Up front and in charge

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on February 06, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

New turf: The women have boldly owned public spaces and are taking political action   -  THULASI KAKKAT

Women have stepped out of their homes to spearhead anti-CAA protests in various parts of the country

In 1992, in the wake of the destruction of Babri Masjid, communal violence broke out in Seelampur in north-east Delhi. There was arson and widespread destruction: In a deliberate and calculated attempt to spread fear among the Muslims, the wholesale timber market had been set on fire and residents had fled, leaving the burnt shells of their homes behind.

For days afterwards, Seelampur was like a ghost town — the rafters and walls of homes continued to smoulder. The residents were nowhere to be seen. Then, gradually, the women began to go back to collect the scraps of whatever was left — a dented vessel, an old trunk, charred clothes, perhaps a notebook. Many just stood and stared at their destroyed homes. The raging fires — as a fireman said, “as soon as we put out one, another would spring up” — had dried even their tears.

I remember going there at the time to meet the women, and to see how the group called Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan that we had formed, as ordinary citizens, could help. In time, we produced a report on the violence.

However, what stayed with me was the women’s fear, their despair and helplessness. “There’s nothing left of our lives,” many said, “We’ll never be able to come back to our homes .”

Whether they went back or not, or whether a new set of people came and settled, the women of Seelampur today present a very different picture. While much has been said about the grit, determination and resilience of the women of Shaheen Bagh, less is known about the many other, smaller anti-CAA protests women are staging in other places. Seelampur, Zakir Bagh and Hauz Rani in Delhi are among these.

Here too it is women who have taken control of the protests. “Previously, we rarely stepped out of our homes,” one of them said, “But today, both day and night belong to us, as does the street. We sit here, we coordinate among ourselves, we share our responsibilities and we’re learning to make our voices count.”

Protests in some parts of the country, such as Uttar Pradesh, have seen a brutal response from the State. Despite this, they have not disappeared. In Allahabad a few days ago, I learnt of the women of Mansur Ali Park and Roshan Bagh, where the protests had begun with just a couple of women. Slowly, a makeshift covering — not quite a shamiana — was created and then the numbers grew. In Lucknow, their sisters sat in a similar protest, fearless and proud.

“These women are like our mothers,” a young student told me. “It’s amazing to see them out on the streets. We try to help by taking over some of their chores at home, and we’re beginning to understand what our mothers go through.”

In Kochi some 10 days ago, a friend and I set out in search of Kerala food. On the way, passing through a market, we noticed a gathering of some 200 people, a makeshift stage and a group of young women on the stage raising slogans.

We abandoned our search for food and made our way to the protest. Some 15 women — most could not have been more than 20 — sat on stage and sang about Hindu-Muslim unity, about the Constitution, about citizenship and proudly, confidently, about claiming India and their identities as Indian. “No one has the right to tell us we don’t belong,” said the lead singer, “We’re Indian, this is our country, this is where we’ll stay.”

In the audience, their parents, neighbours, locals, shopkeepers, sat and listened and applauded. A short while later, three young men went up and performed protest rap, angry, passionate, satirical: “We’re doing halal rap,” they said.

In a strange kind of way, these protests — and I have named only a handful — have drawn into their ambit a range of other issues: Violence, the attacks on students, Kashmir, the internet, the growing intolerance in our society.

They’ve also revealed the stunning creativity of our people: The young women in Kochi wove together slogans — azaadi, poems — hum dekenge, and songs — sarfaroshiki tamanna; in Lucknow and Allahabad they read poems and wrote letters; in Delhi young women performed music, poetry, dance. And everywhere there is art — bold, angry, arresting.

But this is not all. In Allahabad a group of students asked me if I thought that women were being manipulated to be the face of these protests and, once they were over, would they go back into their homes? I returned the question to them: These women were from homes like theirs; what did they think?

We feel there is no going back, they said, adding that these women are boldly owning the public space, they’re taking political action, they understand what they are fighting for, how can they go back? As one of them put it, “It’s so exciting for us, we really feel we are seeing history being made.”


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


Published on February 06, 2020
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