Rights as a Distraction from ‘Belonging’: A Response to the Shamima Begum Ruling

by | 28 May 2019

Mohamad Hafez – Baggage #1 (2016)

I’m not an accomplished Tweeter. When I tried to Tweet about an event I spoke at recently and typed ‘Shamima’, the autocorrect changed it to ‘shaming’.[1]It’s funny how often that happens – some unintended link to a truth identified by autocorrect (my own surname autocorrects to Sikhism – which is part of who I am). It’s a truth of Shamima’s identity – there has been an active shaming of who she is, what she represents, to how she doesn’t belong and is not Britain’s problem/ question to deal with. My question, in the face of this shaming, was: dorights work? The Begum case is about many things; a lack of empathy or mercy, Islamophobia, misogyny and, crucially, everyday violence as Lyndsey Stonebridge identifies[2]– and it is also about a failure in rights. So, I wanted to ask, as a critical human rights scholar: Is our juridical frame of rights actually a distraction from questions of belonging and response(-)ability? Do we need new conceptions of freedom and new structures to make room for livable ways of being together? Should rights be about right treatmentover a necessarily justiciable right – and what could that look like?

Rights don’t recognise (her) belonging. When Quentin Somerville interviewed Shamima Begum and her husband, Yago Riedijk in March, he used the phrases ‘someone undesirableto Britain’, ‘when you say you’re a victim that’s sickening’ – and Shamima’s husband described only now seeing the ‘privilegeof living there (The Netherlands) as a citizen’, and Shamima said, ‘I made a mistake, a big mistake… I got tricked’.[3]Sajid Javid has defended his order to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship as ‘stripping dangerous nationals of their citizenship’ as he referred to the new laws in the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act.[4]The power to deprive Shamima of citizenship derives from s40(2) of the British Nationality Act – wherein we find that now famous phrase ‘satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good’. In the face of undesirability, citizenship as a privilege and the ‘conducive to the public good’ rationale, we have heard counter-arguments based in rights: Jeremy Corbyn, defending Shamima Begum’s right to legal aid, argued ‘she is a British national… she has legal rights just like anybody else’;[5]Gracie Bradley (Policy and Campaigns Officer for Liberty) has commented that ‘it’s a breach of international human rights law to make someone stateless’;[6]and Michael Spencer from One Crown Office Row points out how the case raises the ‘difficult question’ of whether citizenship should be a privilege or a right, especially given Shamima ‘may not have personally engaged in any violent activity’.[7]That citizenship is a privilege should not, at least, come as a surprise. Since Tony Blair’s Third Way, through David Cameron’s Big Society, now morphed into Theresa May’s Community and Society, we are continually seeing the replacement of rights with responsibility.[8]Community is something we have chosen and for which we are responsible – as active citizens. Active citizenship itself betrays the promise of individual right, replacing it instead with community rights. We are autonomised and responsibilised into active citizens who take part in NCS, community regeneration programmes, help renovate pubs and parks – we don’t riot on the streets of London, we certainly don’t ‘make mistakes’ and join ISIS. All of this is good, isn’t it? I’m not saying it’s bad – but it is dangerous. Responsibility works to distract us from how the political rationality of community and police power produces a new ethic of responsibilised behaviour where the state gets to decide who does and doesn’t belong. Our right to resist, to not take part, even to make mistakes is not recognised.

