Shaheen Bagh and a new wave of feminism
By Sharonee Dasgupta and Fathima M
The nationwide protests against NRC/CAA in 2019 and early 2020 were a widespread phenomenon with women and students at the forefront. The Shaheen Bagh protest that initially began as chakka jam (road blockage) culminated into a women-led protest in the heart of the capital city of India. It witnessed one of the most ‘revolutionary’ protests against the unjust laws by the Indian government. Unlike in the West, India does not have clear-cut ‘waves’ of feminism, but Indian women have always contributed to the ongoing political and social struggles. From the independence movement to contemporary India, the contributions of women have not received the acknowledgement they deserve.
The protests at Shaheeen Bagh subvert the stereotypes usually associated with the Muslim women in India. They depict the strength of the ordinariness sans any romanticization of any revolutionary act.
This article analyses this strength in the ordinariness of the struggles of an ordinary woman out for a protest, something that is often neglected. The everyday struggle of women dealing with household chores, managing children and physical discomforts like menstrual cycle among other things has to be taken into account while engaging with the new wave of feminism that this particular protest has engendered.
The women of Shaheen Bagh organized a sit-in protest after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed on 11 December, 2019. Beating the chill of December, the women would sit through the entire night while going home once every morning to finish their household chores. The women would bring their children as well to the protest site. What started with women from the nearby neighborhoods joining the movement soon grew into a rage and became a household name. It became a sensation in Delhi but soon spread across India. A large number of people from Delhi and around visited Shaheen Bagh to offer their support to the women or just out of curiosity.
With national and international media reporting about it, students, members from the civil society, and ordinary citizens joined this phenomenon to show their solidarity to the women. People from every walk of life participated in celebrating New Years’ to Republic Day with the women of Shaheen Bagh. What really made Shaheen Bagh unique is that women who probably have never attended a university or a school spoke out for the first time against various forms of injustice. It was not just young girls but women as old as 80 participating in the protest. Inspired by Shaheen Bagh, the protests soon spread across India, from Hauz Rani, Nizamuddin in Delhi, to Park Circus in Kolkata to Lala Gunda in Chennai. However, the striking feature of these protests was that it was predominantly women-led which was on account of the recent state of affairs and concomitant enthusiasm to improve their lives and to voice their opinion against any form of exploitation. The women, mostly from low-income neighbourhoods, were challenging the traditional role often played by women – of looking after household affairs and family. The women not only came out of their homes to the public space but also challenged the decision making roles and gender relations.
The first, second, and third waves of feminism in the West mainly focused on women suffrage rights, women liberation movement, and reproductive rights respectively. Broadly analysed, these were mainly women’s issues and hence the movements were about women, for women, and by women, irrespective of the men involved. Speaking about the CAA/NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh or women-led protests elsewhere in India, it has to be noted that women have not come out for the sake of women’s issues. The Act puts every Muslim in the country in a precarious situation. The protests have depicted resilience and consistency on part of Indian Muslims. In the past, men had been at the forefront regarding laws on women’s issues, be it triple talaq or any other law. Muslim women have always been spoken for, and their voices have been either denied or considered inconsequential. In the history of modern India, Shaheen Bagh signifies a phenomenon, a movement that enabled ordinary women to speak for themselves and stand for their convictions. To this end, it is not necessary for these women to have a sword or a pen in their hands; the everyday struggles of living as a woman, combating violence, or standing up for their rights are all revolutionary acts.
In the annals of Indian history, the role of women has either been overlooked or over-romanticized without much substantial documentation on the everyday struggles of women during any significant period of crisis. The public image of women who contributed in various ways is always documented, but those facing realities of everyday living without many resources at hand, have mostly been neglected. While specifically talking about how women dealt with the discomforts of menstrual cycle in concentration camps, Jo-Ann Owusu[i] explains how there is negligible research on women’s reproductive cycles and how many women face the shame and inconvenience just by their physical being. The same pattern is followed every time women’s mobilization is documented or the suffering of women in conflicted regions and war zones is depicted. The extent of suffering is either normalized or undermined, and the role of women is almost silenced in such circumstances.
The protests at Shaheen Bagh gave strength to the very ‘ordinariness’ that manifests in everyday living while overcoming many challenges of being a woman in a third world country. While many media outlets reported on the strength and determination of women who were sitting day and night at Shaheen Bagh, there was no space regarding the everyday predicament of women and the challenges they had to overcome in order to be there. This is true about many conflicted regions in the world where women along with children often bear the burden of violence, but they are never seen as revolutionary.
During our conversations with the women at Shaheen Bagh, many women confessed that while the men in their homes encouraged them to go out for the protests, their responsibility of running the house was not completely absolved. They still had to do household chores and manage children while being out for their rights. This clearly means being overworked and overburdened, and the state being complicit in their predicament. The report of a four-month-old baby[ii] being dead due to the illness while she came to Shaheen Bagh along with her mother is just one instance that speaks of these extraneous pains women had to endure while protesting and being out of their homes. Many women also confessed that their family lives were disturbed, their children were at times neglected, and at times they were even mocked at for being out while neglecting their domestic affairs.
