by Harriet Farnham

As the so-called caliphate defends its last stronghold in the town of Baghuz, Shamima Begum is back in the media spotlight. Four years since she left the UK to join ISIS, the 19 year old is asking to return home. The sensationalist and islamophobic media circus surrounding Begum should not surprise us; we’ve seen this all before in the press representations of women associated with terrorism. Begum’s plea, and the responses to it, highlights the multiple ways in which British identity is constructed through gendered and racialised conceptions of nation, and discursively framed through the bodies of those who do, and those who do not, belong.

Inexplicable women and the masculinist protection racket

When young British women and girls began leaving the UK to join ISIS in late 2014, there was a stark disparity between the apparent newsworthiness of this phenomenon, and the comparative lack of policy concern. Analysing newspaper coverage of the Bethnal Green Academy students (Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum) and the Halane twins (Zahra and Salma) it’s clear that early media narratives victimised the girls, rendering them un-threatening and in need of rescue. Indeed, in the case of Shamima Begum and her two school friends, the Metropolitan police literally followed the girls to Turkey, with hopes of bringing them safely home. Beyond such futile rescue attempts, at this time, policy makers remained largely disinterested in the so-called “jihadi brides”. This asymmetry was rooted in a long history of orientalist strategies used to victimise, Other, and justify saving, Muslim women. It was also grounded in the gendered assumption that while men are predominantly the perpetrators of violence, armed conflict, and terrorism, women are the peaceful and passive victims of violence, armed conflict, and terrorism.

While women involved with terrorism assert that they are motivated by the very same reasons as men – politics, religion, anger, loneliness – mainstream media narratives often explain away violent women’s transgressions because they undermine traditional notions of femininity. In Mothers, Monsters, Whores, Sjoberg and Gentry tackle the geopolitical context in which the much-circulated images of women soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib emerged. They argue that ‘women who commit violence have been characterized as anything but regular criminals or regular soldiers or regular terrorists’. Instead, they are nearly always portrayed through the same three tropes: the caring or vengeful mother; the psychologically unfit monster; and the dominated or deviant whore. These narratives attempt to make sense of inexplicable women by discursively containing them within markedly feminine narratives, serving to reinforce the gendered binary that constructs men as the heroic national protectors of helpless women and children. The public and political victimisation of the teenage girls who joined ISIS reifies a ‘logic of masculinist protection’, where precarity is inscribed onto the bodies of women so that militarised state power abroad, and increased surveillance at home, may be justified in the name of security. However, this masculinist protection racket relies upon women’s innocence, as ‘beautiful souls’ worthy of protection. In Begum’s case, the fact that she was perceived as not-dangerous, was emphasised repeatedly by the discourse that cast her as in danger.

Today, Begum remains in a grave danger (she is living in an overcrowded refugee camp and her third child just died there) and yet Sajid Javid stands by his promise to revoke her citizenship, a move that would likely leave her stateless, which is illegal according to international law. Begum is being punished (without due process) because her apparent remorselessness undermines the victim narrative, and the narrow discursive frame through which we usually make sense of extremist Muslim women. She has been singled out, not for posing a national security threat, but because she threatens to destabilise discursive constructions of British national identity (whereby “real” Britishness equates to whiteness, secularism, or Christianity, and multicultural Britishness tolerates the presence of “good” Muslims and grateful immigrants).

Figuration 1: the victim whore

In early press coverage, the “jihadi brides” were both victimised and sexualised through the narrative that described their role within ISIS as ‘bear[ing] children for the caliphate’. Here, complex human relationships are reduced to a single, faceless, biological mechanism. They were also sexualised when portrayed as rebellious teenagers lusting after heroic jihadi warriors; ‘attracted to the idea of marrying a foreign fighter, seen as a heroic figure willing to sacrifice himself for a cause’. The girls were produced as whores in two senses – the infantilised brainwashed whore or the lustful teenage whore. Both narratives are characterised by their age and their status as daughters, because they are either described as coerced from the safety of their parents’ home, or as rebelling from its strictures. In this context, their victimisation relies on either an external Other (a “bad” and foreign Muslim man), or an internal Other (their family), to be held accountable for the girls’ extremist Islamic radicalisation.

Figuration 2: the ungrateful monster Muslim

In March 2015, then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wrote a piece for The Telegraph describing the British men joining ISIS as ‘sick jihadists’ who had been ‘nursed at the breast of the British state’.[1] He described them as ‘vipers’ turning their backs on a country that had offered them so much. In the same paper, Allison Pearson argued that; ‘Shamima, Amira and Kadiza were lucky enough to be born in such a country, they benefited from its education system when tens of millions of Muslim girls in other parts of the world are barred from school’.[2] The teenagers are depicted as national traitors, ungrateful and undeserving recipients of the state provisions that Britain benevolently bestowed upon them. They are shamed and Othered, not only because they are now associated with terrorism, but because they are Muslim.

Today, while the right-wing media publish articles with headlines such as ‘Sorry my heartless little jihadi bride, but you made your bed and now you can lie in it’, ‘“Arrogant” ISIS bride Shamima Begum has a massive ego and shows no remorse for fleeing Britain to join terror group, body language expert says’, and ‘Shamima Begum has ‘shown NO remorse’ – and may NEVER be de-radicalised’, a shooting range in Merseyside defended using pictures of Begum’s face on targets, citing that her ‘lack of empathy’ justified their decision. Begum’s apparent lack of remorse elicits such strong responses of fear and hatred that she can no longer be understood through the victim lens. Instead, she is perceived as a ‘heartless’, ‘arrogant’, and unapologetic monster, characteristics that run counter to traditional notions of femininity, as well as to widespread depictions of quiet, oppressed, and unassuming Muslim women.

