For years, they have fought the smaller battles at home. But as women from all classes and creeds occupy streets once considered unsafe, as their thunderous, peaceful presence bolsters the anti-CAA protests, as they face lathis and iron rods, they signal a new beginning.

by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: January 19, 2020 7:48:55 am

The girls who kicked a hornet’s nest: A protester at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi. (Photo: Amit Mehra)

“I am not a protester, just an ordinary student,” says the PhD student as she settles down on one of the stools outside Ganga Dhaba at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, wolfing down a plate of Maggi.

She is just back on the fortified campus after a protest at Mandi House, along with hundreds of others, raising slogans against the incidents of January 5, when masked men had run amok on campus, attacking students and faculty. “My education has helped me understand what is right and what isn’t, and I speak up when it’s important to,” she says, adding that it is the smaller battles that she faced – “and won” — at home and outside, while growing up, that inspired her to come out and protest.

“I had to cycle 14 km to get to my school. On my way, boys would harass me, shout abuses. But I could never tell anyone at home. When I came first in Class 8, where I was one of the only two girls, the upper-caste Thakur boys mocked me for my caste,” says woman. The youngest of a railways employee’s six children, she first came to Delhi for her Master’s at Delhi University. “In Delhi, I was always unsure of speaking. I struggled with my English, the curriculum was tough… But the culture was so different… In Pratapgarh, I hardly left home. In Delhi, I can freely attend a Dussehra function with my friends,” she says.

From anti-CAA protests, to JNU and Jamia, why women are leading the fight

 Protestors at the anti CAB protest in Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

It is at JNU, during debates in classes and at the dhabas, that the 28-year-old, now a research scholar in the sociology department, understood gender politics better, helping her put a lot of her past experiences into perspective. “Education opened up my mind, and that is also the reason why so many women are seen in protests now. The exposure through education and internet, has encouraged women to speak up,” she says.

Since the first images of a group of young women students of Jamia standing up to lathi-wielding policemen, while forming a protective cordon around their male friend, flashed on our screens, an army of nameless, faceless women — educated and unlettered, rich and poor, young and old, in hijabs and in saris, with children and with banners – have claimed the very streets considered unsafe for them.

From anti-CAA protests, to JNU and Jamia, why women are leading the fight

 Stepping up, speaking out: Women break for a meal at Shaheen Bagh’s 24×7 protest. (Photo: Praveen Khanna)

From the homemaker at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh to the students of the hitherto apolitical Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru; from the doughty Assamese women singing rousing protest anthems and sitting on hunger strikes since Parliament cleared the Citizen (Amendment) Act to the two Delhi women who unfurled a white bedsheet with anti-CAA slogans during Home Minister Amit Shah’s Lajpat Nagar rally; from the Jadavpur University student who tore up a copy of the CAA to the ones in Delhi University who read out the preamble to the Constitution; from JNU Students’ Union president Aishe Ghosh’s bandaged forehead to Jamia’s Aysha Renna’s reprimanding finger – almost every frame in these recent protests has had a woman in front.

In a country where women have struggled to be seen and heard despite making up close to half the population, what does their uninhibited presence imply?

“The last few weeks have shown us an entirely new side of these women, not just those fortunate enough to have gone to JNU or Jadavpur University, but the thousands from much more ordinary academic backgrounds and the thousands more with no academic backgrounds at all,” says Alaka M Basu, professor at the department of development sociology at Cornell University, New York.

“To me, the most heartening part is that women are out in droves for a cause that is not women-specific….not about sexual harassment or domestic violence. Women have still felt obliged to stand up and speak up and speak out,” she says, adding that the cumulative effect of decades of international and Indian feminist movements must have seeped into women’s sub-consciousness “and needed just this kind of a jolt to make them realise their potential to act”.

So if the image of Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone — who turned up at JNU to lend solidarity to the students who were attacked — was a powerful symbol of dissent, so were the loud calls for a “non-cooperation movement” by 50,000 women clad in burqas, unafraid to assert their identity, in Malegaon, Maharashtra.

What brings these women from different classes together, says Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the left-oriented All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), is that women are united in the discrimination they suffer.

“Whether it is to play with her friends or to stay out late – the discrimination starts early. They have to fight for education, fight to study subjects such as civil engineering… Women have always been fighting at an individual level, but it is always linked to the system,” says Dhawale.

Twenty one-year-old Chanda Yadav has lived the “fight” that Dhawale refers to. Her journey to the Jamia campus from Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh has been punctuated with a series of do’s and don’ts. “Ladki ho, chup raho (You are a woman, stay silent), do household chores, be home by 5 pm… We had to follow these rules all the time. After Class 12, when I told my family about my decision to go to Jamia, most people in my village said only Muslims study at Jamia… My family is vegetarian, they had issues regarding the food at college. But I had taken my decision,” says the third-year student of Hindi (hons).

