She was 15 years old when she fled. Shamima Begum was a schoolgirl at the Bethnal Green Academy. She wanted to work for the Islamist cause and saw the life of a militant's wife in the service of the Islamic State as superior to her ordinary life as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants to the United Kingdom. Recently, just as the last of the IS fighters were being rounded up, she surfaced again. Now 19, Shamima said she wanted nothing more than to return to the UK. Soon her family too was making appeals to the public; even if her return could not be immediately achieved, they wanted to be able to bring her son to the UK where he could receive better care than at the refugee camp where she now lives.
Return, however, is more complicated. Despite the fact that Shamima is a British citizen, there were hesitations. In the days after her story emerged, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared that Britain would not take Shamima back. The fact that she was of Bangladeshi descent, he argued, made her eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. The issue of the women who were married to IS fighters is bigger than Shamima Begum. According to news reports there are over 800 people in refugee camps somehow connected to the group with citizenship of Western nations. International law requires these countries to claim these people, so they are not left stateless. Just like Mr. Javid, many of these countries are likely to point to other nations. The fact that they, like Shamima, may have tenuous or fragile connections to these places of descent does not seem to matter in the process of disowning these women.
According to the UK, then, Shamima Begum is Bangladesh's problem. While not implicated in this particular case, Pakistan too may soon find itself in a situation where it has to accept disowned citizens of this or that Western country who have been associated with the IS. Pakistani citizenship laws, like those of Bangladesh, do provide citizenship by descent and IS members who migrated to Syria were often from these communities. What indeed should Pakistan or Bangladesh do in such a situation?
There are people in the UK who are on the side of bringing Shamima back. In the wake of the controversy some commentators argued that Shamima was a child who had been groomed and indoctrinated in the UK. She was, in this sense, a home-grown terrorist who had been beguiled to migrate to Syria, all while in the UK. According to UK law she was 15, a minor, when she left. If she were being tried for a crime committed in the UK, her age would have been a mitigating factor. Then there is the pedigree of Mr. Javid, the home secretary and opponent-in-chief of her return. Some alluded to the fact that he was coming down hard on Shamima’s case as he wanted to burnish his anti-terror credentials with conservatives.
In recent interviews, Shamima has stated that going public with her plea to the British government was likely not in her best interests. After her case, another woman, Hoda Muthana, who was a United States citizen, has also expressed her desire to be repatriated to the US. Like the British, the Americans have refused to take her back, the US Secretary of State arguing that she has no valid US passport, visa or claim to a passport and hence will not be permitted back.
Lodged in the midst of the issue of citizenship is that of culpability. It is not quite clear what Shamima was up to while she was with the IS. According to statements made by some Yazidi women, it is naïve to assume that all of these women were innocent bystanders and passive wives. Many were directly involved in pushing the agenda of the IS and mistreating others whom they saw as lesser militants. In the case of Muthana, the evidence is easily available, with various internet records showing that she was a top recruiter making vivid calls on social media to “kill Americans”.
Why should a country, any country, take back women such as these? International law provides some answers but they seem hollow and incomplete given the nature of the IS and the tactics that they deployed to attract young people to the “caliphate” they established. There is little guarantee, after all, that these women, brides of IS fighters, would not get back to the task of gathering up recruits and militants once they were permitted back into these countries. In the days to come, it seems that no country is likely to be amenable to taking on the headache of repatriating and rehabilitating them.
By arrangement with Dawn...