The Symbolism of Citizenship: The Threat of the Dual Identity and Colonial Borders

The Symbolism of Citizenship: The Threat of the Dual Identity and Colonial Borders

On Friday 26th February 2021, news broke that 21-year-old Shamima Begum will have her British Citizenship revoked. The idea that a tragic case of grooming at 15-years-old had caused a young woman to lose the citizenship she was granted from birth, incited many controversial debates and arguments concerning not just whether this decision was right or ethical but also what the case itself showed about the meaning of citizenship.  Begum’s case was not the first time the issues within the idea of citizenship in Britain have been challenged. In 2018, the Windrush scandal broke whereby the UK government had to apologise and own up to the threats of deportation which were made to the former commonwealth citizens. These are British citizens who were brought to Britain from the former colonies in order to rebuild the ‘empire’ after World War. Despite the fact that these citizens have been living and working in Britain for decades, all that they had created for themselves in Britain hung in an unjust balance because they, through the fault of Theresa May who was in the home office at the time of the scandal, were never provided official papers to cement their citizenship. It is to no surprise that both these cases caused an undercurrent of fear within many immigrants communities and diaspora alike because both cases revive the discussion of ‘othering’ which exist in the immigrant and diaspora experience whereby citizenship is a fragile and conditional thing not merely determined by documentation but by political, social and moral cues which must be upheld by every citizen, more so by those who “do not look like us.” But also, the ethicality of revoking citizenship and deportation can often be ignored when the victims of such things are those who have dual identities, meaning that they can belong to two places at the same time and who, in doing so, can also be narrated as a threat to not only national security but the very thing citizenship upholds – the national identity

This essay will be looking at the symbolism of citizenship by analysing the idea of citizenship being a product of national identity and the perceived threat that diaspora and migrants pose to it. The essay will also discuss citizenship as a tangible product of the politics of space and the remnants of colonisation that exist within it. Through such a discussion one can be able to reframe their understanding of citizenship as it is viewed today and understand the controversial components which it is made up of.   

Shamima Begum was 15-years-old when she and two other girls from Bethnal Green, left London to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). There, she became a Jihadi wife and spent four years, as she states, “staying at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids.” (Sky News, 2019). However, the early paradise which was propagated to her and the many other young girls who were groomed to join the Islamic State, quickly fell to pieces and Shamima Begum found herself in a constant state of fleeing and illness which led to the subsequent deaths of her three children from malnutrition and sickness. It is to no surprise that the 21-year-old now wants to return to her home origin where the state of healthcare, family, human rights, education and safety is at a secure and stable level compared to the upheaval, conflict and death which remains rife in Syria. What is controversial about Shamima’s case is that she is a British national by birth and therefore it is within her rights to retain her citizenship. Yet, such a right was denied on the basis of an untried, unfound and unproven belief that Shamima was a threat to the national security of Britain and its citizens. Shamima was made an example to the world of Britain’s attitude to anyone who left the country to involve themselves in a life so far removed from the British national identity. It did not matter that in her time of asking to come home she had lost her final child, it did not matter the age with which she left and the innocence and ignorance that is embroiled in such a period of youth nor did it matter that Britain is her home. No, to those who revoked her citizenship, she had tread too far from home to be allowed to retain home’s privileges. Why Shamima’s case is important is because of the unethicality of revoking her citizenship and the fact that she was essentially made stateless. Yet, this fact has been ignored on the notion that her family are of Bangladeshi origin therefore she can obtain citizenship there (BBC News, 2019). No public evidence has been provided to show whether Begum is being aided in obtaining such citizenship (since she is in a refugee camp in Syria?), if she already has citizenship in Bangladesh and whether or not she would want to go there. There is the assumption that because Shamima has a dual identity as a diaspora, then she will always have somewhere to go and this dangerous rhetoric is a representation of the permeable status diaspora and migrants exist in while living in countries like Britain. 


Firstly, let us look at what citizenship is. Citizenship is defined as, legal status and relation between an individual and a state that entails specific legal rights and duties.’ (Wayne State University, u.d). One’s citizenship grants the individual access to many of the states’ privileges and the movement in and out of that space. It can be understood as a legal bond between the state and the citizen (Baubock, 2006) whereby the citizen has the responsibility of upholding certain virtues and rights which align with the state, and in return, it is the state’s responsibility to account for their citizens and create an environment whereby citizenship and the space it covers, cannot be abused. This legal bond is centred around the safety and protection of the state and the retention of its integrity. This is why citizenship is important for without it, the state can become vulnerable to an influx of individuals who enter the country, intercepting the social life and virtues of the state which in time can lead to its downfall. This argument is often used to justify xenophobia when in political campaigns it is propagated that citizens should be fearful of the many foreigners entering the country and the danger it poses to the political, social, and cultural landscape of the country. It is such arguments like this that show how citizenship is a product of national identity. 

National Identity

National identity can be defined as the idea of a nation as a cohesive whole; represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language (Lexico, n.d). This definition shows how national identity is a constructed identity which aligns with the state, the values, and principles which sustain it. The earliest memories we may have of actively being involved in the process of assimilating into a national identity are the teachings we absorbed during our education. Our history classes taught us about the great wars our countries faced and the enemies it sought to conquer as well as other classes which taught us about our native language, social practices and the necessity for particular institutions within the state, for example in the case of Britain, the monarchy. Roland Tormey mentioned that education is centrally concerned with the way in which the state seeks to articulate a version of “us” and “them” (Tormey, 2006) and this is an integral part of national identity because the identity is made purposeful through the creation of the common enemies which is propagated as a threat to it.  In this way, national identity shapes private attitudes and public policy (Mulcahy, 2017) and one can understand how the concept of national identity is a necessary component of nation-states because particular political and social practices by the state are justifiable through the narrative that it is for the protection of the people who are the custodians of the national identity. As mentioned earlier, citizenship is a legal bond that is between the state and the individual with the prerequisite that the individual abides by the codes of conduct of the state and assimilates into the shared belonging of the polity nation and its culture (Bond, 2006), this shared belonging is simply the adopting of the country’s collective identity. Shamima Begum is seen as a threat to Britain not solely because she joined an Islamic state but in doing so she abandoned the national identity of Britain completely, choosing to adopt political, cultural, social, and communicative beliefs so far removed from British society and its ideals. The Islamic State represents all that the Global North propagates they are not; the narrative then becomes that if Begum chose to abandon the freedoms, privileges, and safety of the British/democratic sphere she was born in, then she must pay the price. She, who was once “us”, became “them” and was publicly othered through the taking away of her citizenship which was the tangible product of her national identity. 

Dual Identity 

Yet, when we look at the definitions of national identity, we understand that this is a singular thing whereby one’s national identity represents the belonging to one country and the subservience to that particular country’s collective beliefs. However, for a diaspora or a migrant, the experience of identity is never that of belonging to one nation, one culture, social dynamic, or even political belief, instead, they are tied to two places and find pieces of themselves on both lands. Diaspora’s and migrants represent the overcoming of the limitations which exist in borders and in their lack of belonging to one place they alleviate themselves from a narrow nationalistic consciousness and instead possess a consciousness of duality or rather a fluidity and multiplicity. Paul Gilroy has spoken of the narrowness of vision which is content with the merely national (Dayal, 2006), and as many diaspora’s and immigrants stand exempt from such narrowness, it is this exemption which also makes them appear as a threat to the unity and singularity that national identity relies on.  The issue lies in the fact that diaspora’s and migrants are viewed as individuals who are invested in cultural practices, political beliefs, social norms, and languages from their land of origin and host land and this juxtaposition can pose threats to the safety of the host country which they are now domiciled. For example, how does a Nigerian-British diaspora view the royal family when their ties to Nigeria remind them of the colonial violence which the commonwealth imposed on their country of origin? However, due to the fact they live in Britain, they have been taught to be in support of the monarchy who are a staple part of the nation. This dual identity within the diasporic individual can cause them to harbour displeasure which opposes the British national identity they are supposed to uphold. In another sense, historical tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attack have caused ethnic communities to be seen as intrinsic breeding grounds for national security threats (Brynen, 2003). This is because the political activity which may be linked to the home struggles of the diaspora or migrant individual may be in opposition to that of the often coloniser, host country in which they reside. What are the effects of this? In Frantz Fanon’s infamous book Black Skin, White Mask (1967), he talks of “honorary citizenship”. In Fanon’s case, this honorary citizenship was granted to him because of his thorough knowledge of the ‘white man’s language but we can apply this term to the diasporic and migrant experience. For an individual in the diaspora or a migrant, being able to assimilate into the cultural life of their host country is a key part of their acceptance into the community. Everyone is aware of the racist remarks such as “you’re in our country so speak our language” or “we don’t wear that in this country” and it is such remarks that those with a dual identity are taught to steer from through becoming like those in their host country and in doing so, become an honorary citizen. It is not that the individual is expected to abandon their ties to their home country, but that the influence of the home country is not seen or felt in the host country because it is perceived as a threat to the normality of the collective identity. Samira Dayal notes that this is influenced by the fact that the consolidation of the Western subject is revealed as being dependent on specular othering of a non-western subject (2006). Therefore, for the diaspora and the migrant, citizenship means showing allegiance to their adopted nation, and those who do not do show such an allegiance is either politicised and reduced to an imposing foreigner or in the worst-case scenario such as Begum, lose their citizenship because they have ‘another’ country to go to because they were never really “like us”.

