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Guest-Editorial: “What do these women want?”

By Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi 

In December 2019, a few weeks after the Indian Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), dozens of sit-in protests erupted across the country. Many of them were led by Muslim women, who for the first time in living memory, came out of their houses in the thousands to occupy the streets and public spaces of the major cities. These women did not conform to the very Indian (and extremely pejorative) use of the term ‘liberated woman’. Many, if not most, were uneducated and did not have a job or career. They were mostly women who spent their entire lives within the confines of the home, bound and curtailed by a very specific kind of patriarchy dominant in Indian Muslim communities. Even on the streets they wore their chadars, burqas, hijabs and dupattas. The difference was that now their clothes, amplified by the very numbers of the women present, seemed to impose their identity upon the public spaces of the city. To most middle-class Indian citizens this was above all something obscene, as if the spectral invisibility of the burqa clad woman had materialized as an unremovable stain on the pristine streets of New Delhi. The fantasy that these burqa clad women came simply to get plates of biryani that they would then consume on the streets simply confirmed the obscenity of their activity. In this fantasy the austerity of the Gandhian hunger strike was substituted by the obscenity of a mass and public enjoyment, rendered doubly obscene by the fact that it was veiled women who were the subjects who were enjoying. It is of course easy enough to dismiss this fantasy. The women at Shaheen Bagh did not leave the comfort of their homes and families to sit on the cold winter streets for biryani. Yet every fantasy has some kernel of truth. Shaheen Bagh was a site of collective enthusiasm and public enjoyment. It is this, perhaps, that makes it a very disquieting event, forcing all of us to confront an almost endless barrage of questions.

What did these women want? Was it simply the abrogation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (which through its provisions made it vastly simpler for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to get Indian citizenship, as long as they were Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jains or Parsis)? Or was it rather the fear of a National Register of Citizens or NRC which could potentially disenfranchise millions of Muslim citizens who would be unable to prove their citizenship with the requisite papers? Was it the fear of the loss of citizenship that brought these women out onto the streets? Was it their desire to subvert patriarchal oppression, to give voice and body to the unheard millions labouring day after day in utter poverty? Or, rather than concern about such abstract legal, conceptual and administrative matters, was it rather just the vastly more material lure of money and packets of biryani that brought them out onto the streets day after day?

Were these women, who in due course were joined by thousands of students, activists, poets, writers and political organizations, simply there to affirm their commitment to an abstract principle of citizenship? Were they on the streets along with their infant children only to restate the validity of their claim on the nation as such? Thus, through a physical occupation of the public space with their bodies, were they symbolizing their material commitment to the idea of India that includes within it the keywords ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’? In that sense, was their protest a sign of their willingness to finally be included within the forward march of a history of ‘secular’ India? Can we read their protest as nothing other than a small contribution to the inevitable liberalization of the modern world? Was their demand for citizenship (a citizenship that most Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and people from the north-eastern part of the country experience only negatively as the punitive powers of a state that seeks to control and dominate them) a reaffirmation of the liberal ideal? Or were these women simply naïve instruments in a global conspiracy to undermine the glory of a ‘Hindu majority’ India, a tool to portray its recent advances under the right-wing BJP government in a negative light? Or were they simply objects of manipulation, used by political or religious (or even terrorist) organizations to complete the Islamization of public spaces? How could they presume to occupy public spaces such as roads and Metro stations, and contaminate them with their ‘Muslim-ness’? Responding to such rumours, in February 2020, riots broke out in North-East Delhi. Muslim women had occupied the road leading to the Jaffrabad Metro station. Kapil Mishra, a former member of the Aam Aadmi Party and currently a leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party, vowed that if the Delhi Police failed to clear the roads, his supporters would do what they could not. Over the next few days, mobs (both Hindu and Muslim) clashed with each other, even as the United States President Donald Trump was visiting India. Over 50 people were killed. The roads were finally cleared.

Most participants and commentators on the protests sought to frame them within the category of citizenship. Indian intellectuals have always, in some sense, remained committed to the liberal ideals, and thus have in one way or the other, glorified and reified citizenship as the juridico-legal category, as the ‘right to have rights’. What remains unquestioned is whether citizenship is in itself a desirable concept. While we may debate the relative values of passports (for example, who would not want to be a citizen of the United States of America?), being a citizen has always been contrasted with the extreme case of being stateless. Yet Dimitry Kochenov, in his recent book Citizenship (MIT Press, 2020) has argued that citizenship is “increasingly redundant as a proxy for the activation of civil and social rights, at a certain point it also becomes too much of a stretch to claim that it is indispensable for political rights – after all it is not.” For Kochenov, the glorification of citizenship, its investment with concepts of self-determination and freedom, simply serves to keep the erstwhile colonial subject in their place, away from the affluent Western countries, spicing it up with a “delightfully attractive hint of nationalism.” If citizenship operates not just abstractly (in the legal sense) and punitively (in the governmental sense) but also as exclusionary (in the global sense), then what is the point in retaining it as a central civic concept? Can we truly see the women at Shaheen Bagh, Park Circus and Ghanta Ghar attaching themselves fervently and enthusiastically to such an abstract, punitive, and exclusionary concept? On the other hand, what were these protests about if not citizenship? Confronted with the infinite saturation of mirth and joy at these protest spaces, we return once again to that same question: “What do these women want?”

This issue of Café Dissensus seeks to expose our incapacity confronted by these protests. It is important to hold onto this question rather than let it slide away and disappear into answers that will always blunt the implacable and even obscene celebratory force of the protests. This issue does not attempt to install the protests within a certain framework; rather it seeks to exacerbate our own sense of discomfort. Whether we were enthusiastic participants or reactionary opponents, what has to be highlighted is the inability of our current concepts to account for these events. Thus in a brilliant article, titled “The Little Protesters: Shaheen Bagh and its Children”, Sohini Saha explores how the presence of children at the protest sites is both intensely disquieting and yet strangely empowering; the normative conception of children being pre or a-political being rudely jolted by a singular cry of ‘Azaadi’. Sharonee Dasgupta and Fathima M. in their article “Shaheen Bagh and a New Wave of Feminism” seek to explore the novelty of this feminist wave that speaks not just for the issues of women but also stakes a claim to universality, gendering this struggle in the process. Dr. Aniruddha Babar in his article “Understanding the Grammar of Anti-CAA Protest through Ambedkarite Constitutionalism” tries to develop the argument that these protests truly incarnate the Ambedkarite spirit in this day and age. Mridula Sharma in her article “Tracing the Resonance of Ambedkarite Thought with Anti-CAA Protests” exposes our academic inadequacy faced with the event of Shaheen Bagh.

Anil Pradhan, Sutputra Radheye and Kinshuk Gupta have contributed very powerful and thought-provoking poems which I cannot in any way summarize here; one has to read them to see why it is poetry and not prose which truly captures the uncertain discomfort of the new. As of this writing, the protest sites have been completely demolished, the protesters silenced or jailed. Yet Pradhan ends his poem Bedaari on a note of patient and unwavering hope:

“but iron and nail will falter at the face of resolve
but rabble-rousers will become antidotes for themselves
but baghs will become thoroughfares will become nations
you will finally arrive home, sublimate onto the endless
that none has seen, shall see, except for you, until then
we shall wait and remember
we will live another night”

This issue seeks to preserve that hope and prolong that patience, till another time when the flowers of protest bloom again, rising up from the crevices and puddles of our potholed city streets.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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