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Women of Shaheen Bagh: At home in the streets

Smita Gupta | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 06, 2020
U.S. panel lists India among nations with waning religious freedom

Strength in numbers: The sit-in at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. No other movement in independent India has seen such a large presence of women   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA/THE HINDU

Shaheen Bagh has opened a new world to women — one where they are seen and heard

It is noon on March 1, the 78th day of the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh. Cries of Inquilab Zindabad ring out as people pour in. A left-wing trade union group that has just arrived sings Hum honge kaamyaab — the Hindi version of We shall overcome.

The women join in.

The bloody mayhem that devastated lives, livelihoods and homes in north-east Delhi earlier in the week has not dampened the determination of the residents of this south Delhi neighbourhood; the violence has only underscored the life-and-death nature of their demands.“I would rather die here,” Ruksana, a middle-aged homemaker, says, “than perish in a detention camp.”

But behind that steely resolve there is fear, provoked by the tales of barbarism pouring in from the riot-hit areas, as well as threats on social media. There is also enormous disappointment that neither the prime minister nor the home minister has sought to engage with the protesters directly.

The setting for the sit-in — now more than 80 days old — is not entirely salubrious. The tent, undeniably ramshackle, fronts a row of dusty, shuttered shops on a now court-measured 150-m long stretch of tarmac, part of the unswept road that connects the sad, southeastern edge of India’s national capital to Uttar Pradesh’s prosperous hub of Noida.

By late evening, the electric bulbs and phone cameras held aloft transform the lemon, pink, and green swathes of tarpaulin of the tent’s roof into a spectacular melange of neon pops. Hope fills the air as musicians, performers and others give speeches, sing, recite revolutionary poetry or just stand silently in solidarity with the protesters.

The only change: Among the placards denouncing the Centre’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act are now those announcing support for the victims of the February riots.

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The protest has irrevocably revolutionised the lives of the women of Shaheen Bagh. In the early days of the sit-in, portraits of MK Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Maulana Azad adorned the stage. Within weeks, Sarojini Naidu and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein joined the pantheon. Bengal’s Rokeya is a particularly interesting choice as she is considered by many as the sub-continent’s first feminist, the author of Sultana’s Dream, about an imaginary utopia ruled by women, and published in the Chennai-based The Indian Ladies Magazine in 1905.

No other movement in India has seen as large a presence of women since the freedom struggle, a time when women stepped out of their homes, responding to Gandhi’s call. Today, the women are protesting as much to secure their children’s future, as to preserve the ideals that Gandhi and others in the freedom struggle had fought for.

“Gandhi believed that women must be equal partners in freedom; equally, he was conscious that it shouldn’t just be a one-time effort,” historian Mridula Mukherjee says. “The women of Shaheen Bagh are doing it for the country, not just for themselves, but in the process are getting empowered, even without that being their direct objective.”

The story of how the women of Shaheen Bagh occupied the streets — following the Delhi Police’s December 15 attack on students of the neighbouring Jamia Millia Islamia who were protesting against a possible National Register of Citizens and the patently discriminatory CAA — is now the stuff of legends. Shaheen Baghs have sprung up in Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and a host of smaller cities.

In an interesting reversal of roles, women stereotyped as social and religious conservatives, considered so oppressed that others had to speak up for their rights, have themselves shown the way. So far largely restricted to life within their homes or structured outings, accompanied by male relatives, they have now seen life on the outside, spontaneously articulated their feelings, and got accustomed to having their views heard with respect.

Most important, the women have acquired identities of their own: They know they are part of something much larger than themselves, the battle to preserve the sanctity of the Constitution, which accords the country’s minorities and lower castes rights.

“Women cannot be prevented from doing anything,” says a teacher who likes to be called “Reshma Indian”, asserting her Indianness. “This protest has shown that they can assert themselves. They can be successful inside the home and outside. We are not the weaker sex — and henceforth, even at home, no man will be able to harass us.”

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Zafar Agha, editor of Qaumi Awaz, an Urdu newspaper, holds that the remarkable change visible in Muslim women is “permanent” — but did not happen overnight. The last three decades or so have witnessed the Shah Bano case, the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid and its destruction, and the Muslim clergy taking over the leadership of the community. But gradually, that began to change as people began to question their dominance.

An increasing number of Muslim girls began to get educated. Social media opened up new expanses. Women began to visit gyms and beauty parlours (Shaheen Bagh is dotted with them). Gradually, families began to accept the changes, even if grudgingly. The biggest change can be seen among women between the ages of 18 and 40, well represented at Shaheen Bagh. The current protests have “broken the dam”, Agha says, “ending the reign of the mullahs.” Even the Urdu media, he says, that initially resisted the idea of women’s open participation in the protests “has now fallen in line”.

Journalist Shoaib Daniyal’s report (Scroll.in) from Kanpur illustrates the power of the newly empowered Muslim women. The local administration recently requested the city’s top Islamic clerics to appeal to the women to end their protest. The women refused to move. The administration forcibly evicted them from the park, only to have the women then occupy the streets. Eventually, the women were allowed back into the park, while the clerics faced the ignominy of being called “agents” and “informers” of the administration.

No matter how the protests end, Muslim women in India have come of age. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein would have been proud.

Smita Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on March 06, 2020

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