Muslim women in several pockets of India — most of them wearing hijab or covering their faces and bodies with thick shawls to protect themselves from North India’s bitter cold weather — will go down in history as the principal opponents of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the narrative surrounding it.
While the Shaheen Bagh women have become the ubiquitous face of this protest, they have also influenced similar sit-outs and protests; Muslim women are now protesting against the CAA near the Delhi Metro station at Jaffrabad, causing blockage of another arterial road. On Sunday evening, an estimated 1,000 women, joined by a few hundred men, gathered there raising posters against the Act and vowing not to go back home till Prime Minister Modi withdraws this unjust law, or gives them a hearing on why they fear this law is against the Muslims of India.
“It is not for fun that we have gathered here. We are suffering, our families are suffering, but we won’t rest till this draconian law is recalled,” said a women protester.
The frightening aspect of this ongoing, relentless protests by women is that nobody in the Modi administration seems interested in giving them a hearing.
The Shaheen Bagh women’s attempt to meet Home Minister Amit Shah failed. Don’t they have a right to be heard by somebody in authority? They, of course, cannot paralyse critical services such as public healthcare like when government doctors protest or go on strike, or water supply when municipal workers decide to throw in the towel. Nor are they a bunch of powerful industrialists, or power brokers.
For the privileged amongst us, sitting on a whole lot of documents — PAN, Aadhaar, voter IDs, passports, driving licences, and property documents — that establish not only proof of our residences but also our prosperity, it is difficult to get under the skin of these women, particularly in places like a Bihar or Odisha, where documents are periodically washed away by floods or destroyed in other calamities, natural or otherwise.
Always more vulnerable
So why are women leading the anti-CAA protests? It is not as though these women are highly educated and aware of their rights. Forget being refugees in other countries, the fear of becoming a refugee in a detention centre in your own country is much more petrifying to a woman than a man. Not only has she to take care of the family, but also faces the danger of sexual assaults in mass community living.
Shaheen Bagh became the biggest controversial issue in the recently concluded Delhi Assembly elections and was used by both the BJP and the AAP, covertly and overtly. Communally incendiary remarks by senior BJP leaders helped Arvind Kejriwal to demolish the the party in the Delhi elections.
While it remains to be seen who will blink first, Muslim women all over India seem to have found a cause to fight for.
On February 14, women and children, along with men who were protesting in Chennai, were subjected to police action. Yes, they did not have permission. But so did the huge procession of over one lakh Muslims who reacted to this police high-handedness and took out a huge protest march across the streets of Chennai later. There was no police action this time. So numbers do matter. Whether it is Delhi or Bengaluru, Lucknow or Mumbai, Muslim women have spoken out in one voice against the CAA. In the few videos one had watched, the women are indeed highly charged and emotional, but their language is restrained. They refer to the Prime Minister always as Modi- ji or Modi saheb , and appeal for a hearing.
The one entity that has emerged tarnished in this entire sordid saga is the police; be it in Jamia, JNU, or several places in UP, the police has gone on a rampage.
On January 18 evening, police snatched away the blankets and quilts of women protesters at the Clock Tower in Lucknow, leaving them to shiver through the night in the bitter cold. But as word spread, people from neighbouring areas brought out blankets from their homes to show solidarity with the protesting women.
It’s too soon to say who will blink first and whether this will be a battle between David and Goliath. But who can tell the future?