Instead, we might become someone else’s problem. Sajid Javid, in his speech to Parliament on 18 March, claimed it is ‘morally right to export the problem’ to Bangladesh.[9]As Bradley and others have commented, this capacity of the state to strip people of their citizenship is ‘by its nature very racialised’;[10]similar to the Windrush Scandal, the Begum case reveals the tendency of the British to turn citizens, often like Shamima, born in the UK – but specifically black and minority ethnic citizens – into immigrants. It strikes me that the descriptors ‘undesirable’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘not conducive to the public good’ apply to the mistaken actions of our recently sacked Defense Secretary (Gavin Williamson) and his leaking information from National Security Council meetings.[11]Yet here there is no sign of prosecution, let alone revoking of citizenship. The revoking of state responsibility and active state abandonment is a forgetting of colonial pasts, a continued demonisation of the black and brown ‘other’. Change the word to ‘response-ability’, as Donna Haraway does, and this is no responseat all – ‘response-ability’ refers to a ‘learning to staying with the trouble’, learning to be truly present, to make kin – because we need each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations; we become with each other or not at all.[12]In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway explains: ‘The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent responseto devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and to rebuild quiet places.’[13]How could we have responded? For those who have read Kamila Shamsie’s vivid novel Home Fire, the parallels between fiction and truth are astounding. Shamsie’s British home secretary, Karamat Lone is speaking to the Pakistani High Commissioner (in Punjabi, because it allows a breach of etiquette) about a situation not dissimilar to our case – ‘The issue is, my government has no reason to intervene’, the High Commissioner says (just as Bangladesh do not want Shamima). To which Karamat replies, ‘Intervene on decency’s behalf’.[14]Decency is rich coming from the Home Secretary here; and, decency is not in the rights handbook.

Rights are the current discursive framework within which to ask for decency, or more correctly, human dignity to be respected, protected and fulfilled. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects nationality as a right in article 15 (as does the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to list a few more); domestically, this may find realization through the negative impact depriving Shamima of her citizenship would have for the right to private and family life protected in article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But these instruments contain no right to decency, no right to make mistakes, no right to come home. Critically informed debates on the troubled future(s) of rights ask do rights ‘work’,[15]are rights the ‘last utopia’,[16]are rights at an ‘endtimes’,[17]do we need to use rights in a more strategic way to ‘play a different game’,[18]andmaybe our way to escape the neoliberal fishbowl is if we were to resurrect our concern with spirituality and explore other ways of expressing freedom (as Ratna Kapur argues).[19]But what the Shamina Begum case shows is that rights are a distraction from the lived reality of what belonging and conditional acceptance of your status means.

We need to ‘make trouble’ (as Haraway suggests) by inventing new ways of thinking how to make room for livable ways of being together. The focus is on the makingwhen we talk, as Haraway does, of making kin; this is about forging ourselves not as individuals with rights, not as communal but as relational beings. As relational beings, we can have relational rights; these are not associative rights that belong to a particular group – relational right refers to ‘a right to gain recognition in an institutional sense for the relations of one individual to another individual, which is not necessarily connected to the emergence of a group.’[20]The concept challenges the limited juridical conception of rights. A relational right ‘permits all possible types of relations to exist and not be prevented, blocked or annulled by impoverished relational institutions’.[21]Relational rights are ethical not juridical concepts – about a way of being and behaviour, and performing a right rather than just being able to claim a right that exists only because it is written down. For example, why not have a right a right to be treated decently? A right to make mistakes? A right to come home? Response-ability becomes then not about rights but right treatment.

Who is the ‘we’ who will ‘respond’? I’m reminded of something that Lowkey said when he visited Sussex recently to speak on Grenfell:[22]I asked him who the ‘we’ in the lyric, ‘Until we face, what they face we will never know what fear is’, from Ghosts of Grenfell,referred to.[23]He said he meant those who were immediately there; but went on to describe a relation in which we are (all) ‘intimate but simultaneously distant’ in our desire to respond to Grenfell. This is powerful message. It speaks to the possibility of innovating impersonal and yet intimate bonds between ourselves that are based in a kind of shared estrangement. We can’t all feel the immediate fear of the fire, or its aftermath. But we can relate, at a distance, to it. We can be at once intimate with the pain but we will always be distant from it, because we (at least, I) weren’t there. But despite our impersonal connections, we can be open, we can be hybridly human, we can do incremental resistance that ‘breaches the boundaries of gender, race, class and generation and that encourages radically democratic forms of citizenship and civic participation’.[24]At a juridical level, we do not have a rightto belong; but we know what belonging is because we practice it. Shamima Begum has repeatedly stated her desire for a family, ‘the perfect family life’.[25]Can we allow her to practice it? Not based on a justiciable claim but a performative, relational one – that is impersonal, estranged and uncomfortable because institutionally we can’t recognise the performance of a right to make mistakes, to decent treatment, to come home? Can we call this estranged relation ‘friendship’[26]– can we do friendship as a challenge to the limits of rights?

