Let’s talk about Shamima Begum, the 15-year-old who joined ISIS

Shamima Begum


This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

I’ve been following with fascination the case of Shamima Begum, the jihadi bride who was recently stripped of her British citizenship.

As a 15-year-old teenager from Bethnal Green, a London neighborhood, Shamima and two friends ran away from the UK to join ISIS in Syria. Soon after her arrival, she was married off to a jihadi named Yago Riedijk, who was born in Holland and converted to Islam, then joined ISIS.

At any rate, the couple seem to share a taste for beheadings; Shamima has admitted to seeing these as a teenager in London. “Fighting videos” somehow convinced her that what ISIS promised was indeed the way, the truth, and the life, with a few necessary casualties along the way, including the wholesale rape of Yazidi women and the slaughter of everyone else who resisted the utopian caliphate the radical terrorist group with a penchant for grisly medieval-style killings longed to establish around the world.

Shamima is now 19 and a mother of a week-old baby boy, born in the Kurdish refugee camp she ended up in after hundreds of ISIS fighters were killed in Baghouz, the village she had been living in. Her husband is a convicted terrorist whose whereabouts are currently unknown.

All that killing and indoctrination and radicalization must have taken its toll on Shamima, not to mention the conditions of life on the road as the wife of a jihadi, and now a refugee.  She lost her first babies to malnutrition. Small wonder she wants to return to civilization. Slicing off people’s heads presumably ceases to provide adequate entertainment when you don’t have adequate clean running water.

It would seem, however, that Shamima is unrepentant about her brief history as an ISIS bride, calling herself a mere “housewife.” She still won’t denounce the terrorist group, and justified the violence as essentially tit for tat, such as the Manchester bombings during the Ariana Grande concert some years back (although she relented when she was told that children were among the victims).

Forgive me for not feeling much sympathy for Shamima, and I support the revocation of her British citizenship, though I do feel sorry for her infant son, and her case does present something of a political and ethical dilemma. But what possesses a 15-year-old girl–and she is not the first one–to abandon everything and take up the cause of a gruesome organization like ISIS?

She has told Sky News that she “knew” about the way ISIS operated, and their fondness for beheadings and executions. “I knew about those things…During the time I left, there was a lot on the news and stuff, and there were lots of videos coming out and I saw the videos on the Internet and that attracted me to them like it attracted a lot of people…The way that they showed they will take care of you, you can have your own family, you can do anything. You’re living under Islamic law.”

Writing in The Guardian, Nabeelah Jaffer cites Melanie Smith of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who said that the “caliphate utopian ideal” is one of the common “key pull factors” that attracted women as young as 15 years of age.

“They imagine a world in which there is little poverty and inequality, governed with perfect fairness under clear-cut, divine laws that work to the advantage of all. It is a vision that makes no allowances for the ambiguity and variety of traditional Islamic legal interpretations, or for the disorder of real life.”

And yet it is telling that this idealized vision is designed to appeal to women who feel lonely and isolated, making them easy prey for ISIS propaganda.

Whatever floats your boat, I guess. In a way, reading about Shamima’s situation makes me thankful I was raised on a steady diet of Disney-fied fairy tales. They may have failed to promote the idea of equality by their not-so-subliminal messaging that women need to be rescued by their own prince and they would live happily ever after, but that happily ever after was always going to better than a jihadi husband in the desert with no running water and decent bathrooms. I mean, think about it: Prince Charming had a sword but he used it to slice through the thicket of thorns that covered the castle during the 100 years that Princess Aurora slept. Much braver, I would think, than lopping off heads with glee. Or waiting to become a martyr and being rewarded with 72 virgins (hooris) in paradise.

When Jaffer pointed out to one of the jihadi wives she interviewed extensively for several months in the course of researching her article that “the Qur’an does not actually specify the gender of hooris or of those who receive them, nor restrict them to martyrs,” the woman “stopped answering my messages.”

As for Shamima Begum, she said recently that “I’m not that stupid 15-year-old girl that left.” Perhaps, but seriously, she should really have known better, even at 15. It’s not as if she had no access to information as a London schoolgirl and made a more informed and empowered decision before fleeing to Syria. And why did she have to flee? Why couldn’t she discuss the appeal of ISIS with her parents first?

How utterly tragic to feel that running away to become a jihadi bride would be empowering. Any kind of faith or indeed way of life that imposes its doctrine while it discourages and punishes independent thought is, in the long run, more of a prescription for misery than it is a promise of a happily ever after.

Besides, brutality is so not sexy. A jihadist of the ISIS ilk is beyond redemption, I’m afraid. Give me Prince Charming any time. I’ll still be able to convert him into an enlightened male.


Photo courtesy of Sky News’ Instagram account

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