SHAMIMA BEGUM: THE BIGGER QUESTIONS IT POSES?

Shamima Begum, one of the three girls of the Bethnal Green Trio, left Britain when she was just 15 to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in February 2015. Prior to this, the three girls attended Bethnal Green Academy in London from which the name is derived. Four years after her sudden departure, Begum was discovered in the Al-Hawl camp situated in Northern Syria. She was no longer in IS territory and was pleading to return to Britain. She wanted to provide her unborn child with a chance of survival and the hope of a better life.  Soon after her plea to repatriate back home, the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made an official statement stripping Begum of her citizenship.

The aim of this article is not to pass a judgement on Great Britain’s decision to revoke Shamima Begum’s citizenship, instead it aims to bring to light other gendered and racial factors that may influence such decisions. Through revoking her citizenship, the British state not only expelled her from her political community but also denied her any further recourse to procedural and access to substantive justice. It is also important to note how this power of being able to revoke citizenship, states are undermining the dignity of a human. And it is even more worrisome, how such practices are gaining increasing momentum as time passes. 

In Britain itself, multiple Prime Ministers and their respective Home Secretaries have frequently voiced their opinion on the worth of swapping human rights for security measures, keeping in mind that the most important objective for a state is to maintain national security while protecting collective citizenship rights. One of the strategies they do so is through citizenship revocation. Citizenship is a primary human right as it gives an individual ‘a right to have a right’ in the first place. What does the life of an individual, sans any citizenship, look like? The individual is reduced to a bare life. Moreover, as time passes we have realised that the once defined distinctions between judiciary and politics are not as clear anymore. The judiciary which decides on an individual’s citizenship is no longer apolitical in nature. It is influenced by and, in some instances, even a product of political contestations which forces something as simple as who deserves human rights to be a matter of contention. 

This idea of granting human rights solely on the basis of citizenship has been long debated ; it starts off historically with Hobbes, 1651,  and Locke, 1689, who assert that humans are ‘endowed with specific natural rights subsequently protected by the state through their citizenship status’. However, these opinions are not as widely accepted as one would think them to be; citizenship theorists have often countered this idea by stressing how this status of protection must not, and is not, a given. It must be a social contract between the state and the individual, delineating a code of conduct one must follow to maintain their citizenship status. One of the theorists notes that citizenship is not only a protective shield, but also bestows a set of rights for the individual, legal and sociopolitical being a few of them along with providing an identity. Due to this plural purpose of a state’s citizenship, it must not be taken for granted and must be earned. And such theories are what international policymakers are banking on, allowing them to question whether citizenships should be revoked, especially when they are viewed as threats to the remaining population. 

What continues to fuel this heightened political discourse is how does one come to ‘achieve’ this highly coveted citizenship. Jus sanguinis and Jus soli are the two ways an individual comes to acquire citizenship. Jus soli assigns nationality to a natural person by reason of their birth, in a given territory with or without additional conditions. Jus sanguinis, on the other hand, attributes the nationality that one’s parents hold at the time of birth of the child. Inserting this into modern-day politics, scholars have highlighted how this introduces a major flaw in legalistic citizenship systems: citizens with access to multiple nationalities due to their jus sanguinis are more prone to having their citizenship stripped- a phenomenon we are seeing play out in front of our eyes. Although Begum is British by her jus soli, Javid argued that she is also entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her jus sanguinis, even though Bangladesh has publicly disowned Begum. It can be highlighted how such individuals become victims of ‘inter-state’ games of hot potato played with the bodies of these undesirables (Macklin 2014). Due to a person’s jus soli their loyalty to the state comes under fire very often. Begum is a prime specimen of this ‘hot potato game’ where none of the two states wished to bear the liability of harbouring a persona non grata.

The decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship was pivotal not only in her life as she was suddenly left stateless, but also in the political history of Britain. Begum became the first British woman who had had her citizenship revoked. Despite the pleas of human rights activists all across the world and Begum’s family’s appeals, the British government did not budge. This rather unprecedented move triggered a bigger debate and raised questions revolving around citizenship, human rights, and the agency of the state. Is it ethically and morally legitimate for the British state to revoke the citizenship of a national?  If yes, under what conditions is it justified?

First, the revocation of citizenship suggests hierarchical notions of humanity, whereby the state’s obligations to its constituents differ depending on each individual’s socially constructed racial and gender identities. Especially in a post 9/11 world how do Western communities define their citizens? To further examine perceptions of an individual, we must delve deeper and understand the relationship between ‘Britishness’ and ethnic and religious minorities.  It needs to be brought to light that there is a patently racist framing of ‘Britishness’ which is making it even more difficult to attain for Muslim women Shamima’s case highlights how dignity of citizens from marginalized backgrounds- in this particular combination of an ethnic minority, a woman, a Muslim and a mother- has been systemically undermined by the state. The fact that a state not only possesses such power but also chooses to act upon it is indicative of the hierarchical system of citizenship. This dehumanization is aptly captured by the Orwellian line: ‘all (humans) are equal, but some are more equal than the others.’ Pictures that have recently surfaced show Shamima Begum dressed in western clothes– she has swapped her burkha for a more modern jeans and t-shirt. This also makes us question whether she too realises her Britishness is being questioned and how changing her dressing style would help her fit the more Caucasian definition of being a British citizen. 

This further continues to propagate the ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric which, as seen in the world previously, is often used to spread political agenda. States and their leaders capitalize on the fear they themselves create by distinctly separating classes of people based on their genders, race, caste and sexuality to further their political ambitions. The British state employed this very rhetoric polarizing its citizens into two broad categories ‘with us or against us’ using it as a legitimization of breaching basic human rights. Through such narratives that are often spun with the support of the media, dehumanizes the individual in question; we know longer view them as a fellow citizen or human, instead an alien encroaching on our safety. The narrative of it being for the greater good gave politicians and judiciary power to weed out even those individuals who are considered to be a threat.

In the United States, the Trump administration had intensified its denaturalization efforts targeting people of colour and those ranging from poor socio-economic backgrounds. In many places elsewhere, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  has reported millions of stateless people from many parts of the globe. Accordingly, in the case of Myanmar, nearly 600,000 individuals living in the Rakhine state remain stateless on the basis of the current law, which effectively denies citizenship for members of Muslim minority groups. In the Ivory Coast, approximately 700,000 Burkinabe migrants remain ineligible for Ivorian citizenship, while Europe has around 500,000 stateless individuals, many of whom are from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe (resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991).

Although statelessness and citizenship revocation have existed even before Shamima Begum’s case surfaced, such practices remain majorly opaque and hidden in mainstream international policy discussions. The Shamima Begum case sparked controversy as it probed at questions bigger than itself: is citizenship revocation affected by colonialist and imperialist perceptions and how dehumanising it is for a human to be reduced to a bare person.

Yasashvi Paarakh is a first- year student at Ashoka University, majoring in Economics and Finance and hoping to minor in Political Science. Her research interests lie in studying the ramifications of religious interference in the modern political arena across the world. 

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