimes abroad. Begum’s mere presence has become inseparable from the ways in which this island sees itself, the way it defines its internal borders and who belongs within its clearly defined lines.
Begum captures the nation’s imagination through her mythologisation, whereby she herself ends up embodying the “floating signifier” (Stuart Hall) through the core themes of race, class and religion. These three variables most commonly give the establishment anxiety, and it does everything it can to pretend no issues exist in relation to them. Yet we see these three variables emerge on our screens in the documentary, subtly lacing the women’s lives in their respective countries.
Shamima Begum’s lack of remorse or guilt has been one of the core emotions weaponised against her — an element used to explain why she is a ‘national threat’. This alleged lack of emotion is pertinent, as this new documentary wants to point out how she cried and does so for the first time. Anthony Loyd, the journalist who first found Begum in 2019, wrote a recent piece where he exposed this binary of Begum being presented as either a victim or a perpetrator. It was in this piece that I came across this documentary. As part of promoting the film, the trailer utilises the clip of Begum crying.
Why was this specific clip used to promote and embed in this article? Does Begum’s humanity hinge on showcasing her tears to the world, thereby warranting forgiveness? Otherwise, does she still pose a threat? I could not help but view this with suspicion and notice how this surely was a deliberate choice to induce a sense of sympathy in people.
The spectacle of her crying, a subversion of the image of the dangerous brown woman, is what will be the site that accelerates her redemption. This is no longer a case of the subordination of the Muslim. Begum needs to be made an example of and become the obsequious Muslim, the compliant one. Indeed, Begum forms the ground from which human-ness of the Muslim itself is contested and defined. As Loyd states in his piece, “Without that recognition of responsibility, and a commitment to some sort of atonement, western societies will never accept these women back…”
The criticisms meted out against Begum are, by extension, a scathing attack on minority communities in the UK, most evidently against the Muslim community. The impenetrable focus on Begum has shifted the ways in which a liberal vernacular dispelling the supposed ‘threat’ posed by Muslims is (re)produced. What this means is that not only have these ‘homegrown Muslims’ caused us damage here, but they also pack their bags and go ‘over there’ to do the same thing.
This new vernacular, in turn, is inflected by the current political and social conjectures and contexts, reigniting the long-standing debates and contestations around the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, this time this is explored through a particular lens: citizenship. Although citizenship stripping has been a prevalent, non-public facing practice before Begum’s case, as clearly demonstrated by work done by CAGE and others throughout the years, with Begum it has now entered the dominant political discussion.
The façade this island presents — primarily of a nation that upholds the rule of law and has entrenched this as a ‘British Value’ across the public sector through the Prevent Strategy, is a grand performance. This insatiable appetite to use its minorities to position itself globally and display its marvel ways has not gone unnoticed by the racialised within its borders.
Here, the figure of Begum punctuates much of the dismay and horror expressed by Brits over ISIS, and for all that is wrong ‘over there’. Her presence in the nation’s conscience, maintained by the media, abets the necessary argument not to give her access to the only home she has ever known.
The documentary and its narration
The documentary follows Muslim women from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and their lives in their camp. We hear about their lives in their respective countries, their families, their fraught relationships with their parents, families and wider society. Much of it will be familiar to those racialised in the British context and what these dehumanising processes encompass vis-à-vis racism.
These ‘western societies’ set the parameters of who is worthy of accessing ‘our societies’ even though these women are of those societies. The women very clearly highlight how they are products of those societies that have rejected them, warranting the need to question whether Muslims are merely ‘guests’ and never quite full citizens of those nations. These societies, at most, are more preoccupied and concerned with ascertaining their sense of self through a ritual of self-aggrandisement. It is to salvage itself and absolve its role in these women’s lives. When you listen to the majority of these women speak, they all speak in English with their distinct Dutch, German, American, Canadian and British accents. (I am pointing this out not to humanise them but to illustrate the markers and signifiers of the respective countries these women embody.)