Politics of Space

These issues alongside the terminology which centres around the topic of citizenship are very colonial in all their sentiments. When we look at borders and the policing of space, I am reminded of the Berlin Conference in 1884, famously named The Scramble for Africa, this was a conference whereby an entire continent filled with millions of people were reduced to nothing but a map, divided by corrupt political Western leaders and monarchies for profit and power on the basis of whiteness, violence, and racism. The conference and all that entailed it is an example of the dehumanisation and othering which exist in the conversations of citizenship. 

Why is it that particular passports represent privilege and freedom of travel and what does that mean for the ones that don’t and the people who live in those countries? We must address the fact that so many people have travelled over oceanic graves to reach lands which deny them entry despite the fact that the only reason they have had made such a traumatic voyage is to have access to the most basic of human rights, rights which should be accessible to everyone in this world. The control of space is simply the foundation of the control of human life and such control only encourages spatial struggles and inequity. When we see headlines like the tragic death of 39 Vietnamese migrants who died in a refrigerator lorry while trying to come to the United Kingdom (BBC News, 2021), we are shown just how much citizenship remains a matter of life and death for many people and that it is often the people who live in the previously colonised and dehumanised nations that go through these indescribable tragedies to come to countries in the former colonising nations. Let us not forget that the privileges, institutions and gross power that these former colonising nations thrive on, have been built from years of economic exploitations, slavery, colonialism, and conquests against the very countries whose citizens they now “other”, countries which continue to be exploited by transnational companies such as Shell, British Petroleum and Coca Cola, countries where citizenship has a major impact on people’s life chances (Baubock, 2006). In Shamima Begum’s case, the inability to return to the United Kingdom came at the cost of the death of her last child who Begum desperately wanted to be born in the UK for the medical care and safety which exists in her country.

Citizenship perpetuates the idea that basic human rights, education, personal freedom, electricity, employment, and many other things are in fact a privilege that requires crossing borders and endangering one’s life to obtain. Yet even when it is obtained, individuals can find themselves in nations where they never truly belong. These things which citizenship grants for some, are things that should be accessible for everyone, no matter where they are placed because these are the things which aid the development of human beings to make their lives more than one of mere survival and struggle. 


Therefore, when we look at citizenship it is imperative that we understand its components and what these components mean for people as well as the international community at large. If people are willing to die for citizenship then what does that say about the disparity in the world and how the policing of borders perpetuates it. What are the discriminatory undertones which exist in the diasporic and migrant experience whereby assimilating into a national identity means having to reduce the appearance of the influence their country of origin may have on them. When we can have a more expansive conversation about citizenship and its effects on people, then we are able to understand the power of space and the dangers of its borders, and how the way it is bordered and policed, reeks of the very colonial sentiments that first created them, therefore, its existence will always encourage racial discrimination. Through discussing the racial dynamics of our borders, we are able to truly see how it has resulted in injustice, disparity, and poverty.


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