When Yadav sustained injuries in the December 15 violence and as images of her atop a barricade, beating a hand drum and raising slogans along with fellow students Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Aysha Renna blazed through social media, her family in Chandauli was worried. “Delhi gave me freedom, informed me of my rights, pulled me out of my comfort zone. I learnt to take decisions for myself… My parents back home didn’t understand what was happening and asked me to return. They were worried. But I now know of my right to protest. Humein apna haq chheen ke hi milta hai (We have to snatch our rights),” says the eldest of three siblings from a family of farmers.

From anti-CAA protests, to JNU and Jamia, why women are leading the fight

 Women at a public meeting at Nizamuddin Basti, New Delhi on CAA and NRC. (Photo: Abhinav Saha)

This is as much a fight for haq as of majboori (helplessness), says Archana Prasad, professor at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies at JNU. Pointing out that among those left out of the final NRC list in Assam, more than half are women, Prasad says, “These citizenship protests by women have become so big because they concern documents such as voter ID, ration card, PAN card etc, and mostly it is the women who don’t have it. So such a law becomes a threat to their existence. This is not a traditional, upper-caste-women’s issue. For the poor, working class, it’s a survival issue.”

The recent protests have a precedent in the freedom struggle, points out Aparna Kapadia, associate professor of history at Williams College, Massachusetts. “Many responded to Gandhi’s call despite the barriers they faced. In Bombay, women from all backgrounds came on to the streets and led the movement at crucial moments… For example, when the Quit India protests began from Bombay in 1942 and the British arrested all the senior leaders, it was the young freedom fighter, Aruna Asaf Ali, who, on the morning of the arrests, August 9, quickly swooped in to unfurl the national flag at Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank Maidan, registering a powerful act of protest before going underground. In the weeks that followed, despite the lack of formal leadership, hundreds of khadi-clad women played a significant role in continuing the movement,” she says.

However, there is “one big difference”, says Guwahati-based writer and activist Rashmi Rekha Borah. “Unlike in the past, the recent protests have not been triggered by the “call of male leaders”, she says. Talking of the Northeast, where women have long played a crucial role in protests and where the first tremors of the anti-CAA anger were felt, she says, “During the freedom movement, the Nupi Lan (translates to women’s war) movement (in 1904 and 1939 by Manipuri women), the Mahila Samiti movement in Assam and the Assam Agitation, women participated as mothers and sisters. Now we are seeing young girls come out on the streets in large numbers with agency. Earlier, their role was limited to adding to the crowd; their opinion didn’t matter.”

It’s 9.30 pm on New Year’s eve. Pinched into a corner by the spirited crowd outside Jamia Millia Islamia’s Gate No. 7, Zarqa Qadry stands cradling her one-year-old. She is well prepared for the winter night – a thick jacket over her burqa, her head sheathed in a suede scarf, her child swaddled in a fleece blanket. She has left her older child home, in his aunt’s care. Her eyes light up each time the gathering shouts out a raspy “Inquilab Zindabad”. She joins in.

A housewife and former student of Jamia Millia Islamia, Qadry wouldn’t ordinarily be out at this hour. But recently, she says, she has been consumed by both “gussa (anger)” and “khauf (fear)”. “I don’t want to be put into a detention camp. I don’t want my children to be jailed. Humein qaid kiya ja raha hai (We are being shackled). Women have to raise their voices, we will be the worst affected,” she adds, disappearing into the sea of people.

Less than three km from the charged voices at Jamia’s Gate No.7, at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, women have claimed a public space to demand their constitutional rights. Under the watchful gaze of the Delhi Police, women old and young, mothers with their children in tow, have been taking turns to sit under a ramshackle tent 24/7 to keep the protest against CAA alive.

“So far I had only heard and read about people taking part in protests. I never understood why they did it. Now, I do… I haven’t felt safe in my home since I heard about policemen in Uttar Pradesh entering homes. Look, it’s almost midnight now. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t have dreamt of stepping out of our homes at this hour. But tonight, even my mother has come with me,” says Zara, 34, who comes to the protest in two shifts – from 8 am to 11 am, and then again from 8 pm to 2 am, after putting in hours at the salon she works at and then doing her chores at home. Holding out an A4 sheet with “azadi” emblazoned in hues of the Tricolour, she adds, “Most of the women here don’t even come out of their homes during the day.”

The presence of women in the streets might have something to do with more women stepping out of their homes and entering public spaces, including schools and workspaces. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) for 2016-17, more girls than ever are going to college, narrowing the gender gap, with women even outnumbering men in seven states – Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, J&K, Nagaland, Sikkim and Kerala. According to the latest AISHE report (2018-19) the gap in enrolment has narrowed further – of the 37.4 million students enrolled in higher education, 19.2 million are male and 18.2 million female. Women constitute 48.6 per cent of the total enrolment.