I knew the risk of this sounding ludicrous, and given the fact that institutions cannot recognise complex affective bonds that exceed practical utility and institutional codes. I know the conversation – and response-ability – is interrupted by anxieties and frustrations: like the tedious and vexed administration of PREVENT policies, the labour of speaking about ‘belonging’ as brown women. And of course rights are an important tool in the response to these anxieties, in the fight for liberation and against shaming– as Gayatri Spivak famously said, ‘we cannot not want rights’. But they can’t be the only tool. We have to, at least as complex individuals and scholars doing radical thinking, look further – we have to look to how we practice not (just) rights but right treatment.

Bal Sokhi-Bulley, Senior Lecturer in Law & Critical Theory, University of Sussex

[1]‘Conditional Conditional Citizenship & Belonging: Britain’s ‘Muslim Question’ after the Shamima Begum Ruling’, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, Friday 3 May 2019 – my thanks to @scmrjems for the invitation, to fellow panelists Moazzam Begg and Amanda E Rogers and to the audience for their thought-provoking contributions.

[2]L Stonebridge, ‘Shamima Begum and the Logic of Everyday Violence’, 4 March 2019, Prospect Magazine, available: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/author/lyndsey-stonebridge

[3]Q Somerville, ‘Shamima Begum: What was life like for the IS couple in Syria?’, 3 March 2019, BBC News, available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47435039

[4]‘Sajid Javid on Shamima Begum’, 18 February 2019, available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGAsE-TpTKg

[5]O Bowcott, ‘Jeremy Corbyn defends Shamima Begum’s right to legal aid’, 15 April 2019, The Guardian, available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/15/jeremy-corbyn-defends-shamima-begum-right-to-legal-aid

[6]G Bradley, ‘Stripping Shamima Begum of her Citizenship is Racist and Dangerous’, 22 February 2019, Vice, available: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xyv5k/stripping-shamima-begum-of-her-citizenship-is-racist-and-dangerous

[7]M Spencer, ‘Shamima Begum: is striping her of her citizenship the right response?’, 1 March 2019, UK Human Rights Blog, available: https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2019/03/01/shamina-begum-is-stripping-her-of-her-citizenship-the-right-response/

[8]B Sokhi-Bulley, Governing Through Rights (Hart Publishing, 2016) Chapter 4.

[9]‘Sajid Javid on Shamima Begum’, above n 4.

[10]Bradley, above n 6.

[11]H Stewart, D Sabbagh and P Walker, ‘I was tried by kangaroo court – then sacked’, 1 May 2019, The Guardian, available: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/01/gavin-williamson-sacked-as-defence-secretary-over-huawei-leak

[12]D Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Duke University Press, Durham and London 2016) 2, 4.

[13]Ibid, 1.

[14]K Shamsie, Home Fire (Bloomsbury, London 2017), Kindle Edition, Location 3066 and 3074.

[15]As per Sikkink, who insists there is ‘evidence for hope’ – K Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21stCentury (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2017).

[16]As asks Samuel Moyn, in uncovering an alternative history for rights – S Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History(Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2010); see further S Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World(Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2018).

[17]Questions Stephen Hopgood, in The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press, Ithica and London 2013)

[18]As Ben Golder suggests in Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford University Press, Stanford 2015).

[19]R Kapur, Gender, Alterity and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fishbowl (Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham 2018) 180-20.

[20]M Foucault, ‘The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will’ in Ethics: Volume 1: Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984(P Rabinow, ed; R Hurley, trans) 157, 162.

[21]Ibid, 158.

[22]Lowkey, ‘Grenfell: From micro to macro and back again’, 11 March 2019, University of Sussex (event organised by the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies and the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies).

[23]The official music video can be found online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztUamrChczQ

[24]T Roach, Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, Aids and the Politics of Shared Estrangement (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2012), 12.

[25]Q Sommerville, above n 3.

[26]M Foucault, ‘Friendship as a way of life’ in Ethics: Volume 1: Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984(P Rabinow, ed; R Hurley, trans) 135.

1 Comment

  1. Perhaps you may consider her belonging in the context of her upbringing.
    Born to Bangladeshi parents who may or may not be married legally, but according to Sharia law. Her father took another wife in 1990s, so Shamima was born into a family with no European values, in a community of immigrants following their Bangladeshi and Muslim culture.
    She was born to a single mother and a father who shared his life with his other family/ies. This shows the families’ alliances to their country if origen and disrespect for the UK norms and culture. Accepted in their community, but not elsewhere. No intention not interest in belonging to the UK, but to the Bangladeshi/Muslim community.

    Her birth was at a time when a child’s nationality depended on her mother’s nationality and immigration status in the UK. There is an assumption Shamima had been a British subject, because she lived in the UK. This may be false. She did not have a British passport, which could have proved British nationality, but stole her sister’s. Her sister was born at a different time, her entitlement to British nationality through her parentage and their nationality may be different.

    So she belonged to her family and her Bangladeshi Muslim community. She chose to move to the and belong to the Daesh community and create a family there. Unfortunately, she has fallen through the cracks of her own making.

    She never wanted to be British or belong to the European, British or English nation or the wider community. Her sense of belonging is very narrow. Her home is her mother’s dwelling in a corner of Tower Hamlets.

    I see this issue in a wider and personal view, as grandparents and parents and spouse have all been immigrants (forced by wars or by choice) in different countries, as have I. Individuals integrate easily and belong to the local community, eventually by adapting. When waves arrive and seek people from similar backgrounds, they fail to integrate, they resist the local mores and strive to implant “the old country”. The group grows and belongs to itself. It never adapts but strives to maintain the culture it left. Where parents and grandparents are all imbued in the old culture there is no understanding of the local culture and way of life. Misconceptions and arrogance destroy any contact with the indigenous population. The new communities do not want to belong, and have another country that is always better and to go back to. In the interim they upset the balance for everyone and nobody belongs. The community is destroyed.

    There was a time my parents had to report monthly to the police station, then annually as aliens.
    This the stopped. There is a laxity of immigrants to maintain their status. Being an immigrant in most countries, you need to register and maintain contact with your local police station or Town Hall, paying for the privilege of an identity and residence card, to be shown constantly, like full nationals must. In the UK, no such requirement. People are “lost” and come and go with improper registration at ports of entry/exit. Absences from the country negate residence and rights to remain. The references to Windrush are flawed as many of those falling foul of the law, failed to appreciate the need for uninterrupted periods of residence to maintain their right to remain. Unaware of the rules, they failed to take appropriate action – like club membership renewal. Many of those affected assumed they were in the club, but they either defaulted on the membership renewal, or they were never entitled to be members. They belong/ed to a community who were initially in the club, and assumed that granted membership to the club per se.

    There was a time, a woman marrying a man from another country lost her nationality and assumed his nationality. Likewise legitimate children took the father’s nationality and illegitimate children took the mother’s. Each country adopts laws at different times, thereby time, location, gender and parentage impact on nationality and ability to belong to a nation. Some people are dual nationals by choice and others by force birth, of which they may or may not be aware. These people may find themselves taken unawares by their other nation eg subject to tax as in US, conscripted into the forces etc.

    Should there ever be a national identity document in the UK, it may show who belongs to the UK family and who doesn’t. The UK accepts dual nationality, and some people chose it as it offers perks. They fail to understand the protection of the UK government is only provided in countries approved by Foreign Office on legitimate travel and when entrance into that country is via a port using one’s British passport. Shamima fails this test. She is on her own, because she wanted to be.


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