March 8th was all about International Women’s day and spreading awareness regarding (women’s) equality and shattering glass ceilings. In between the Brexit situation and editorial articles on gender balancing, another prevalent issue was simmering on the surface of British politics. ISIS bride Shamima Begum requested that she was given permission to re-enter the United Kingdom for the sake of her son’s well-being. On the 20th of February, home secretary Javid revoked Begum’s citizenship, causing major turmoil. Friday, 8 March, the heart-wrenching news was delivered that Begum’s infant son had passed away. Begum’s lawyer had been unable to overturn Javid’s decision in time. Labour MP Diane Abbott spews her critique on Javid’s decision, even suggesting that he is partially responsible for the death of Begum’s son.
Abbot called the death of baby Jerah “a stain on the conscience of the UK government”. She proceeded to mention that deliberative attempts to strip someone from citizenship are illegal. Article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”. Revoking citizenship is not uncommon but revoking someone’s only citizenship is highly disputed. Article 3 in the Human Rights Act of 1998 suggest that withdrawing someone’s only citizenship could be classified as “inhumane and degrading”.
Javid’s decision has caused a wide-spread debate about the legality of his actions. Several moral dilemmas are drawn. Is Begum a threat to national security or not? Is it, therefore, justified to take her only citizenship? Did her baby son not deserve citizenship according to international law and conventions? Are the UK and specifically the home secretary not responsible for the death of an innocent boy? These are all very real and important questions. Obligations of loyalty to Britain, children’s rights and even the legitimacy of Britain’s liberal democracy are questioned.
Despite the difficulty of this matter, the death of a baby boy should remain as a central point in this debate. Therefore, I would like to emphasize that I will not in any way attempt to gloss over the tragedy of the death of a vulnerable, innocent infant. Nonetheless, I will not further elaborate on the moral and legal dilemma attached to the Begum debate or whether Begum was indeed a victim of grooming. A lot of interesting work is however written on this subject so it is definitely worth it to further dive into this subject. For the rest of this article I will pay attention to specific parts of Abbott’s comments and the link to so-called ‘fake feminism’. I believe it is rather interesting to evaluate Abbott’s response in light of International Women’s Day and feminism. Her words seem to be lacking sound statistical evidence and a deeper understanding of what feminism and gender equality is really about.
To quote Abbot: “What does it say about our government on International Women’s Day that it would allow hundreds of men to return to the UK from Syria and Iraq under similar circumstances, but strip citizenship from a young woman who was groomed as a minor?”. First, her claim that hundreds of men are allowed to go back to the UK is questionable. At the end of 2018, The Times wrote that about 80 ISIS brides were expected to make their way back to the UK. Furthermore, a report issued by the European Parliament has analysed that women on average constitute about 17% of the European departees. Research conducted in 2017 concluded that 12% of the British departees was female. It was also reported by The Independent that at least 425 ISIS fighters have returned. Further, research conducted by Soufan Centre, also quoted in the European Parliament report, mentions how difficult it is to quantify, assess and address the women that went to the caliphate. 2017 estimates guess that over 100 British women went to join ISIS. Over 100 is, however, a very loose number.
What I am trying to illustrate by highlighting different research outcomes and diverging numbers, is the difficulty of collecting data, especially when it comes to female IS fighters. The data is already ambiguous and speculative. Abbott then gives the impression that she did not properly investigate the statistics behind her comments. Therefore it seems extremely inappropriate and unwise to make such unnuanced claims. When focusing on absolute numbers we can indeed say that “hundreds of men” are returning back to the UK. However, we previously saw that men make up the majority of ISIS fighters. Logical reasoning would then be that among the returnees, the percentage of men will be exponentially higher than that of female fighters. Moreover, her word choice by saying that the UK government ‘allows’ those returnees to go back kind of twists reality, really putting the reader into a certain direction. In this context, the word “allowed” almost sounds as if male ISIS soldiers are welcomed with open arms, while women are not. I think it’s safe to say that the UK government is not too eager to take back any ISIS fighters, no matter their gender.
Furthermore, I consider it highly problematic that Abbot sees International Women’s Day as an opportunity to strengthen her argument. This annual day or feminism in general should not be used as some kind of continuous scale in order to assess the gravity of revoking someone’s only citizenship. Using a gender narrative is simply incorrect and not useful or suitable to condemn Javir’s decision. Feminism is, as I have stated already, about equality and independence. Feminism believes in the power of women and is closely linked to the concept of emancipation and freedom. Abbot presents Begum as a women incapable of making her own decisions.
As Camilla Cavendish points out in The Financial Times: “The argument that Ms Begum is a victim follows a pattern of assumption that women are less threatening than men — and less responsible for their actions”. She goes on by saying that this idea of a helpless woman is put away as naïve by many terrorist experts. The earlier mentioned research by Soufan Centre confirms that the majority of women went to the caliphate out of free will. The research also emphasized how crucial women were in building the caliphate. I encourage everyone to decide for him or herself whether Begum should be considered as a victim or a terrorist. It is however vital that we as critical (aspiring) academics are willing to look beyond the traditional narratives in the Begum case, for the sake of justice- which is by the way another core tenet of feminism.
Abbott is very much victimizing Begum even though her guilt or innocence is highly contested. She seems to have decided that Begum was a victim of grooming while it has still to be determined to what extent Begum is indeed accountable. Abbott’s appeal to feminism is as questionable as her data on male returnees. She is directly going against everything that feminism stands for, by implicitly classifying Begum a naïve woman. What about women holding women responsible instead of women supporting women? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate in certain situations? Unity amongst females and women supporting women cannot be celebrated and promoted enough. However, I feel like it should be clear that hiding behind some sense of false sisterhood is a very harmful approach in this matter, given the accusations that Begum is facing. Abbott, again, fails to make a nuanced assessment of the situation. Gender should not be a parameter by which we can assess what Begum deserves or does not deserve. Women supporting women must not transform into a weak excuse to condone all sorts of undesired behaviour. Applying feminist ideas and making a cheap reference to such a major event as International Women’s Day to make a political statement does not do justice to Begum, women in general or the principles of equality and independence. If only, it exemplifies how deeply misinformed Abbott is and how feminism still has a long way to go.