Begum’s face is used in frames during the introduction of the documentary with British newspapers’ headlines about her. One of them, a lot more explicit than the others, reads: ‘No Regrets, No Remorse’. Next, we meet Begum herself inside one of the tents, in her grey hijab, where she talks about what led her to join ISIS and make that journey to Syria in 2015. This is the first time we hear directly from her about why she decided to leave the UK with her two friends, how they planned it and who helped them.
She also shares how she had a ruptured relationship with her mother while simultaneously expressing regret at not having hugged her mum before leaving because she misses her. She felt like she was the odd one out, while her older three sisters were more extroverted. This theme appeared with the other women too: feeling like the odd ones out in their contexts and seeking a sense of purpose and belonging. The Canadian woman, Kimberley, talks about feeling lonely after her children grew up and left home. Huda, from the US, addressed this point and how she wanted to help the helpless and powerless (i.e. the Syrians). Ouidad, from Germany, felt Muslims were disproportionately discriminated against back in Germany but realised it was worse for Muslims under ISIS.
Begum is present in many scenes throughout the documentary and only speaks when the camera is specifically on her. You sense the reluctance, the emotions and her anxiety around how she will be received. However, the camera is gentle on her, and she captivates the audience with her honesty and sincerity. She does not hide what she witnessed, and, at some points, it proves challenging to listen to the many stories all the women share about what they saw, did and encouraged. However, at no point do they attempt to minimise the roles they played in advocating for ISIS. Yet the question still remains: what role did they play in ISIS during the time there?
What was distinct about the camera work in this documentary is how it is simply there in its stillness. Its lack of manoeuvering makes you feel like you are there yourself, in her presence, to hear her story, her version. It does not zoom in on her. It does not hover over her, as was the case when she read out the letter from Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary, revoking her citizenship.
Begum and the other women read out the letters they penned to their younger selves. The common denominator in these letters is how the women wished they could tell their younger selves to be less reactionary. Begum’s letter references her mum and how she had hoped her younger self had made more of an effort with her, and how much she now misses her mother. She talks about how nothing can ever replace a mother’s love.
Previously, Begum seeking atonement was gauged, fleetingly, through the dissection of her sartorial choices and changes. These included juxtaposing her in a jilbab and hijab with pictures of her in jeans and a cardigan. The suggestion was that she was only doing this to seek forgiveness, to project the image of a ‘girl next door’ as the only way to humanise herself. The Daily Mail used images of Begum in jeans and a white t-shirt in an article where there is a detailed discussion of why she no longer wears her hijab. This fixation reveals more about the foundational logic of (re)producing the ‘good Muslim woman’ discourse than the actual complexities around dress choices.
However, in this documentary, the Muslim women speak very candidly about their relationship with the hijab. Some explain that they wore it from a young age because relatives forced them to, while others expressed frustration that their parents lacked Islamic knowledge about the hijab and thereby stunted their understanding of it. The discussion around dress was held in tandem with wanting a clear sense of purpose and belonging in the countries they originated from.
Begum will continue to function as the repository of the ‘dangers’ of having so many ‘of them’ amongst us. She is deployed as the hyper-individualised subject representative of the community she stems from, legitimating the dominant ideas that masses of Muslims are simply incapable of entering modernity. This is in contrast to how she speaks in the documentary. You realise her child-like disposition, vulnerability at the end when asked what would be the first thing she would do if and when she returns to the UK, and she shares what it would feel like having a foot-long subway.
The ‘West’ and Muslim women
This documentary, in this sense, crystallises the idea that Muslims are birthed through the gaze of the West and enter humanity only if they meet the standards set by it. The Muslim as a political subject has to morph into the apolitical. The focus has shifted to: how much is Begum willing to grovel? How much will she partake in the spectacle where she is consumed aplenty to determine her worth, her human-ness?
Begum, and the other women from their respective countries, will not be disappearing from the collective conscience any time soon. In the UK, Begum will be the site used for the representational matrix of the Muslim who either disposes of their faith or holds onto it by continuously distancing themselves from the likes of Begum. The former is preferred and will continue to be lauded as the success story. Begum is the ultimate battleground to forge who qualifies as the ‘right’ Muslim.
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