"She's Not Likeable": Shamima Begum, Sex Stereotypes, and the Scourge of Emotionalism in Public Discourse

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“This problem with “likeability” seems to translate to how recognisably emotionally vulnerable Begum is, as befits a woman and mother according to age-old sex stereotypes.”  


Much ink and vitriol have been spilled in the past week regarding the news that Shamima Begum, one of three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in East London who left the country in 2015 aged 15 to join ISIS in Syria, is seeking a return to the United Kingdom with her newborn baby.

A striking number of reactions to this news have focused on how “likeable” or “unlikeable” Begum is perceived to be. On her LBC radio programme on Thursday 21st February, journalist and broadcaster Shelagh Fogarty stated that, on first watching the video of Begum, “I felt nothing towards her”. She then repeated several times, with vehemence: “I don’t like her”. This problem with “likeability” seems to translate to how recognisably emotionally vulnerable Begum is, as befits a woman and mother according to age-old sex stereotypes. As Begum appears in her video interviews to be cold, self-contained, and unrepentant, she not only fails to appear as “the perfect victim”, as Sara Amanda puts it in a piece for Media Diversified,  but she also she fails to conform to notions of appropriate feminine and maternal demeanour. Begum’s appearance as an unemotional woman is a problem (in the sense of a riddle, an enigma, Freud’s what does a woman want?), as well as a political inconvenience, in a way that a male ISIS fighter’s lack of repentance simply would not be. 

In response to the furore surrounding Begum, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has made the unprecedented move of declaring an intention to strip her of her British Citizenship, despite her holding no other passport, which would effectively render her stateless. Other British citizens who have left the UK to join militant Islamic groups, including numerous male Jihadi fighters, have been allowed back into the country to face prosecution and deradicalization. 
A toxic nexus of misogyny and xenophobia is at play in discourses about Begum. As a figure perceived to be unemotional and unapologetic, she is illegible as a “proper” female subject. And as a woman of Asian and Muslim background and appearance, she may not inspire in the average Middle Englander on the omnibus (or in the SUV) the easy capacity for identification and forgiveness that a middle-class white teenager who had been radicalized at a young age might elicit. But, most damningly of all, we cannot ignore the fact that the irrational emotion of fear of the other is being not only encouraged by government ministers but also legitimated in acts that are potentially in breach of international law.

If Begum were to be permitted to re-enter the United Kingdom and subjected to criminal prosecution, if appropriate, along with the rehabilitation that is central to the UK justice system, one wider benefit would be that intelligence about the process of radicalization could be gained from interviews with her. But in place of a quest for intelligence – in both senses of the word – in place, that is, of a rational and measured response, we see instead an acceleration and cultivation of emotionalism and specifically of the emotion of fear.

In the UK and across the Western world, with the spread of populism and the rise of anti-liberal and anti-intellectual sentiment, we are becoming a culture motivated primarily by feeling rather than reason. This tendency has surely reached a crisis point when, in order to be deemed fit to deserve the basic rule of law, a person has to be seen to be sufficiently likeable. Shamima Begum’s most obvious crime is that she lacks appropriate emotion – indeed seems to lack any emotion. This may be a response to the trauma of grooming as an adolescent, or it may indeed be the hallmark of a hardcore ideologue. In a sense, it does not matter. The most compassionate and appropriate response to Begum’s apparent lack of feeling is to respond with reason: not to ask “what do I feel about her?,” but rather “what is the right thing to do?”.