Hijabe fitna parvar ab utha leti to achchha tha khud apne husn ko parda bana leti to achchha tha
(Better, if you could pull down the hijab of shyness, now; better instead, if you could make your boldness a veil)
– Asrarul Haq Majaz
14 December was a historic day for women across the globe, especially for Muslim women. It is not usual for women — irrespective of their religion, caste, or class — to be on the road unless they have been organised through various channels. I have witnessed many protests, and the presence of women has usually been minimal. Shaheen Bagh was a different story. The protests of Shaheen Bagh reveal a new movement in India, with women in the lead. The highlight of the protest was that it was led by women, managed by women, and not for a women-specific issue. In other words, the uniqueness of the protest is that it was not strictly for women’s issues, but it was under the leadership of women.
The protest at Shaheen Bagh became a platform. It was not limited to CAA-NRC but expanded to more than that. Leaders from across the country visited Shaheen Bagh to demonstrate their solidarity. Various movements joined in at Shaheen Bagh, which became a platform for dissent, for protest, for condolence, and for solidarity. Shaheen Bagh reached out to Kashmiri Pandits, who had completed thirty years of their exodus; the protestors paid homage to the martyrs of the Pulwama attack by observing oneminute silence; they remembered the suicide of the farmers; they paid heartfelt tribute at the death anniversary of Rohit Vemula.
On 15 December, when I was mentally and physically displaced, the after-effects of the crackdown weighing on me, I tried to ignore the news. On the night of the crackdown, I felt that everything was over; our democracy was tarnished. What I had seen with my own eyes on 15 December ended my optimism. What will happen now? That was my only thought! There was no answer. Deep down, we wanted the university to be spared from any political retribution. It was merely limited to restarting my studies. Movement gaya bhad me, bas university khul jaye (Forget about the movement, let the university resume). That was my thought during the horrible night of 15 December.
Anti-CAA protests | Image credit: Suresh K Pandey/Outlook
That night, while I slept in my aunt’s house, I saw some messages about the police crackdown at Jamia. I felt that no one would bother about this attack since we are a government-funded university, and on top of that, it is also considered a minority institution. Who is concerned about our university and the beating of mostly Muslim students? Why would anyone — let alone the media — be bothered with the beating of 1,000 students, injury of 400, the detention of 50-100 students and damage to the university infrastructure? Social media, however, played a key role. Short videos captured by students of the crackdown went viral. Within a few hours, these horrific visuals helped Jamia students bring attention to what had happened to our campus. During our three days, I would discuss a theory of these visuals with my friends: No matter what forces are working against you in the name of physical and abstract, if you have visuals, your narrative will be compelling.
To illustrate with an example — in July 2016, some Dalits were accused of skinning a dead cow in Una, Gir Somnath district in Gujarat. Cow vigilantes assaulted them because they accused them of killing the cow. Four of the Dalit men were stripped and tied to the back of the car and beaten mercilessly. The assailants made a video that went viral on social media, later resulting in statewide protests. Television channels would show the video over and over again. Before this, I had never seen such a bare truth about anti-Dalit violence on national television. This affected people. Similarly, a twenty or thirty-second video of the attack on the Jamia library impacted people. It showed the police brutally beating the unarmed and innocent students, many of them crying for help. By the night of 15 December, these visuals appeared on television. The reaction was apparent. People were upset.
On 14 December, a few women went onto the road at GD Birla Marg (also known as Kalindi Kunj Road) to protest against the CAA. This was a small protest. After the attack on Jamia, the protest became huge. People from Shaheen Bagh, especially women, gathered on the road that links Delhi to Noida and blocked it. They erected a stage on the road, the protest site extended to a kilometre. This became the epicentre of a 24-hour sit-in. It would last until the police vacated it due to COVID-19 on 24 March 2020, making it a 101-day protest.
Shaheen Bagh emerged out of the crackdown on Jamia on 15 December (as well as the crackdown that same day on Aligarh Muslim University). It became a symbol of the movement. Those days I saw one WhatsApp status: ‘Chronology ko samjhiye din me Jamia or sham me Shaheen Bagh’ (Understand the chronology, protest at Jamia in the day and Shaheen Bagh in the evening). The link between Jamia and Shaheen Bagh was integral. Women held the microphone at Shaheen Bagh, while men managed the logistics (managing the gate, arranging chairs). One of the most challenging tasks was security since there was such a huge rush. Later, this job became tougher when lumpen elements came and attacked the site.
At the core of the movement were Muslim women, who are often painted as deeply marginalized. The idea of the conservative burqa-clad Muslim woman suggests suppression. This is so in cinema and popular conceptions. The ghoongat and the burqa covering women’s heads and faces are at the core of this. The portrayal of Muslim women as separate from other women and Indian society, in general, is pervasive. I recently read an article by Shubhra Gupta on — the movie — Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977). The writer suggested that this film celebrated the idea of secularism.
