Last week, 19-year-old Shamima Begum hit the UK headlines. There hasn’t been a day since where I haven’t read her name somewhere, in some capacity. In that short amount of time, she’s been denied her British citizenship, become stateless, given birth to a baby boy, and been vilified by the newspapers and press on a global scale.
Yesterday, another story about Begum emerged. A shooting range in The Wirral has been using targets pasted with her face for the range’s customers to use. A spokesperson from the shooting range told the Guardian, “The targets provide some fantastic reactions and conversations and allow people to have some lighthearted fun and bring out the inner child in us all.” Frankly, I wouldn’t ever want to know anyone whose inner child is brought out by shooting a picture of a teenage girl’s face. Apparently, at the range, you can shoot images of Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher as well. I despise both of these politicians, but no part of me has ever wanted to shoot them in the face. It’s disturbing, to say the very least.
Encouraging, or even allowing people to shoot pictures of others is inciting violence, and this could have worrying consequences for Muslim women. Islamophobic and racist violence has risen exponentially in recent years thanks to far-right groups being validated by the press. Even Liam Neeson isn’t immune to the apparent seduction of scapegoating an entire race because of the actions of a few.
These things never happen in a vacuum. Begum’s treatment speaks to the wider treatment of Muslim women, especially in the media. Sajid Javid’s revoking her citizenship and the media at large have encouraged the public to see Begum as demonstrative of something else; a Briton who was never truly British, undeserving of being tried under British law. She’s the monster who we can all point a finger at. If we were living a few hundred years ago, she’d have had her head placed on a spike and hung on London Bridge. We’ve scapegoated a vulnerable young woman just because we can. And we’ve placed the blame of an entire terrorist organisation on her head, and on her newborn baby.
Such behaviour to me seems very reactionary, and indicative of suppressed beliefs. It’s people exercising on feelings of helplessness and anger, something that rarely ends well. Because ISIS have been beheading their way across Europe (metaphorically and literally) for years now, it’s no wonder people feel helpless. They want to do something. To avenge the kids who died in Manchester, in Paris, and everywhere else. Yet shooting the image of a 19-year-old girl, regardless of what she’s done, isn’t helping anyone.
We must reckon with the impact of what we’ve done. Especially when we decide to exile and vilify someone like this. We can pretend all we want it’s about our objection to ISIS, but it isn’t. It’s more about feeling powerless and wanting desperately to feel powerful by throwing someone else underneath us. If you want to produce a terrorist, raise them in a society that does not care about them. Then they will believe they have no need to care about society. That’s what has happened to Begum and the other two girls who went with her, and to every other person who’s left Britain for Syria. My worry is, that by revoking Begum of her citizenship and treating her in such a violent way, we’re simply reinforcing the messages that she’s been indoctrinated with; that no one cares, she’s not and never was worthy.
Furthermore, despite the suffering she must’ve endured over the past four years, including miscarriages and witnessing beheadings, the news doesn’t see her as a victim. Apparently in her BBC appearances, she was apathetic. However I just saw a numb, shellshocked teenager who had no clue what was getting into. Trauma does that to you. And to be honest, who’s to say that if she begged and sobbed on TV she’d be shown any compassion? How much pain would she have had to show before we believed her? It might be my cynicism talking, but I don’t think there’s anything she could’ve done.
Since Begum’s public appeal for forgiveness, she has become the butt of a national joke. And to me, it seems like it’s just because we don’t know how to have a nuanced conversation about abuse, grooming and extremism. Memes emerged in even the most liberal parts of the internet, her face being used as the epitome of arrogance. So not only are people shooting her in the face, they’re laughing in it, too. Saffron Roberts, writer for The Broad, says, “We, watching this unfold from our comfortable sofas, should not be laughing at the fact that a child is now going to be raised without a home.”
For the rest of Shamima Begum’s life, she’ll remember the day she was turned away by her home. Her family will, too. She and her family will remember her traumas being played for laughs, dragged out across the whole of the media. They’ll all remember the deep lack of compassion displayed by a government duty-bound to protect its citizens, including the ones that make terrible choices.
Maybe, because of the internet and the rate at which we can amplify our opinions, we need to start thinking before we make such knee jerk reactions. If Sajid Javid hadn’t made his decision based on a rash public opinion, he could’ve changed Begum and her son’s lives. Because let’s not forget she has a son who’ll now grow up in a refugee camp alongside all the other kids who have also been turned away from their homes. The UK’s desperate power plays against the vulnerable are inhumane. Our “inner child” shouldn’t be brought out by this. Never mind by getting to shoot the image of it in the face.
Written by Rochelle Asquith