Shamima Begum and the conditionality of British citizenship

The decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship demonstrated how racialised bodies are always in a limbo state in Britain.

FILES) In this file photo taken on February 22, 2015 Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central Lond
Begum’s case clearly demonstrates that for those of us with hyphenated identities, citizenship is conditional, and the country we call home can easily banish us if we commit a perceived indiscretion, writes Rajina [Laura Lean/AFP]

On February 26, the United Kingdom’s highest court ruled Shamima Begum, a 21-year-old woman of Bangladeshi descent who was stripped of her British citizenship after travelling to Syria to join ISIL (ISIS), should not be allowed to return to the country to challenge the decision.

The ruling made headlines across the world, as millions have been following Begum’s tragic story closely since she ran away from her East London home aged just 15 and travelled to Syria with two of her friends. It also brought to the surface the anxieties long felt by members of my community, British Bangladeshis.

East London is home to the largest Bangladeshi community outside of Bangladesh. This is where Shamima Begum was born, raised and attended school until she decided to travel to Syria in 2015. After spending several years in Syria, Begum was “found” by a Times journalist in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019.

The Times’s so-called “discovery” started a nationwide discussion about whether she should be allowed to return home to Britain. Then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid, however, cut this conversation short by swiftly announcing the government’s intention to strip her of her British citizenship. Javid justified this decision in legal terms by claiming that Begum “holds Bangladeshi citizenship” by descent through her parents. Begum at the time of the revocation was 19 and was eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship, but she would have had to claim it by 21. The state minister of foreign affairs of Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam, asserted in a statement to the British media just days after Javid’s announcement that Begum was not a citizen of Bangladesh and would be denied entry to the country.

Begum and her lawyers appealed against the decision to revoke her British citizenship and asked for her to be allowed to return to the country to make her case. Three Court of Appeal judges ruled in the summer of 2020 that she should indeed be allowed back into the UK to challenge the revocation. However, the case was then taken to the Supreme Court, and it ruled last month that while Begum does have a right to challenge the decision, she should do so from outside Britain due to “security concerns”.

The decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship demonstrated how racialised bodies are always in a limbo state in Britain. It made it clear to us that we are all on the margins of this nation. That the state can revoke our citizenship at a whim and our British passports do not necessarily guarantee us access to British justice.

The British state’s treatment of Begum confirmed our worst fears and forced us to ask ourselves some very difficult questions. Can the British state take away our passports if we commit an indiscretion? Are we too “foreign” or “brown” to be tried in British courts? If the state decides we committed an “unforgivable” crime, can it just ship us back to Bangladesh?

These are, of course, not new questions or fears. We have long been aware that our status in Britain is precarious. As influential writer and activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan aptly put it back in 2006: “We wear our passports on our faces.”

Always the ‘other’

Revocation of Begum’s citizenship highlights how racialised communities are defined by hyphenated identities, such as British-Bangladeshi, in this country.

The latter part – Bangladeshi – serves to show where one actually stands within the racial hierarchisation of communities in this country. The prefix “British” is only added to signal temporary decorum – it can swiftly be removed if and when the person steps out of line.

Members of racialised communities are expected to continuously prove that they are worthy of British citizenship. Begum’s case clearly demonstrates that for those of us with hyphenated identities, citizenship is conditional, and the country we call home can easily banish us if we commit a perceived indiscretion.

This is not an issue that only affects the British-Bangladeshi community. In Britain, one’s racial, ethnic and religious heritage, not their passport, determines their citizenship and place in the country.

Following the revocation of Begum’s citizenship, some argued that she should have been allowed to keep her passport because she was born in Britain. But this is also a dangerous argument that perpetuates the idea that there are different levels of British citizenship. Yes, she was born in the UK. But even if she was not, it should not have made any difference. The state’s racism needs to be fought without creating new conditions to determine who has the right to be in the country.

The Windrush generation, the immigrants from Caribbean countries who arrived in the UK after World War II to address labour shortages, is another racialised group that the state tried to purge from Britain. As they faced unlawful deportation orders, many argued they should be allowed to stay in the country because “they came here to help us rebuild Britain”. Such arguments, however, are counterproductive as they attempt to make these immigrants’ citizenship rights conditional to their contributions and servility to the state. After all, British citizens who are white are never asked to be servile to the state or make substantial contributions to the nation to hold on to their passports and remain in the country.

It is impossible to deny that the legacies of colonialism shape and frame Britain’s racialised citizens’ lives, especially those who have roots in former colonies. Irrespective of where they were born or how much they contributed to British society, racialised citizens are seen as “others” whose presence in Britain is merely tolerated and whose most basic rights can be denied at will.

Britain’s continued attempt to dump Begum on Bangladesh, a country she had never stepped foot in, came as no surprise. This act was possible only because of who Begum was and the most obvious fact that she is a British Bangladeshi Muslim. The lesson we can take away from Shamima Begum’s case is that it represents the institutional racism endemic within the British state.

The ordeal of Shamima Begum should not shock anyone. In Britain, there is a two-tier system of citizenship, and those of us who exist in racialised bodies are being reminded that we never truly belong to this country we call home on a daily basis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.