What Shamima Begum’s Case Tells Us About the UK’s Treatment of Muslim Women

Shamima Begum is a name that’s been embedded into British history for all the wrong reasons. In recent years the conversation about her case has shifted from Britain being hell-bent on keeping her out of the country to more calls for an investigation into how she was groomed for terrorism in the first place. But there’s more to her story.

There are millions of South Asian Muslim women who’ve been left isolated and vilified because of the UK’s treatment of Begum’s case. This piece sets out to amplify the voices of South Asian Muslim women in the UK and at the same time showcase the unsettling reality of the discrimination they have to face.

It should go without saying but I, and all the women I spoke with, strongly condemn the actions of Shamima Begum. However, we will not turn a blind eye to how the UK handled her case. Speaking with various South Asian Muslim women on this topic I realized that they are demonized, isolated, and let down.

It’s clear to the South Asian Muslim community that race played a major factor in the way Shamima Begum’s case was treated.

For example, one woman spoke of how her teachers were concerned about her traveling to Saudi Arabia in 2015, the year Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana left for Syria. The teacher’s concern was that her student would perhaps follow in the same footsteps as Shamima Begum and her companions. Another woman shared that the UK’s reaction to the case made her fearful of the future of women from her community.

Uk’s Treatment of White Women vs. Women of Color

It’s clear to the South Asian Muslim community that race played a major factor in the way Shamima Begum’s case was treated. In comparison to how the UK treats White women in similar situations, the UK definitely has its bias.

Rhianan Rudd, a 15-year-old British woman was accused of plotting an attack and possessing instructions on how to make firearms and explosives. These charges were dropped months later when it emerged she was groomed online by American Neo-Nazi Christopher Cook. Rudd’s mother told BBC that Rudd should be treated “as a victim rather than a terrorist.” Nick Lowles, Chief Executive of children’s charity, Hope Not Hate, said as a reaction to her case that the UK should “ensure our counter-extremism strategy isn’t just viewed through a law-and-order lens.”

In another case, the UK has proven that it’s only Muslim women of color who they will target. Samantha Lewthwaite, a White Muslim convert, was the wife of 7/7 bomber, Jermaine Lindsay. She was suspected to know about the plot but was portrayed as a victim by many media outlets. She fled the UK shortly after and was later suspected of being behind a 2013 attack on a shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya; but even after this, she was described as “shy” and “innocent” by people who knew her. There was no uproar by the UK media to take action against her nor did the country threaten to take away her British citizenship. The lack of investigation in both the case of Rudd and Lewthwaite is a testament to the discrimination that the UK imposes on anyone who identifies as non-White.

WHY IS Shamima Begum COnsidered a Terrorist?

When you hear the name Shamima Begum the first immediate connection is terrorism. A recent podcast by BBC featured Shamima Begum’s story. This met with international outcry as the public argues that she does not deserve to be given a platform to voice her experience. Many also argued that her British citizenship should be revoked, although Begum was born in the UK. Despite being groomed on British soil she hasn’t been allowed back to the country to be put on trial and answer for her crimes.

Why is there such a disparity in the way these three women (Rudd, Lewthwaite, Begum) were treated by the British government and society? It can perhaps be best explained with the Theory of Intersectionality, originally coined by critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, which is the idea that the different parts of one’s identity create an overlapping and unique intersection of discrimination or the oppression one face.

To put theory into practice in this case, while White women and South Asian women face sexism and misogyny, the sexism and misogyny faced by South Asian women are different from that faced by White women. While both White Muslim women and South Asian Muslim women face Islamophobia, the Islamophobia that South Asian Muslim women are subjected to is different from that faced by White Muslim women because, once again, race adds a new intersection of stereotypes and prejudice.

British society needs to stop pretending that racism isn’t an issue in the country.

White women are continuously given the benefit of the doubt while South Asian women are not. White women are taken more seriously, both by society and in the media, as victims of terrorism – but South Asian women are not. No matter how young South Asian girls will be, they’ll be told that it’s somehow their own fault that they were groomed to engage in terrorist activity, whereas even grown White women’s actions can be excused when there is evidence of coercion. British society needs to stop pretending that racism isn’t an issue in the country.

Shamima Begum’s case gives a clear message to the millions of South Asian Muslim women and girls in the UK. It tells them that they are not safe and will not be protected by the institutions put in place to help them. They will not get an opportunity to be tried fairly for their crimes. The UK has sent out a clear message to South Asian Muslim women that they are easily disposable, and that they matter less than their White counterparts.

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