From anti-CAA protests, to JNU and Jamia, why women are leading the fight

 A musical protest at JNU. (Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

For Basu, the presence of so many women transforms the nature of the crowd itself. “When you form a crowd, you can become a threatening mob or you can suddenly feel unafraid to be part of a peaceful protest, as these bright young women have discovered,” she says, adding that the “femaleness” of the crowd even gives them some “protection from official violent reprisal”.

Janata Dal (Secular) corporator Shan-e-Hind, who organised one of the biggest protests against CAA in Malegaon, when 50,000 women came out, too talks of the “powerful image” of women leading from the front. “I had been house to house to get women to come to the protest. But most of them said the men have already held a rally, what is the need for the women to come out?” says the 34-year-old mother of two. “But after seeing the images from Shaheen Bagh, I was convinced there is a difference between protests by men and women. The protest by men in Malegaon was scattered… Ours was an unending stream of women. Definitely more powerful,” she says.,” she says.

In the last decade, the expansion of social media has also altered the complexion of public protests. In 2018, the anonymity provided by online platforms empowered hundreds of women to name their tormentors during the #MeToo movement. It is the same confidence, says Meenakshi Bhuyan, a social activist in her 70s, who witnessed the Assam agitation and is now part of the anti-CAA protests in the state, that has now encouraged women to storm the streets fearlessly. “Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike against AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the nude protest by the ‘Mothers of Manipur’, they are all well-known, but were undertaken at a different time… This time, it is the power of social media that has connected women from Delhi to Chennai. It is not about one person or a group, every woman is inspiring the other to question the government directly,” she says.

One of the organisers of Bengaluru’s ‘burqa-bindi’ protest held last fortnight, Prajakta Kuwalekar, believes that an increase in literacy and social media have helped women realise the contradictions they live with. “Women have realised that they are getting the worst of it all. They have malls like other countries, but they can’t wear clothes of their choice at the same malls… I may tweet something, but that is not an opinion I could share at home,” says the 28-year-old. “But now there is a shift in women’s relation with male figures at home. There views are not always welcome, but they can speak. The shift is happening from outside inwards.”

At Aligarh Muslim University, small protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act had been going on since the time it was introduced as a Bill in Parliament. At the time, recalls Iqra Javed, a second-year BSc (Hons) student, less than 20 women participated. “They wanted to protest, but were unsure… But when a woman like me went up to them, they believed me. Women are emotional, but firm, and when they protest, it instills much more faith in people. Ladkiyan josh mein hosh nahi khoteen (Women don’t lose their balance in difficult times),” says the sixth of eight siblings.

Iqra’s father, a building contractor, moved his family from Firozabad to Aligarh to ensure that his children got a good education. Like Jamia’s Chanda, the 21-year-old says she owes it to her education to question a law that gives people citizenship on the basis of their religion. “If educated Muslims like me don’t fight, who will?” she says.

Following the police violence on AMU campus last month, Iqra says she intensified her efforts to mobilise women and, finally, at one anti-CAA protest in the town’s Jamalpur area, nearly 700 women turned up. “My father came too,” she says.

On January 5, the image of the blood-soaked head of JNUSU’s Aishe Ghosh, was a reminder that in societies in transition, women often end up paying a price for speaking up. “This is evident in the elevated levels of violence against women, in public and private spaces… Patriarchy continues to give men their sense of entitlement over women. ..It will continue to be a struggle until we shake the foundations of these patriarchal structures,” says Mumbai-based journalist Kalpana Sharma.

As the power of a woman’s voice increases, so does her vulnerability, as was seen in the case of the Unnao victim who was burnt by the man who raped her, says AIDWA’s Dhawale. “A large section of women is also feeling disillusioned and targeted more than ever now, and it is also fuelled by statements made by some of our politicians. There is also a suspicion about women who choose to depart from tradition, like not observing Karva Chauth or Navratri,” she says.

But despite the provocations, says Babli Moitra Saraf, principal of Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University’s oldest women’s college, one must remember that “we are in the presence of a phenomenon in terms of space for assertion.” “It’s happening the world over. For all students, women particularly, this is hope. The bigger thing now is to negotiate for more visibility and stake in daily life. That is important. And yes, it won’t be easy to put these women back into their homes, or into narrow boxes.”

Back at Shaheen Bagh, at the stroke of midnight, hundreds of women welcome the new year with a rendition of the national anthem — some with tears welled up in their eyes, others with passion and pride, the torches of their mobile phones burning bright in the hazy night. As they prepare to disperse for the night, lugging their children, blankets and food boxes along, streaming through the narrow lanes of the neighbourhood, with the promise to return again the next day, the message is clear: As they prepare to disperse for the night, with the promise to return again the next day, the message is clear: these women are not willing to go back, for a life behind the walls. Not anymore.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance’