Shaheen Bagh’s women: Shadow to spotlight

The recent communal riots of Delhi bring home ever more urgently the immense value of the peaceful protests by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh and other places across India. This is a fitting day to tell the story of these women
Last Updated : 08 March 2020, 03:16 IST

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An unprecedented protest has been unfolding in contemporary India over the past three months. Its hallmarks are a call for a return to constitutional values in the affairs of the state and a determined resistance to the establishment of a majoritarian ethic in public life. Leading it are Muslim women who have come out of homes to occupy protest sites in a bid to challenge discrimination and targeting of Muslims.

The recent communal riots of Delhi bring home ever more urgently the value of their peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it would be fitting to acknowledge their participation in India’s political life at this critical juncture and remind ourselves that these women have been speaking not just for themselves, but for all those opposed to the events of the recent past.

Ever since the National Democratic Alliance III took office in May 2019, there has been growing unease with the trajectory it has adopted. This unease has slowly but surely given way to fear and panic, especially among Muslims. In conjunction with the CAA, which confers citizenship on religiously persecuted non-Muslim minorities in India’s immediate neighbourhood, the NRC portents the fear of being declared stateless. It conjures up visions of a life spent in detention camps, such as those in Assam.

Whether or not these fears are justified is irrelevant. What is clear is the lack of trust among Muslims and a refusal on part of the Modi administration to assuage apprehensions.

Instead, there have been attacks by the police on students of Jamia Millia Islamia and other institutions and dangerous communal baiting by those in power. These events contributed to the eruption of riots in Delhi, which left at least 47 dead. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the police was either unresponsive or acted as mute bystanders as mobs ravaged Muslim localities. Both Hindus and Muslims lost lives and homes, but there was an unprecedented targeting of Muslims.

For those interested in erasing the sharp communal divides being re-erected today, the women-led protests still represent hope. The story of these protests needs telling now — more than ever, perhaps — because it holds out the possibility of rediscovering our humanity in the face of hopeless and senseless violence.

Space shaped by their needs

Shaheen Bagh, in mid-February, feels like it is taking a break after the bitterness of the just concluded Delhi Assembly elections. The women, wearing burqas, hijabs or with heads covered in dupattas, sit together under an old tent of the kind hired for marriages in north India. The old and young, the affluent and poor, neighbours and strangers rub shoulders. The tent itself is in the middle of a small stretch of the GD Birla Marg — a main route that connects Delhi and Noida — which has been blocked for traffic. The neighbourhood is one of many Muslim-dominated areas that radiate out of the Jamia Millia Islamia campus in south-east Delhi.

Farah Farooqi, professor of education at Jamia, writing in the Caravan described Shaheen Bagh as one of newest inhabitations to come up in the Jamia Nagar area. The women of this locality left their homes to occupy a road, semi-permanently, on the night of December 15, when Delhi police attacked students of Jamia Millia Islamia inside their campus.

These are working women, that is, women who work inside their homes. Some work both inside as well as outside. As a result, Shaheen Bagh is not just a protest site, but a space shaped by the needs of women. Not surprisingly, there are kids everywhere. Little ones spilling out of arms but also older ones running around or listening to speeches. Many are in a library-cum-art gallery-cum-crèche named, ‘India reads, India resists’. Volunteers, among them PhD students from Jamia, look after the space. The kids draw, do school work, chat and play.

A langar of chhole-chawal cooks in giant aluminium vessels a little further away from the kids' area. A queue of dirt-poor men, women and children line up for the free meal. Middle-aged men stand outside the tent or chaperon kids around. An installation of India Gate is being painted intently by well-dressed students in western wear, who are obviously there to support the agitation. There is a sprinkling of other such volunteers and visitors, who look distinct from the local populace, inside the tent as well. Indian flags are everywhere. A giant, brown cut-out of the map of India stands beyond a filthy overbridge that has been turned into a backdrop to hang posters and banners. The heart of India, in the blown-up map, is inscribed with the words, “We the people of India reject CAA-NPR-NRC.”

Inside the tent, the women listen to a row of speakers who underscore the discriminatory nature of what is unfolding in India. Towards the evening a Valentine’s Day function kicks off — it’s February 13. Soon, the women are holding printed pink posters with a big heart and the words, ‘Modi #tumkabaaoge’, on them.

