Updated: February 19, 2020 5:19:53 pm
Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of a Muslim resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), has been demonised in terms reserved for “anti-national” Kashmiris and Pakistanis. While dog-whistles against Shaheen Bagh had been continuing ever since the women of the socially and economically backward, and overwhelmingly Muslim locality occupied the Noida-Delhi road for their 24/7 sit-in two months ago, remarks from politicians, especially in the run-up to the Delhi elections, and even common people, have betrayed fear-mongering and hate-peddling of the worst kind.
Shaheen Bagh has bravely and gracefully endured all that and has come to mean more than just a protest. It has become a source of untiring energy for a community, which had silently watched a spate of lynchings, harassment and systematic political exclusion over the past several years, and whose defence mechanism had despairingly become ways to invisibilise itself in public. It has given courage to a community to shed its fear and finally speak out and claim the rights guaranteed to it in this country as Muslims and as citizens.
The women here draw their strength and articulation from the Constitution, B R Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi as they question a discriminatory law while sitting in freezing cold and even rain in a bid to seek an equal deal for their children and grandchildren. As they rewrite politics while conspiracy theories about their credibility float around, the loud, clear and persistent voice of these first-time protesters have inspired more Shaheen Baghs — in Lucknow, Kolkata, Ranchi, Gaya, Kanpur, Hyderabad, Patna, and at least 100 other cities across the country.
Amid songs, slogans, poetry and art, a radical change is taking place at Shaheen Bagh — the politicisation of Muslim women, particularly of a class that had earlier no business to step out of home, who was the most marginalised in the community, and many of whom may not have studied beyond the primary school. It is easily possible that many of them are hearing the Constitution — not just the document but also the word — for the first time. Now, as they read the Preamble on New Year’s eve, with Radhika Vemula and Saira Bano on Republic Day, and several other times, they now know of free speech, equality, liberty and religious freedom.
What Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh has done for the community’s women is also no less revolutionary. This is one of my favourite stories from the protest site. In the third week of the resistance, a maulana arrived on the small, makeshift stage, which is largely free for all, and began what could be loosely termed a khutba or a religious sermon. A minute or two later, a woman held the maulana firmly by his arm, took the microphone away, while chastising him that it was not the place for such a conversation. A commotion followed, the maulana stepped down, and it was back to business in surprisingly little time.
With that one single act, the woman, in her 40s or maybe 50, put in place, for some time or for longer maybe, a powerful force called the Muslim clergy that has often misinterpreted Islam, the brunt of which has been borne mostly by the community’s women. The woman affirmed that Shaheen Bagh’s fight was not over issues related to Islam but for the legal and constitutional rights of a Muslim. It was not without reason that the Shahi Imam, whose political affiliation has always been suspect, got the cold shoulder at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid while Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ was given a rousing welcome.
At Shaheen Bagh, many women protesters, young and old, wear the headscarf or the hijab, as they dominate the crossroad. Many also throw shawl or dupatta over their heads. The burqa, where the face is either fully covered or only the eyes show, is uncommon. A Muslim woman’s clothes have always been a subject of debate and scrutiny, with various sects within the community and many countries across the world taking different positions on this. While it has been riling up the liberals, Muslim women in India have in the past decade increasingly taken to the hijab, cleverly using the ‘marker of oppression’ as an enabler, to step out to study and to work. Some also don the piece of cloth as an assertion in the face of religious persecution. Hijabis in Indian colleges or workplaces aren’t rare any longer. There have been iconic images of brave students wearing the headscarf while shouting slogans and taking on the police during the ongoing protests.
As Shaheen Bagh women oversee the protest, right from managing the stage and speakers, handling visitors and distribution of food, with help from men, literally, from the sidelines, one realises that another bastion — that of patriarchy — has been shaken well and proper. At many houses, gender roles have reversed, men are looking after children and doing household chores, as the women of the house spend several hours outside.
This agitation might draw to a close, with or without the realisation of its stated objectives, but these hundreds of thousands of Muslim women have transformed for good. These women may go back home one day, but they will not be the same person they were in December last year. They understand the Constitution, they know their rights, they now have agency, they may keep the hijab, or they might take it off. They have taken the first step towards mainstreaming themselves, and are now part of the country’s political discourse.
Most importantly than all this, the Shaheen Bagh women have given the template of a sustainable protest to a subdued community and its allies — a template that is confident, peaceful, politically independent, constitutional, and Gandhian.
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