Shamima Begum is a young woman surrounded by competing narratives, which perhaps say more about us than about her. Who is she to us?
On the one hand she is the IS bride, the schoolgirl turned traitor, who deserted her home nation and travelled to give comfort to the enemy. And when those she has been supporting face defeat she asks to return home. She expresses no remorse for her actions, seems unmoved by the horrors she has witnessed and seems to want to justify the Manchester Arena attack.
The Home Secretary removes her British citizenship. She is seen as a potential threat to her homeland and is not welcome here anymore. Besides we are told it would be too dangerous for British consular staff to be able to go to her and bring her home.
On the other hand she is the victim of online grooming. How free were the decisions she made? A 24year old man married her – his justification was that she was willing. She has witnessed things that no young girl should have seen. She has lost three babies in four years. No matter what she has done, her parents just want their daughter home again. Given journalists and Red Crescent workers have no difficulty gaining access to her it seems the government that should have protected her, has chosen to abandon her
Who is Shamima Begum to us? In the public eye any semblance of sympathy for a vulnerable young woman drains away in the face of our fear of terrorism and our anxieties over extreme Islam. Her chosen mode of dress, and seeming lack of remorse, does nothing to win the public’s sympathy.
It is as if we have forgotten all we have learnt about safeguarding and vulnerable adults. Imagine a different story:
A 15 year old girl forms an online relationship with an older man. She runs away from home to be with him, drawn by the lure of a different, more grown up life. She disappears from public view. Unknown to her family she is drawn in to the worst excesses of the sex trade during which time she falls pregnant three times and each time her child dies. When finally four years later she is rediscovered she is wearing highly sexualised clothing and defends those who she has been living with for the past years but now wants to come back to live with her parents. How would we react?
We know the power of grooming, how it can change a vulnerable child’s mind and make them act in inappropriate ways and warp their sense of judgement. We know that when individuals are exposed to degrading and violent treatment how they can come to adopt the mind-set of their abusers and even seek to defend them. Victims behave in many different ways and come in many different guises – they are still nevertheless victims.
Put quite simply Shamima does not fit with the public perception of a victim of grooming and abuse. Even the death of her baby does not seem to change that perception. If she had fallen victim to the sex trade or to a religious cult she would have won greater sympathy. By appearing to be a cheer leader (albeit rather half-hearted) for IS we are unable to see beyond the veil to the vulnerable young adult.
Yes she needs to face the consequences of what she has done. Yes society needs to know she is not a threat to others. But she still needs to be treated as we would treat any other victim of grooming.
Our judgement and rejection of her run the risk of making her a recruiting advert for other extremists. In rightly wanting to be tough on terror we must not turn our backs on the very values that makes us different from those we oppose.
We have to show that our society is better than this, that we can be bigger, better, more generous and compassionate. Such values may make us seem to some more vulnerable but that too is part of the values that we are seeking to uphold
The competing narratives around this one young adult are in the end a reflection of the competing narratives currently at the heart of our political life as we seek to discern the kind of nation we wish to be and the values by which we wish to live.
Who is Shamima Begum to us? Who do we want to be to Shamima Begum?