‘No overt politicisation’

There are some rules the women have made for themselves: There will be no overt politicisation of their protest, there will be no ‘leaders’ for the movement — it will be a community effort — and they will not allow hateful speeches to be made.

How did the movement begin, I ask Sana Ansari (47), one of the many women organising the protest. When the Delhi police attacked Jamia students, the impact was immediately felt in Shaheen Bagh. “The women came out because the children (of Jamia) were targeted,” she says. Her own daughter was attacked during one anti-CAA demonstration. “That is why I am here,” she tells me. The place has deep links with the University. Many here have children or family studying on campus or would like to send their kids there in the future.

We speak at a makeshift library that has come up a short distance away from the tent. A crowd of men gathers around us. But none tries to take over Sana’s narrative. She explains that the protest started by the women has grown into a movement. “Muslims have come together now — they saw themselves as separate groups earlier. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians have come together. People from the Bahujan Samaj have supported us, Adivasis have come to back us,” she says.

This is a thread I pick up inside the tent as well. I hear an articulation of India’s secular character that has not been expressed in such visceral terms in recent times. I hear the word Constitution far more than anything else uttered there — with the exception of Modi and Amit Shah perhaps.

A young mother of two kids, aged six and 10, who identifies herself to me simply as ‘Hindustani’, says they were unfairly singled out during the Delhi election campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party. “People are saying that we are doing this for Rs 500 and biryani. Look at us,” she challenges me, “do we look like people who have sold out? This is our country. We have sacrificed our blood for it.”

Asma (28) tells me she has grown up in an India where her neighbours and friends were non-Muslims. “What is their problem with this?” she asks, and demands to know why Muslims are being targeted. “What mistakes have we committed for us to be treated this way?” I have no answers for her, but as a parting shot, she tells me: “They thought they would divide us [Hindus and Muslims]. But, actually, they have brought us all together. This is a bond that will cost them dearly.”

According to Professor Farooqui, whom I meet at Jamia a day after Shaheen Bagh, the protest movement served as a kind of release for the pent-up frustration in the Muslim community. “The women view it as an existential issue,” she says. I ask about them also viewing the protest site itself as a religious place. “We pray here five times a day,” the woman who had described herself as ‘Hindustani’ had told me. Farooqui agrees that they see their work as a kind of “pious duty”. The professor leaves me with the impression that the protest has brought about a big change in their lives. They have discovered something about themselves, their role in society and in the country. “This protest won’t die down,” she says.

From protest to riot

The BJP and its cohorts did not seem to have a concrete political response to these peaceful protests until the recent violence in Delhi. With the riots, an attempt has been made to render these anti-government protests meaningless by creating the spectre of a Hindu-Muslim dispute, which can only be resolved through violence. The question arises, therefore, whether all the good that came out of Shaheen Bagh’s ‘civic nationalism’, as Farooqui describes it, been lost for good.

I look for signs in Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh, located off the Muslim-dominated Tannery Road in the Cantonment area. Thirty-year-old Ruskhsana, a homemaker, tells me she spends Rs 500 daily out of her pocket to come to Bilal Bagh. “What is his fault if he was born here,” she asks me, pointing to her infant son, sleeping in her lap. I get the sense that coming to the protest is her form of resistance to what is happening around her.

Kausar, a middle-aged homemaker, says she and others like her are wondering how to respond to the news of the riots. “We are traumatised... But we don’t want to respond with violence. We have to do what is needed without a galata....If men were here now there would have been riots, but to love is in the nature of women,” she says. For her, coming to Bilal Bagh has been a chance to make real what were just scenes in a school play. “Hum sab ek hain – yeh sach hai (We are all one – this is the truth),” she says recalling a recent multi-faith prayer she witnessed at the protest site. “I never felt so happy in my life as I did on that day.”

It is unclear what the future of the protest started by the women of Shaheen Bagh and other such places is. While they have succeeded in bringing attention to the issue at hand, there is no clear leadership for the movement or a roadmap. As the Shaheen Bagh protestors wait for the Supreme Court to pronounce on their protest — whether they can continue their agitation by blocking a road indefinitely — it might be appropriate to leave them here, noting that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)

Published 07 March 2020, 20:19 IST

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