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

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“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.”  

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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?”.

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  • Francis Lankester PhD
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    1. At 2:12PM on 01 March 2019, Francis Lankester PhD wrote

    I fear this simply reinforces the disconnect between academia and the world outside. SB is a deeply unsympathetic figure because she is unrepentant and many people therefore see her as dangerous. Her unfazed reaction to severed heads because she was reassured that it had been done in the proper Islamic way is particularly chilling. When reference is made to 'Islamphobia' in cases like this, such a figure is an example where a logical reaction is real fear.

    If we apply equal scales, there is a point which many may not have considered. Seeing SB as a welfare issue, why should not young White Neo-fascists be treated in the same way? 'Radicalisation' is seen as some Svengali-like effect where the subject lacks agency, not an active choice. Moreover, I suspect that many Iraqis and Syrians would be outraged at the attention paid to her.

  • A citizen
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    2. At 9:36PM on 20 March 2019, A citizen wrote

    Wonderful academic article.

    As an asian male from a lower socioeconomic economic background I can say I am not from middle England and I cannot afford an SUV.

    I don’t like Shamima Begum.

    I don’t like her because she joined a terrorist organisation.

    I don’t like her because she had no remorse.

    She has no remorse because she thinks their cause is right.

    She should not be allowed back.

    Those who have been allowed back should not have been.

    I live and move in places which are largely Muslim populated in the UK.

    I hear regular conversations about the ummah. The allegiance is to that. Not England.

    The aim of many is that this country is dominated by a Muslim majority. Which will happen with a demographic shift.

    I hear and see how non Muslims are treated in such places.

    I see how in such areas there is no freedom of speech to be critical of Islam.

    I see and hear how masjids teach hate against other religions.

    I also see politely correct privileged white people who don’t like in Muslim dominated areas talk about it as a religion of peace while poorer write people trapped in these places experience otherwise.

    Why not spend a few weeks in Bradford. Try and exercise free speech openly.

    Try the same in Blackburn.

    Try the same in bordesley green and countless other places.

    Then write a pompous article.

  • Chris Nicholson
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    3. At 7:18AM on 21 March 2019, Chris Nicholson wrote

    Everyone knows right from wrong.... just a pity Brittan is full of snowflakes and ignorant imigrants.... she should be hanged as a traitor we have a history of people hanged for less or shot for less but because brittish government don't have a set of balls between them she should be brought back and jailed for life for war crimes and supporting war criminals and banned from using that religion as after all this is a Christian country and as seen in that country us Christians and other religions get beheaded in there country so at the very least we should hang her

  • Woopp
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    4. At 2:39PM on 16 April 2019, Woopp wrote

    Please don't try to make this about racism and sexism. There are quite literally millions of places, people, and incidents you can point to where sexism and racism are brightly and clearly outlined. Why plant those flags here?

    You indicate that she is being held accountable for lack of repentance in a way that a male ISIS fighter would not be. Wrong wrong wrong. Like, COME ON. Of COURSE society would take issue with a male ISIS fighter who demonstrated absolutely no remorse.

    It is 'about' likeability....any more than life is. As a woman, if I committed a murder and was up for parole of course I would be counseled to show remorse. Me showing remorse is what makes it reasonable and acceptable for forgiveness to be shown. It is simply part of a social contract that has existed for thousands of years.

    You utterly confuse the issues of sexism and racism with articles like these, which in turn muddies the waters for millions upon millions of women of color.

    Super, super disappointing that you could so dramatically miss so many points. I

  • Yuri
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    5. At 12:50PM on 17 April 2019, Yuri wrote

    Why try to make SB sound like a misunderstood, victimised feminist heroine, when she joined of her own volition a colonialist, homophobic, deeply intolerant organisation that kills Muslims and enslaves women ? I doubt very much the author would display the same enthusiasm in defending a white girl groomed by a far right organisation and similarly guilty of hate speech. We have reached this point of madness when allegiances to hateful ideologies have become excusable when they come from members of minority groups- why ? So that privileged white academics can show off their virtue credentials, to the detriment of fairness and common sense ?

  • M Smith
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    6. At 1:10PM on 17 April 2019, M Smith wrote

    Its a good job Shelagh Fogarty isn't home secretary. There has always been a court of public opinion that is based on emotion, and there always will be.

    Of course a logical, reasonable approach is better than an emotional one. This is ancient knowledge.

    Rather than dropping patronising truisms, perhaps the academics that serve as the rampart between civilisation and this ever increasing anti-intellectualism movement should get together and actually hash out what it is to be "right". Oh wait. Academia essentially dismantled the binary concepts of right and wrong decades ago, and ever since have been simultaneously hammering home utopian ideals of universal understanding and compassion whilst also expressing incredulity towards metanarrative. And they wonder why the proles and peons at the bottom are confused.

    Why are the law scholars not writing fluffy opinion pieces about the cruel, uneducated masses? Is it because they have real work to do that can be directly applied to real life situations, that doesnt have to rely on smug pontification about how flawed public opinion is? I think so.

  • Ban Islam
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    7. At 3:40PM on 17 April 2019, Ban Islam wrote

    Islam is a religion of hate and intolerance. We need to ban open celebration of terrorist organisations, including their hateful religion which spawns their ideas which are so fundamentally incompatible with the UK's history and future.

    It makes me really confused to see nothing but hate and disconnect between Islam communities directed towards native UK people (whit black, whatever) when all we have done is give,give give and maintain a constant patience for their backward way... like annoying undisciplined children holding back the rest of the classroom.

    England is not a white, Christian, Union of countries, but we do have a right to be able to kick out that which opposes the generally accepted direction of our society - it blows my mind how such soft people, who do not live with these pockets of vile animals, can suggest that we all continue to make allowances to get along when there is zero compromise the other way. We cant even hang our own flag outside of the world cup...whos the oppressed again? Try being a young white female wearing summer clothes on a hot day in a Muslim area of the UK.

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