Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana are both known as “ISIS brides,” which refers to women who were citizens of western countries (Begum being from the United Kingdom and Muthana being from the United States) that left their families to join ISIS. Now that the extremist terrorist organization is in shambles, both women are asking their governments to let them back into their home countries, sparking controversy.
A global debate over whether it’s justified to strip citizenship from the women who left their homes to join ISIS is occurring, with some arguing that these women are innocent bystanders, and other saying they should be held accountable for being complicit with the self-declared caliphate.
Shamima Begum is a British-born woman who left the United Kingdom in 2015, when she was only 15 years old, to join ISIS in Syria. In February 2019, the Times journalist Anthony Loyd found Begum in a refugee camp in Syria and interviewed her, discovering that she was pregnant and wanted to return to the UK to raise her child.
Begum said she believes ISIS is corrupt and oppressive but doesn’t regret her decision to join. While this may seem like a contradiction, her confusing statements seem to be a consistent trend in the following interviews. She claimed she still holds British values and wants forgiveness, but continued to attempt to justify ISIS ideology and their actions. The UK government decided to strip Begum of her citizenship, refusing to put British people’s lives at risk.
Hoda Muthana was born in the United States. In 2014, when she was only 20 years old, she told her parents she was going on a school trip to Atlanta, but withdrew from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and flew to Syria to join ISIS, burning her U.S. passport. In 2015, her Twitter account that is now suspended consisted of anti-American rhetoric and contained several threats towards her home country. Now that ISIS is in shreds, she has changed her stance and is willing to face trial in the U.S. and receive consequences for her actions, claiming that she “deeply regrets” joining ISIS.
The Trump administration is arguing that she should have never been issued a passport and isn’t an American citizen after all. In 2016, the government sent Muthana a letter officially revoking her U.S. passport, claiming there was no evidence to prove she was a U.S. citizen by birth, which essentially means that her passport was issued in error. All of this conflict can be traced to whether or not Hoda’s father had diplomatic status when she was born. The legal debate over this question, her citizenship, and whether she should even be allowed re-entry into the U.S. continues today.
It’s difficult to determine where this case will go because under international law, it’s illegal to strip someone of their citizenship if doing so would leave that person stateless. However, it’s evident that the Trump administration is willing to do whatever is in their power to prove that Muthana was never an American citizen and shouldn’t be allowed to come back to the U.S.
Given that President Donald Trump has already rejected the plea of Hoda Muthana to return home to Alabama and the UK government said it would strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship, preventing her from returning to London, there is a raging debate over whether or not ISIS brides are guilty and can be blamed for the atrocities committed by ISIS.
ISIS is responsible for the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq, beginning in 2014. This genocide led to the exile of Yazidis from Northern Iraq. Women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by ISIS and men were murdered in large masses. This gained international attention and given the United States’ involvement in the War on Terror, they intervened in this situation by launching airstrikes against ISIS and providing weapons for forces defending the Yazidis.
While the torture of Yazidi women by the men in ISIS was often physical, the role ISIS wives played in torturing these women was psychological. Yazidi women were forced to shower and put on makeup before being brought by the ISIS wives to their husbands to be raped, knowing very well what was happening, making them complicit in these tragic forms of violence. They also forbade Yazidi women from crying, even after their family members had just been massacred by ISIS fighters, and they forced them to recite the Quran and denounce their own religious interpretations.
Many people argue that the Western women who left their homes in order to become ISIS brides were extremely young and most likely indoctrinated. Shamima Begum, for example, was only 15 years old when she made a decision that changed the entirety of her life. Many say that since she was only a minor, she was brainwashed into believing what she was doing was right or somehow acceptable. Since she now is regretful and realizes what she did was wrong, many believe she should be forgiven and allowed to return to her home country.
However, one cannot attribute decisions like these to a “lack of maturity”. To simply label them as innocent bystanders would obscure the violence they committed in Iraq and Syria against Yazidi women. ISIS wives like Begum and Muthana were raised in the West and were never subject to extremist ideas but chose to leave their homes and join the caliphate, knowing what they were getting themselves into. The term “ISIS brides” itself reduces the women merely to the credentials of their marriage, which portrays them as victims who lack autonomy and decision making skills. Portraying these women this way is dangerous because it assumes they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, even though they were working within a system that abused women and used their power over Yazidi women to torture them.
It’s extremely likely that the reason these women left ISIS and now suddenly want to return to their home countries in the west is that ISIS could not manage to maintain territory, and they knew it was in their best interest to leave when they did. This means they aren’t remorseful for what happened and might not even believe that what they did is wrong. Shamima Begum even admitted herself that she doesn’t regret her decision to join ISIS. Had they not lost on the battlefield, Yazidi women would continue to be bought, sold, and raped today, and it’s likely that the “ISIS brides” would have continued to be complicit in these atrocities.
This debate would be drastically different had Begum and Muthana not been raised in the West. For wives of ISIS members who were raised in the country of the caliphate, never subject to external influences or ideologies and taught that ISIS was the only viable belief system, it’s obvious these women were brainwashed and possibly “innocent bystanders”. The same case cannot be made for women who were raised in the West and lied to their families to fly across the country to join ISIS.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether women like Begum and Muthana are truly remorseful for their actions and should be let back into their home countries. However, it’s important not to understate the severity of their actions. It would be a disgrace to the Yazidi women who were sold into sexual slavery to assume that “ISIS brides” were only innocent bystanders when they were complicit in everyday acts of violence committed against victims of genocide.