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Shamima Begum: what the media’s fixation on her ‘western’ clothing means for Muslim women

Shamima Begum wearing black and sitting in the sun
Shamima Begum recently lost her appeal to return to the UK after a Supreme Court ruling in February. ITV/YouTube

Europe’s fascination with Muslim women, their bodies and their clothing choices – as seen in the passing of discriminatory face covering bans in several countries – shows no sign of abating. Throughout the western world, Muslim women have become expendable commodities, with offensive tropes dominating news coverage on a regular basis. In recent years in the UK, the most high profile victim of such rhetoric has arguably been Shamima Begum.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled Begum could not return to the UK to challenge the government’s decision to revoke her citizenship in 2019. As a result she would have to remain in Syria, where she had travelled to in 2015.

When she was first pictured, as one of three London schoolgirls suspected of being groomed to join Isis, she looked no different to many young Muslim women in the UK at the time.

CCTV image of three young girls in an airport
CCTV image from ITV News report on the Bethnal Green schoolgirls who’d fled the country to join Isis in 2015. ITV/YouTube

She then reappeared on our screens in 2019 following an interview with the Times. In a picture used for the interview, Begum appeared in a black jilbab (long outer clothing worn by some Muslim women), black hijab (headscarf) and a niqab (face veil), which she had lifted over her head.

This image aligned with western media’s portrayal of so-called “Isis brides”, often clad in all black. Images like these flooded the media at the height of Isis’s activity, playing into established Islamophobic views about a perceived correlation between Islamic clothing and extremism.

In the summer of 2020, another article with images of Begum appeared. This time, reports pointed out her change in style, chiefly that she had “ditched her Islamic dress and instead [was] donning western clothes including jeans, a shirt and a blue hat”. In March 2021, another article highlighted how Begum was seeking to move away from her Isis past with “western clothing” and “straightened hair”.

Aside from the bizarreness of suggesting jeans and t-shirts (clothes popular across the globe) are exclusively “western”, this comparison with Begum’s previous Islamic garb implies that only in the west can Muslim women be liberated.

Shamima Begum walking across sand with detention camp buildings in the background
An ITV News report in February 2021 showed footage of Shamima Begum wearing ‘western’ clothing in a Syrian detention camp. ITV/YouTube

The obsession with her clothes and whether they signal how much of a threat she is has its roots in colonial history. The lands east of Europe have historically been portrayed as lacking in civilisation, too concerned with the fantastical world to ever really understand what it means to be free, as succinctly articulated by philosopher Edward Said in his seminal book, Orientalism. In this picture, Begum’s emancipation, as signified by her change of clothing, is intimately tied to Europe.

The dangerous Muslim woman

The construction of the Muslim woman as “dangerous, yet in need of saving” is characteristically European in its racism. For example, in colonised Algeria in the 1950s, Muslim women were unveiled in public to showcase their “liberation”.

Journalists actively “tracking down” Begum, taking photographs of her and projecting them to the world is no different than the Algerian example as a ceremony of unveiling and revealing a Muslim woman. As much as Muslim women continue to argue that we exist beyond the paradigm of liberation versus oppression, the voyeurism just never stops.

Such depictions of Muslim women have serious implications. Research on gendered Islamophobia has found that Muslim women bear the brunt of physical attacks after derogatory, infantilising comments have been made about them in the media or following a terrorist attack. This was evident when Islamaphobic incidents rose sharply in the UK after Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to niqab-wearing Muslims as looking like “letterboxes” in August 2018. Using Muslim women for politicking in this way is common in the UK and it shapes how the wider, dominant society views them.

The media’s focus on Begum’s choice of clothing is part and parcel of this consistent obsession with Muslim women, illustrating the pervasive and intrusive ways Muslim women are presented to the public: either as dangerous or oppressed.

Such depictions trickle down and impact Muslim women in their everyday lives, with many faced with intrusive questions based on this perceived lack of freedom among Muslim women. As the pandemic continues to fuel Islamophobia, it’s increasingly important for these narratives to be tackled and stopped in their tracks. The sooner that happens, the easier it’ll be for Muslim women to get on with their lives.

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