Shamima Begum is currently 21 years old. When she was 15, she fled her home in the United Kingdom for Syria to join the Islamic State. At 19, after the fall of ISIS, Shamima began her time at the Roj Detention Camp in Kurdish Syria. Now, Shamima has buried all three of her children and been stripped of her British citizenship.
“The Return: Life after ISIS” documents Shamima’s time in the camp, alongside a number of other women in a similar circumstance. Chronicling the journey from radicalization to emigration and ultimately to a sense of regret and disenfranchisement, “The Return” raises important questions about a nation’s responsibility to its citizens, women’s agency and moral absolutism.
When Hoda Muthana, a young woman from Alabama now living with Shamima in the detention camp, tweeted incitement to violence against Americans as @UmmJihad, she was parroting the radical ideology fed to her through propaganda. Many of these women share a similar story of having been influenced by ISIS recruitment videos distributed on social media, promising a richer, better and purportedly proper Muslim life to those who emigrate.
Some of these women speak of having had challenging relationships with Islam when they were young. Shamima describes wearing the hijab as a child only because her mother forced her to, not out of her own faith. In seeking to find this proprietary relationship with God, Shamima and others followed what they had been made to believe was the truth. Unrelated to their time in the Islamic State, the women in the documentary are committed to Islam as it really is. Shamima wears a hijab to cover her head while some of her peers wear the niqab, which also covers the face below the eyes. When Shamima buried her third son, she describes doing so according to Islamic custom.
Though many of these women converse fluently in their native English, they frequently use Arabic words. The women refer to ISIS as dawlah (a word meaning “state” and the “d” in Daesh, another name for ISIS), the global Muslim community as Ummah and Insha’Allah (meaning “God willing”). There is no doubt that these are women of faith, which is a testament to their strength given the dark places they were led on the false promise of religious truth.
In the 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” political theorist Hannah Arendt states: “Evil comes from a failure to think … as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” The women in “The Return” left home for different reasons, searching for faith or fleeing unhappiness. All of them were radicalized by ISIS advertisements or wooed by recruiters on social media to serve a “greater purpose” — which seems to exemplify Arendt’s argument.
Hoda’s previous Twitter activity, which prompted the Trump administration to strip her of citizenship as well, doesn’t match her now present, measured interviews. Vulnerable and radicalized by good marketing, the ideological house of cards fell quickly in the face of starvation. When given the opportunity to think, these women were able to overwrite the evil teachings of ISIS.
Much of the documentary is dedicated to the horrors of life in ISIS. Beyond rigid regulation under the watchful eye of the “ISIS police” or frequent bombings by United States-led coalition forces, these women testify to an ironic rot deep at the heart of the Islamic State. Tales of sex slavery and pseudo-prisons for unmarried women emphasize the role of women in ISIS as homemakers and child bearers. Two of Shamima’s children, a son and daughter, died before the fall of ISIS from illness as they moved from city to city with little to eat. Her third child died in his infancy from pneumonia in the Roj Camp. This prompted an outcry from sympathetic Brits, as it represented one more innocent life lost to nationalistic effrontery.
Citizenship has become an essential part of what it means to be a person in the present age of nation-states. In the film, we see debates over these women’s right to citizenship distract from the real issue: human rights. This distraction reveals unpleasant truths about Western governments. First, punishing these women with the revocation of citizenship suggests that we believe an allegiance to one’s homeland should come before all else, and second that this allegiance must be faultless, because otherwise our moral failings would permanently become a mark against our rights as humans. To even begin to discuss these issues central to the plight of the women in “The Return,” we must establish our position on citizenship as personhood and the capacity of an individual for self-reform.
Banal or otherwise, what does it mean to commit evil? As we contemplate moral absolutism and the permanence of our actions, we must also consider agency.
Precisely when these women were robbed of their agency is uncertain, but to be duped into radicalization is not to act according to one’s own will. By keeping these women — who have regained agency of thought — from returning to their homes to rebuild a better life, Western governments continue to suppress the women’s agency in self-actualization.
These women are not responsible for atrocities by their own hands. However, even for those who work in the camp to help them, it is not easy to dismiss their proximity to atrocity. Sevinaz Evdike helps these women adjust to life after ISIS, guiding them through self-reflection and trust exercises.
Yet as a Kurdish woman who lost family and friends to ISIS violence, Evdike struggles: “They come from other countries to our land and humiliated us. Now we have to take care of them.”
At one point a woman living in the camp protests, wanting to go home to her children saying, “I shouldn’t be here at all … I never even had a parking ticket (in Canada) … I never killed anybody.” Evdike responds with indignation, unsure why she bothers to help: “But maybe your husband killed my cousin or killed my mother’s cousin or killed my neighbor … Should I really do this?”
As well as I am able to, as someone who has never known war, I understand why she helps. “The Return” sparks discussion about important contemporary issues regarding morality and nationality, but the film’s greater impact is in prompting empathy. Filmmaker Alba Sottora (“Commander Arian”) captures the sorrow in Shamima’s eyes as she mourns her children and the regret these women share as the days in the camp roll on endlessly. The viewer cannot help but feel that these women, all of whom share what they have learned and how they have grown since joining and leaving ISIS, deserve safety and their human rights.
At the end of the film, one woman remarks that only one country needs to allow repatriation, and the rest will follow. For now, that seems unlikely. Just this month the revocation of Shamima’s citizenship was upheld by British courts. Perhaps the conversations begun by this film will prompt a moral reckoning and these women will be allowed to come home. Insha’Allah.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.