The ‘testing’ case of the Daesh brides
The last stronghold of Daesh has fallen in Syria. As a result, Daesh fighters have been decisively held captive as the world figures out what to do with the women and children left behind. Clad in black from head to toe and cramped in dust-filled tents with limited resources, the women of Daesh, roughly 1,500 of them, wonder about their fate, and that of their children.
What then, is the legal status of the surviving brides and children of the so-called caliphate?
The women and girls had varied reasons for joining Daesh in the first place. Some of them went in as active agents supporting its ideology. Others were brainwashed to believe that a better, fairer system with adventure and romance lay ahead. Muslim women in Europe were attracted to the idea that they would not be judged, and would not have to justify their two identities of being European and Muslim. But now that the dust is beginning to settle, most want to return home. Their countries however, are refusing to take them back.
One such bride, Shamima Begum made headlines last month. The fifteen year-old British schoolgirl left England three years ago with two friends and joined Daesh. Since then, she has survived two marriages and three dead babies. Since the fall of Daesh, she has expressed her desire to return to the UK but has been stripped of her nationality under a legal provision where citizenship status can be taken away if the deprivation is conducive to the public good. The reasoning is that due to her Bangladeshi heritage, she could just apply for citizenship there.
But how can the UK and other countries legally justify making their citizens stateless? Relying on dual nationality or heritage as justification for stripping Daesh brides of citizenship cannot be applied as a blanket rule because so many of them come from European and Western backgrounds. Additionally, national laws that allow the withdrawal of nationality contradict international conventions and the fundamental rights of citizens.
Relying on dual nationality or heritage as justification for stripping Daesh brides of citizenship cannot be applied as a blanket rule because so many of them come from European and Western backgrounds.
The Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons 1954 and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness 1961 are two key international instruments that govern statelessness. The Conventions’ overall purpose is the elimination of statelessness and to guarantee stateless people basic rights. Many European countries, including the UK, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and France are signatories to the conventions.
However, the fundamental question that countries are not asking is one about the relationship between the state and citizen. Citizenship’s two balancing components — rights and duties — is in this case tilting solely toward the duties of the citizen and not placing due emphasis on their rights or the state’s duties toward them. Limiting the understanding of citizenship to duty makes the concept arbitrary and defies the basic principles upon which citizenship is based – that it is non-conditional. Citizenship is an inherent, fundamental, human right. The conventions further strengthen this argument.
Despite the conventions, many western countries have echoed the UK’s disapproval of their citizen’s actions. They have understandably pointed out that these women left to join a banned terrorist organization and were aware of Daesh’s status when they departed their homes. Canada, like the UK, is taking a hard-line approach by discouraging nationals to return by refusing them consular assistance. A French court has sentenced a national and Daesh bride to ten years in absentia. Others also seem to be figuring out how not to take the women back. These countries are sending out a message — only as long as one stays within lawful limits will one be allowed to remain a citizen.
The current view adopted by countries is reinforcing the premise that citizenship can only be viewed as a primary source of social identity and takes away from the modern understanding of citizenship being dependent on the state. The case of the Daesh brides is testing the very meaning of citizenship. However, countries must understand the legal ramifications of setting precedents where citizenship is redefined to exclude citizens who commit crimes — heinous as they may be — rather then apply due process and rule of law to those for which the state is responsible.
– Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in various Pakistani newspapers.