Women protesters at Shaheen Bagh | Image credit: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
But even in this secularism, the Muslim characters appear as stereotypes. The Hindu character, Amar, played by Vinod Khanna, wears modern clothes and lives in Bombay; while the Christian character, Anthony, played by Amitabh Bachchan, wears a suit and tie and is fluent in English; Akbar, the Muslim character played by Rishi Kapoor, wears a sherwani and topi, speaks Urdu, sings Qawwali, chews pan, and lives in a world of sheltered women. Even in this plural space created by director Manmohan Desai, the Muslim is portrayed in this narrow manner.
Indian Muslim women are not unlike other Indian women, and they are indeed different — in my opinion — from what one reads about Arab Muslim women (although even in the Arab world, there is a wide range in social life). Very few women adopt the burqa, yet it is used to define Muslim women. Most Indian Muslim women appear just like other women, both in dress and ornaments, behaviour, and expectations. Yes, there are hierarchies, but these hierarchies are experienced by all women, even if there are specific ways in which these hierarchies are experienced in different communities.
Shaheen Bagh challenged all the stereotypes and boundaries. It reminded me of Asrarul Haq Majaz:
Tere mathe pe ye anchal bahut hi khuub hai lekin tu is anchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha. (This veil covering your head looks good indeed but, better, if you’d bear it as a flag. )
The dadis & nanis (grandmothers) and housewives of Shaheen Bagh sat on the street, defined the protest, took up the charge of Majaz. They were determined to fight the CAA-NRC because it became the symbol of the anti-Muslim politics of the RSS-BJP. They would often finish their housework and then come and sit at the protest site. If they did their cleaning at home, the men did the cleaning at the protest site.
It did not feel that the Muslim community in North India had taken an active role in politics. I thought that we were used as pawns to fulfil others’ ambitions. We had become a vote bank for other parties or just data, as Abhay Xaxa said. Even then, the awareness of political trends was minimal, with the situation amongst Muslim women even less clear. Politicisation was near zero. But now, with the rise of the RSS-BJP, new currents emerged since we had lost faith in those so-called secular parties who had taken advantage of us but not done anything.
Women said we would save the Constitution. This is a significant development and shows that the community has become more political by itself. We are not talking about cultural and religious rights, but political rights. We are talking about the rights of a minority in a democratic system. It was not just about CAA-NRC-NPR. It was a protest against stereotypes and created a new standard for Indian politics for women, particularly Muslim women. Shaheen Bagh, which grew out of Jamia, put before the country the view that Muslims want to save the Constitution by demanding that minority rights be enshrined. This was a path for the voiceless. The feeling from Shaheen Bagh spread across northern India and then to the rest of the country. Because of Shaheen Bagh, we saw women — Muslim women — coming onto the streets across India, sitting in the front row and holding public space (such as in Park Circus, Kolkata).
A movement changes not only the society but the individuals who participate in the protest. All those who participated in Shaheen Bagh and the anti-CAA movement have developed a more profound sense of their political identity. The goal was to scrap the CAA. But the more important goal was the creation of tens of thousands of people with political commitment. This developed over the 101 days of Shaheen Bagh. Everyone who joined learned to become a citizen and a leader. I met many students working at the protest site as volunteers, becoming part of the duties and work that each gave the other. There was no explicit leadership, but an organisation was visible to only those who participated. This structure allowed individuals to develop ideas — to set up counters or start painting — and then install them in the encampment space.
Book cover of ‘Nothing Will Be Forgotten’
The stage became a performance area with speeches, dance, and music — jostling for space and time. Shaheen Bagh became a festival, where people from outside Jamia Nagar who sympathised with the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement would come in huge numbers, taking the metro to the Shaheen Bagh metro station and then walking to the site. Students and community members swelled the crowd. Some students started a library at the Shaheen Bagh bus stand; others set up an art gallery for little children. Experienced doctors ran a medical camp; student volunteers from the universities and colleges of Delhi volunteered time there. We had painters and electricians, tea makers and tea servers, and even people who arrived by car and rickshaw with food packets to distribute them in the crowd. Shaheen Bagh is famous for its non-veg food, and many of these eateries were near the encampment; they boomed with business and resistance in this period. The iron footbridge in front of the stage was festooned with posters and pamphlets. The walls were covered with posters, graffiti, and paintings; there was a model of India Gate near the bridge. People were everywhere, raising slogans and singing songs. People did what made them feel comfortable. The atmosphere was that of a political festival in a university. This was a new experience for the people of the area, who had not witnessed anything like this before.
Excerpted from Nothing Will Be Forgotten: From Jamia to Shaheen Bagh by Nehal Ahmed (pp. 137, Rs 250), with permission from LeftWord Books
(Nehal Ahmed is a doctoral student at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His research interests consist of Indian and world cinema, and migration studies. He writes for The Hindu, The Telegraph, Aljazeera. Nothing Will Be Forgotten is his first book. Views expressed in this article are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine).
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