The cases of Shamima Begum and Rahaf Mohammed tell us a lot about how we define victimhood
Originally published at www.middleeastmonitor.com on February 21, 2019.
Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who was stranded at Bangkok airport after fleeing her family from Kuwait [Twitter]
Shamima Begum, 19-year-old British teenager who joined Daesh in Syria four years ago [Twitter]
Behind every headline there is a multi-layered story, and behind some stories there is a Muslim reading it and rolling their eyes. This is particularly true if you are a Muslim woman scrolling online; at least one eye-roll a day is mandatory.
On one hand you have teenagers fleeing alleged violence and renouncing their faith and relishing in drinking wine and eating bacon, while on the other we see teenage Daesh brides looking to return home for the sake of their children. Whilst differing in nature, what binds these two stories are the type of reactions elicited by the public and political figures, and the reactionary politics fraught with double standards and messiah complexes that inevitably ensue.
Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old British citizen who ran away from London to join Daesh with her friends four years ago has provoked mixed feelings about whether or not she should be permitted to return to the UK and raise her newborn child. Found in a camp in Syria by a journalist, ethics aside, the monotone figure of Begum, who lost two children fathered by a Dutch Daesh fighter over her four years in the country, says that she has no regrets about joining the so-called Islamic State and that it has made her “stronger”. Perhaps not the smartest reply for someone trying to make it back to British soil, but her readiness to face the consequences of her actions should be the main focus here.
Her “Britishness” has now been called into question, though, with calls for her citizenship to be revoked and for her to be denied entry into her home country in a machismo show of no sympathy for those who choose to join a “death cult”. Whilst the anger may be logical, it is this type of identity politics that has no doubt fuelled some of the marginalisation felt by many young British Muslims, with some pushed to vulnerability when finding a sense of community in dangerous online spaces.
It also raises the pertinent question as to why this type of rhetoric is not being applied to other cases of crimes committed by Brits, or their affiliation to terror groups. Anne Campbell was a British citizen killed last year in Syria while fighting with the YPG-linked Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), whose female fighters have been largely fetishised by the West. Her death met with praise as she was hailed for her heroism and “inspiration” despite the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdish PKK, which Britain and other states have designated as a terror organisation. Similarly, former British soldier Joe Robinson, imprisoned in Turkey in 2015 for fighting alongside Kurdish armed groups, was able to return to Britain last year after fleeing Turkey whilst on bail.
According to the head of MI6, Britons who fought for Daesh cannot be stopped from returning, but Begum’s citizenship has indeed been revoked. What has become apparent, and this is by no means a defence of the teenager’s actions, is the conditionality of citizenship for those of foreign extraction based on the nature of their crimes or contingent upon good behaviour. If your name is not Anna or Joe, or if you choose to join the Mahal programme to fight with the Israel Defence Forces involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity, then different rules apply to you.
The Pakistani-born heads of the Rochdale grooming gang face having their citizenship revoked and deportation but following the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal the government recognised the need for grooming awareness. Whilst the same need has not been applied to Begum’s case, as a 15-year-old child who was groomed and radicalised online sufficiently to prompt her to buy a one-way ticket to Syria, her return would provide the opportunity to get some answers to the many questions surrounding radicalisation and help in developing prevention strategies that do not demonise the wider community and create more problems than they solve.
Another case that demonstrates the obvious double standards of governments dealing with such issues was that of 18 year old Rahaf Mohammed who fled from her family and native Saudi Arabia by locking herself into her room at a Thai airport hotel. Imploring the international community to protect her, Mohammed’s plight highlighted the ongoing issues facing many women in the Kingdom, including physical and mental abuse. Within days, she was granted asylum by Canada, after which she was quick to upload pictures of herself with wine-filled glasses on social media, which many were quick to celebrate as a sign of liberty and progress.
Mohammed’s saviour, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, spoke of his country’s unequivocal support for “human rights and women’s rights around the world.” Does that also include penalising Quebec’s new “status of women minister” for referring to the Hijab as “a symbol of oppression”; or pressuring Canada’s allies to rethink their arms contracts to the Saudi government; or calling upon the latter to release the female activists currently languishing in prison for daring to campaign for their rights? Of course not. Double standards rule.
Hailed as a victory for “freedom” and human rights, Mohammed’s case stems from the same enthusiasm with which the West has praised Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, as a “reformer” for lifting the ban on women driving — ironically, while jailing the activists campaigning for the right to drive — and allowing cinemas to open and concerts to be held in the hope of moulding the country into a “top 10 destination for entertainment”. Performers like Mariah Carey have convinced themselves that their presence helps the Kingdom to break away from “regressive” norms like gender separation, but as long as they fail to use their public platforms to highlight the concerns of true reformers such as Loujain Alhathloul, they are simply feeding into a system that thinks killing and dismembering journalists is an acceptable way to deal with critics.
We must also ask why Rahaf Mohammed’s case was processed so quickly and publicly and she was offered asylum by both Canada and Australia, while in countries like the latter Saudi women are being turned away on suspicion that they’ll request asylum while Emirati women stuck in airports and detention centres are having their appeals largely ignored. Are victims only defined as such if they have the “right” appearance, devour bacon with relish or pray to a Christian God? Can you be a victim of sex trafficking or grooming, or interviewed for the next hot headline without a legal representative present, if you aren’t white? If we in the West are going to claim to be actors for justice, let us at least be consistent in the principles for which we stand.
Originally published at www.middleeastmonitor.com on February 21, 2019.