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From Roshan Bagh: Where now, Fatema?

Nighat Gandhi | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 06, 2020

Political is personal: The Roshan Bagh women have stepped out of their boundaries against laws that could render them “doubtful citizens” image courtesy: facebook/ allahabadagainstnrcnprandcaa   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FACEBOOK/ALLAHABADAGAINSTBRCNPRANDCAA

The road back to the confines of chadar and chaardeewari may not be easy for the women protesters at Allahabad’s Roshan Bagh

For years during March 8 rallies, many feminists chanted slogans on women’s right to safety in public spaces. Slogans such as Sadak bhi hamaray, park bhi hamaray, din bhi hamara, raat bhi hamari (The streets are ours. The parks are ours. The days belong to us. The nights belong to us) highlighted women’s exclusion from public spaces, against good-women-stay–home-at-night patriarchal values. Another set of Women’s Day slogans were about azadi:

Meri amma maange azadi

Meri dadi/nani maange azadi

Meri behna maange azadi

Meri beti maange azadi

(My mother wants freedom. My grandmother wants freedom. My sister wants freedom. My daughter wants freedom.)

But instead of actually staking their claim to public parks and streets, women, especially the younger ones, wanted to be home after dark. The unspoken pressure to return to the relative safety of the four walls would take over the truth of the slogans they chanted in unison just before the sun went down. We, the older women, would shake our heads: Good women return to their cloisters. Until the next Women’s Day.

What women, young and old, seem to lack is women’s solidarity. Most good women are still wedded to their domestic responsibilities, or so preoccupied and guilt-ridden about parents, children, husbands and in-laws that they find little time or space to forge solidarity with other members of their gender.

Fast forward to January 30, 2020. At Mansoor Ali Park in Allahabad’s Roshan Bagh area, hundreds of women — most of them wearing some form of head cover — are seated on the ground under a shamiana that barely keeps out the biting cold. Sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandmothers — they’re all there with children in tow. The women are rapt, listening to the speakers on a makeshift stage. The electricity comes and goes. The speakers’ voices wax and wane but the women listen attentively to the speeches, slogans, songs and poetry. Every so often the women break into spontaneous clapping and chant slogans. They’re here to celebrate their citizenship, their love for the country and its Constitution, which, they fear, is under threat.

The men stand outside, along the periphery of the park, also listening and applauding. The men may think they’re there to protect the women should anything go wrong. But the women seem in no need of protection. Perhaps the best form of protection is that no men, other than volunteers and speakers, are allowed in the park.

January 30 — the death anniversary of MK Gandhi — is a special day in the life of this protest at Roshan Bagh. Many of the women — Muslim and otherwise — have chosen to use one of Gandhi’s most widely practised forms of non-violent protest: Keeping a fast. Many Muslims believe that prayers offered at the time of breaking a fast are especially effective. It’s close to sunset — time to break the fast according to Islamic tradition. Volunteers urge participants to pray for India, its Constitution and peace, as well as remember Gandhi. They pass around bottles of water, fruits and plates of pakoras and jalebis. Hundreds of women break their roza or upvas together. This is a refreshing kind of public solidarity. Even those of us who aren’t fasting partake of the repast.

There’s a tea station outside the park where men are preparing the brew for the women. We witness another unexpected kind of solidarity: Male volunteers with brooms keep the park clean while the women sit and listen to the ongoing programme. One woman comments: “I asked my husband to eat the leftover sabzi in the fridge. Will I cook everyday or come to the protest?” She adds that her husband had to comply. He had no choice. Other women smile and nod in agreement.

The women at Roshan Bagh are not necessarily feminists. They’re also not opposed to patriarchal values. They’re not here to raise their voice against violence against women, the mandatory purdah or other forms of inequalities. They’ve stepped out of their boundaries with the tacit or explicit approval of their menfolk because the passage of certain laws and policies could render them “doubtful citizens” and threaten their families’ future. The political has become personal.

I see a student volunteer, Fatema, distributing water to the women. She’s also busy making announcements and conversing with the male volunteers. Will her fight for azadi end when the Roshan Bagh protests end? Will Fatema return to a sedate and domesticated life?

The problem with raising consciousness is that it rarely reverts to its lower state. The genie — in this case, the dreams of a generation of Indian Muslim women — has unexpectedly escaped the bottle and infiltrated the arena of a people’s movement. Forcing their dreams back into the bottle might backfire. There is likely to be a male backlash against the Fatemas and their rightful claim to political discourse. Women like her may experience frustration, anger, anxiety and depression when the traditional establishment attempts to send them back to the confines of chadar and chaardeewari (seclusion and domesticity). Will the Fatemas of India, having tasted the freedom of participatory democracy, then renounce their freedom?

Nighat Gandhi is the author of Waiting: A Collection of Short Stories; Padma Singh is a women’s rights activist

Published on March 06, 2020
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