When Women Showed the Way

Magazine National Political

The protests against the Citizenship Act amendment have unified the Muslim community like never before

By Tamanna Yasmin

The Shaheen Bagh protest, which started as a blockade of a six-lane highway bordering the Muslim-dominated neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi on December 2019 to protest the government’s controversial amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955, is the first of its kind in the history of independent India.

A heroism of 15 ordinary Muslim women inspired thousands of others to take to the streets. In no time they were joined by men, people of other faiths, activists, and celebrities. After an uninterrupted 101 days, the protests was discontinued in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, but not before they had become the lasting symbol of opposition to the unholy trinity of measures designed to disenfranchise the community (CAA-NRC-NPR).

Shaheen Bagh incited similar protests in various parts of the country, such as in Bangalore’s Bilal Bagh and Kolkata’s Park Circus. The uniqueness of these protests lies in the fact that there were no leaders; the protesters did not follow the instructions of any individual or group. Even the volunteers insist that there are no organisers; “All of us are in it together,” they say.

What makes it even more remarkable is that in a patriarchal society, women were the backbone of these protests. Some didn’t face much trouble whereas others had to break family and social norms to participate. Whatever it took, they stood against injustice.

Remarkably, these women helped unify the Muslim community as a whole like never before. As 16-year-old Alveena Aafreen from Park Circus’ Sadhinota 2.0 puts it in an interview with Firstpost, a news website, “Imagine if housewives have come out to protest on the streets, what else they are capable of achieving, and how urgent the situation is.”

These Muslim-women centric protests have, to a large extent, helped in casting off the stereotype that Indian Muslim women are uneducated, meek creatures wrapped up in burqas with no voice or views, confined by cruel husbands to the drudgery of housework and bearing children.

Sifwa, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who had participated in Shaheen Bagh protests, told a reporter of India Today, “Just because we are Muslim women, we are not oppressed. We are very confident about the religion we follow, what we study, how we talk. Nobody has to be surprised at our political organisations and the slogans we raise.”

Says Danish Iftekhar, who had been actively involved in the Shaheen Bagh protest, “There has been a misconception that only Muslim women are oppressed, they don’t have the permission to step out of their homes. These protests have, in a way, changed that narrative. Muslim women led from the front and they stood up for their rights and those of the community. This is one fine blow to the claims made by the bigots about Muslim women. However, it’s not something that has happened overnight. The fact is that women were already liberated. It had been there throughout, but people couldn’t see it through their prejudiced lens. However, to say that there’s no oppression at all will be outright wrong. Muslim women face the same set of problems that most Indian women face. It has nothing to do with religion.”

From young mothers carrying infants to grandmothers accompanied by their teen grandchildren; from homemakers who had never stepped out of their homes to office-goers; from women wearing a burqa or hijab to some dressed in jeans, everybody gathered under the shamiana. The ‘culture’ of these protest sites was very different from mainstream protests. The walls around were ablaze in murals, graffiti, posters, and banners. With children running around, poetry recitals, singing and chanting slogans of “Azaadi”, the ambience was not one of anger but of peace and unity.

Who would have imagined a 19-year-old woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy would visit a protest site and make a fiery speech? Khatun Jannat did just that. Though hesitant at first, she took to the stage to recite: “Himmaton ko toda ja raha hai; Mulk se nikaalne ki saajish hai” (Our courage is being broken; it is a conspiracy to throw us out of the country). Jannat says that she would not have dared to do such a thing if she didn’t have her husband’s support: he wrote the poem for her! “The culture of Bilal Bagh felt comfortable,” she recounts, and that boosted her courage.

Women were the backbone of the sit in protests | Credit: Al Jazeera

With only women and children allowed in the main gatherings and the men only allowed to encircle the periphery, these protest sites created a sense of safety and comfort among the women. Hence, a lot of women like Jannat gathered the courage to step out of their homes and participate in a public protest for the very first time.

The protest in Kolkata’s Park Circus tells yet another inspiring story. On January 7, a day after the JNU attack, Asmat Jamil, a 45-year-old homemaker assisted by fellow members of Az-Zumar, an NGO she is associated with, assembled people and staged a protest at Park Circus Maidan. Soon after, the police arrived at the spot and ordered the protesting women to vacate the place. Jamil, recovering from a recent kidney transplant, refused to lose hope. Her fortitude and zeal helped them obtain a permit to hold a peaceful demonstration. In no time it sparked a movement in the heart of the city, which has been named Sadhinota 2.0 (Freedom 2.0).

Says Saika Naz, a student from West Bengal pursuing MA in English, “CAA was a political issue which didn’t concern the women specifically. In such a situation, we generally see males taking the front line. But very unexpectedly, this time, the women not only raised their voice but also took the lead. I don’t know if the protests will have any effect on the political situation but there’s no doubt women unshackled themselves. Now, it’ll be difficult to cage them again.”

The clarion call did not fail to reach the alleyways of urban India. Muslim girls started holding meetings in the streets to enlighten their sisters about the urgency of the situation. The courage and confidence that a lot of women gained through direct or indirect participation was palpable and will be hard to undo. These are early days, but already a subtle shift in attitudes portends bigger changes ahead.

Says Jaforulla Molla, an author and West Bengal state president of the Indian Union Muslim League, “Muslims in India didn’t have a concrete platform to express their opinion. Shaheen Bagh and other similar protests offered it. When the Muslims realised the threat that CAA and NRC had brought, they had to fight back unitedly. The situation had increased the political awareness of the community, and the protests helped. From Park Circus to Plassey (a village in West Bengal) Muslims held dharnas and meetings.”

Danish too says that as a result of these protests Muslims have understood the importance of political engagement and representation. However, had Muslims not already been awakened, Shaheen Bagh wouldn’t have happened. Muslims have become much more aware of the ground realities and their rights. It has increased their political awareness. They’ve realised the necessity of education like never before. Without education there’s no enlightenment and appreciation of the fundamental duty of every community to participate in the public life of their country.

Feature image credit: Outlook India Magazine


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