The peaceful resistance at Shaheen Bagh was full of these domestic conflicts and physical pains where women took time out of their domestic space and came for protests. The need to go beyond the revolutionary narrative is as essential as much as the articulation and representation of women-led protests. The insidious tendency to idolize/idealize women at one hand and dehumanize them on the other has to be critically challenged and women’s contributions have to be perceived in the context of their everyday role. A less privileged woman, in such a situation, has much to jeopardize as opposed to a privileged woman and men in general, and these idiosyncrasies are not to be taken lightly. It might be an unusual aspect to think, but there is nothing romantic about being at protests with a child on one’s arms or in the lap. This was a common sight at Shaheen Bagh where many mothers were seen with their children and the whole idea was normalized. This clearly suggests how the public and private domain for women is still demarcated by others, and home is still seen as an ideal place for them.
Have you seen streets raise their heads?
Have you seen wounds break into a smile?
Have you seen freedom wrapped in a dupattas?
Have you seen an eighty-year-old princess?[iii]
The above verse, written by Darab Farooqui, has been taken from “Naam Shaheen Bagh Hai” and translated by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. It is dedicated to the women of Shaheen Bagh who were fearless and voiced their opinions against several injustices despite the hardships they have had to face. Women have historically played a crucial role in social change and grassroots efforts. Women’s groups and organizations have been at the forefront of many mobilization drives in the subcontinent. For instance, Mahagai Pratikar Samyukta Samiti[iv] in the 1970s comprised of 70 women’s organizations to fight against the rising prices and to bring the prices down in Bombay. Similarly, in 2013 women activists, members of civil society, and students were part of the Shahbagh Protest, Bangladesh, who demanded stricter action against religious leaders after Abdul Quader Molla was given a life sentence.
Despite the deep-seated patriarchy in Indian society, which has confined women to domestic chores and part-time jobs, women across all income groups, in recent times, have taken to street protests renouncing ostracization and demanding better status at home and workplace. Their actions are not without consequences. December 2019 witnessed such a historical moment across India with women coming out on the streets to protest against CAA/NRC.
Shaheen Bagh provided a platform for several women to voice against the atrocities that often go unheard. Women have been silent for centuries, which has only resulted in further suppression. Patriarchy shackled their voices further creating hierarchy in an already divided society. There is a current revolt that people are experiencing globally, giving rise to ordinary people questioning the law and governance and challenging age-old norms. The women of Shaheen Bagh have written history by not only challenging patriarchy but questioning those who are in power. And, the beauty of these protests lies in the fact that it was the women who have been at the centre stage. The male members were part of the protest but it was the women of Shaheen Bagh who led the movement. Students, musicians, and ordinary people stood in solidarity with the women of Shaheen Bagh. The current concern with ‘gender’ and its social, cultural, economic, and political manifestations, is central to the women’s movement[v].
Historically, there have been many Indian reformers working on women’s rights and education. Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule had started the Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873. They worked for the education of women and Dalits. Similarly, Kandukuri Veeresalingam started a girl’s school in his native town in Andhra Pradesh. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar worked towards the education of women. A makeshift library by the name of Fatima Sheikh and Savitribai Phule had been set up at Shaheen Bagh. Both Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh had fought for the rights of women’s education at a time when girls were not allowed to step out of their homes. They were the earliest educators to set up schools for girls. The library became a metaphor for all the struggles that women reformers have had to make to achieve equal rights for women. Similarly, an Indian map made of iron was erected by the supporters and protestors as a representation of the continuous struggle and sacrifices that the common people have had to make in order to reclaim this space. This new feminism in the history of modern India is about acknowledging the attempts to reject state suppression of minorities in which women are at the forefront. Their everyday struggles are heroic and revolutionary in their own ways and it must be given its due credit and space.
[i] Owusu, Jo-Ann. Menstruation and the Holocaust. History Today. Vol. 69. 5th May, 2019. Retreived from https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/menstruation-and-holocaust.
[ii] Express News Service. Shaheen Bagh: Baby dies of cold, mother says fell ill at the protest. February 6th, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/shaheen-bagh-baby-dies-of-cold-mother-says-fell-ill-at-the-protest-6251306/
[iv] Velayudhan, M. The Crisis and Women’s Struggles in India (1970-1977). Social Scientist. Vol. 13, No. 6 (June., 1985), pp. 57-68.
[v] Sharma, K. Shared Aspirations, Fragmented Realities, Contemporary Women’s Movement in India its dialectics and dilemmas. Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
Sharonee Dasgupta is a researcher based in New Delhi. She holds an M.Phil. in Comparative Indian Literature from Delhi University.
Fathima M is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was a Fulbright fellow at The University of Texas at Austin in the academic year 2017-18.
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