Figuration 3: the child bride/ irresponsible mother

The press leaped on the fact that Begum seemed unremorseful about her connection with ISIS, demanding again and again that she apologise on air, as if a candid ‘I’m sorry’ would reverse Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke her British citizenship. It was without irony that the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommerville reprimanded Begum for becoming a poster girl for ISIS (it was, after all, the media that cast Begum in this role). When Begum and her two friends travelled to Syria, her age was a primary news hook (an element that makes the story newsworthy). The reiteration of Begum’s “schoolgirl” status was essential for her victimisation in the hegemonic narratives that emerged in early news responses to her emigration. Now Begum has had three children of her own (all of whom have died) and the press seem unsure of how to handle her. On the one hand, she faces the scorn we often see in the media directed towards young mothers, and when her age is reiterated, she is produced as a teenage bride and mother, a narrative that feeds into broader media hysteria surrounding oppressive Islamic marriage practices. On the other hand, condescending journalists (they’re mostly men) scold her in interviews as if she were a rebellious, yet ultimately harmless, child.

The nation is produced, constructed and re-constructed as a place and community in which only some people belong. In the context of multiculturalism, Sara Ahmed as argued that national identity requires ‘a constant redefinition of who ‘we’ are through the very necessity of encountering strangers within the nation space’. In his BBC interview with Begum, (recorded in late February, when her baby was still alive) Sommerville asks Begum: ‘What does that mean for you, to be British?’. When she replies saying, ‘British values, going to school, working, having a family there’, he interrupts with a list of values that he believes might be more appropriate: ‘Democracy? Freedom of speech? Rights for women? Rights for homosexuals?’. When the journalist polices the boundaries of Britishness in this way, he suggests that Begum is not fit to raise her son ‘as a British boy’ because she does not understand or embody proper British values. Sommerville’s values, then, stand to reiterate his Britishness through contrast with Begum’s aspirations to raise her son ‘reading Quran, knowing how to pray and all these things’, where her Muslim values signify that she does not, or should not, belong within the British body politic.

Ungrievable and unforgivable? Family and nation

Many theories of nationalism have conceptualised the family as a microcosm for the nation, or the nation as ‘an extension of the family’. Anne McClintock has highlighted how nations are ‘frequently figured through the iconography of familial and domestic space. The term ‘nation’ derives from ‘natio’: to be born. We speak of nations as ‘motherlands’ and ‘fatherlands’ […] In Britain immigration matters are dealt with at the Home Office…’. As explored earlier, in Boris Johnson’s article for The Telegraph, he conflates Britain with a mother’s nurturing breast.

When Shamima Begum and her friends first left the UK, the image of their families literally grieving the loss of their daughters circulated in early press responses to evoke both sympathy and grief for the girls. That their emigration warranted grieving (rather than fear) was depicted in the media by police testimonies and media appeals made by the families, all of which contributed vastly to the amount of coverage produced. Judith Butler argues that only ‘under conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters’. An important discursive shift emerges in relation to press representations of the girls, whereby they are symbolically disowned by their families and rendered largely ungrievable to the nation. Generally this moment occurs after they have been reported to partake in unforgivable activities within the caliphate, such as glorifying violence, participating in weapons training, or condemning the “West” on their social media accounts. In the case of Shamima Begum, the shift from the figure of British-victim to traitor-monster was crystallized when her father publicly supported the UK government’s decision to ‘cancel her citizenship’. In a much-circulated report by the Mail on Sunday, Begum’s father is quoted saying ‘I know she is stuck there but that’s because she has done actions that made her get stuck like this […] If she at least admitted she made a mistake then I would feel sorry for her and other people would feel sorry for her’.

Shamima Begum has been rendered ungrievable because she has broken the contract of the protection racket. It is not that her life is not recognised – press coverage frequently details the grim and precarious position she is in – but it is clear from public and government responses that she is no longer seen as worthy of rescue or protection. By failing to apologise for her involvement with ISIS, she is seen as disloyal to her family, and by extension, to the nation state. The racialised and gendered boundaries of the nation require Begum to adhere to the discursive practices that construct the nation through the innocent bodies of women and children, and to the orientalist regimes of representation that cast Muslim women as the victims of their male oppressors and their “medieval”, “backwards” religion. Having failed to do this, the nation state can now justify making an example of Begum, and abandon its obligations as protector.

Harriet Farnham graduated from LSE with an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation in 2015, when she was awarded the Gender Institute Prize for Best Overall Achievement. She is now a freelance writer in Barcelona, where she also works with refugees, teaching English and Spanish.


[1] Johnson, Boris. (2015, March 2). “We must debunk the myths that glorify these sick jihadists; There is nothing pure or honourable in the motivation and phoney ideology of Isil’s ghouls”. The Telegraph. p. 18.

[2] Pearson, Allison. (2015, February 26). “The jihadi girls will only have themselves to blame”. The Telegraph. p.23.