These women have become a symbol for resistance and women’s empowerment for the entire country.
This year International Women’s Day will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action which aimed at removing the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life, whether in public or in private.
Women have made marginal progress but their struggles for equality have intensified. This year’s theme is generation equality: and in India no other protest exemplifies this more than the sit-in by the Shaheen Bagh women. They have become a symbol for resistance and women’s empowerment for the entire country.
Shaheen Bagh, one of the poorest parts of Delhi, home to daily wage workers and their families, is the site of protest against the idea of citizenship based on religion – and in the forefront of this battle are the women; especially the Muslim women who have never before stepped out on the streets to assert their rights.
Shaheen Bagh is a densely populated neighbourhood the southernmost colony of the Okhla (Jamia Nagar) area, situated along the banks of the River Yamuna. The people live under harsh conditions without electricity and no potable water.
These men and women live in poverty and deprivation without protesting in the hope that one day their children will be able to study at the nearby Jamia Millia Islamia University. It is a focus of their dreams and hopes.
On December 11, 2019 the police indulged in barbaric acts of vandalism and beat up students at Jamia Millia Islamia who were opposing the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
A few days later, on December 14 some women started a peaceful sit-in against the assault on the Jamia Milia University; the amendment to the citizenship act but also on the rising costs of commodities; increasing unemployment and poverty; and for women’s safety. Most of Shaheen Bagh is a web of lanes but there is a major highway running past it which the women blocked.
Soon the women were joined by other women, many young women who came with their children, older women and some who were past their eighties. As the protest grew it inspired the middle class people living in the surrounding areas and then people from all over Delhi and even further.
Eight busloads of farmers came carrying food for the protestors of Shaheen Bagh; students from other universities, teachers, artists who drew murals and singers who sang revolutionary songs, Sikhs who sang their religious songs and a librarian who helped with a library for the protestors. The librarian said the most sought after book was the Constitution of India.
Portraits of Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Tagore are hung up and the speakers on the dais include men and women from across the ideological spectrum with slogans calling for ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ The protest is well organised but it has no leaders; perhaps that is one reason the police and the government have not been able to break it up.
Among the protestors was a young 24-year-old mother, Nazia, who had fought with her family and insisted on walking two kilometres with her children to join the protestors. Nazia even got the other women to join her; and her husband, Arif, supported her by dropping the women to the site of the protest.
Nazia had two small children, a little girl and a four-month baby boy, Mohammad Jahaan. He soon became a favourite among the protesting women who painted the tri colour flag on his little cheeks. The baby had a woollen cap with ‘I love India’ embroidered on it.
The bitter cold took its toll and on January 30 little Mohammad Jahaan died in his sleep because of the bitter cold. His father said it was the Government’s decision to amend the citizenship act that had killed his son.
Nazia was not deterred. She continues to sit in protest against the Act which she and lakhs of Indians, Muslim, Sikhs, Christians and Hindus see as an attack on the dream of Indian secularism.
The BJP members felt threatened and intimidated by the protest and began attacking the protestors with words which hurt more than bullets. The words, allegations, false accusations and defamation reflected the hatred, prejudice and above all ignorance about the history of Muslims in India.
Most of the remarks show how the BJP conflates Muslims with terrorists; terrorists with Kashmir and Kashmir with Pakistan. Thus anyone protesting against the BJP or its Hindutva ideology is dubbed pro-Pakistani, pro-terrorist and anti-national.
BJP MP, Parvesh Verma, on January 28 drew a parallel between Kashmiri militants and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters at Shaheen Bagh. He made Shaheen Bagh the centre of his poll campaign; Verma warned his audience that the protesters will ‘enter your house… abduct your sisters and mothers, rape them, kill them the way militants had treated the Kashmiri Pandits’. Another BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, called Shaheen Bagh a ‘mini-Pakistan’.
In his first public meeting on the eve of Delhi Legislative elections, on 3 February 2020 the Prime Minister said that the Shaheen Bagh protest was not just a protest against a law. Modi said the protest was part of a political design to break the unity of India. The response of Shaheen Bagh protestors was to invite the Prime Minister to meet them and have a cup of tea. They even had a huge red teddy bear with ‘Modi tum kab aaoge?’ on it. The Prime Minister did not respond to the invitation for chai and charcha.
The BJP and its supporters have used every trick in their bag to malign and defame the protestors at Shaheen Bagh including circulation of fake videos, defamation and vilification. When they lost the Delhi election the city witnessed violence targeting Muslims – murder and destruction of property reminiscent of the Partition of India period.
The women of Shaheen Bagh continue their protest despite the threats, intimidation and the violence.
What gives these women their inspiration, their strength and their determination? In nearly every interview with the women, whether it is the grandmothers or the young mothers like Nazia; they say the reason they are protesting is because they are fighting for the future of their children.
They do not want their children to be declared ‘doubtful citizens’ because they do not have some document or other; they do not want their children to become stateless or their families torn apart with parents in detention centres like those in Assam.
These women are fighting for their right to be recognised as citizens of India; with the right to equality, liberty and dignity. They are fighting for the future of their children; but also for a secular, inclusive India where every community feels they belong equally to India.
The protest at Shaheen Bagh is an assertion of citizenship; when the Government does not listen to its citizens then it is the duty of citizens to protest and make their voices heard.
Under the Indian Constitution it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals; to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom; to promote harmony and the spirit of common fraternity among all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic, regional and sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.
The protestors of Shaheen Bagh are exemplary citizens of India – and on this International Women’s Day we should honour the women who have braved the cold, the hatred and vilification with so much love and courage. As in the past women protestors are not fighting only for their rights, they are fighting for a better world; a future for their children, their grandchildren.
The Shaheen Bagh women may not realise this but they are a part of a long and glorious history of women coming out on the streets to protest; whether it was the textile women workers in the USA fighting for better working conditions, the Russian women who fought for the right to vote or the Mothers of Political Prisoners in Kenya – it is always the poorest, the disenfranchised and the oppressed women who have come out on the streets and fought for their rights and their right has always included the right to live in a better, a more just world.
First published in the Navhind Times 8 March 2020.