The protests at Shaheen Bagh are a defining moment in the history of India, and in the formation of the image of the marginalised Indian-Muslim women in particular. A revisit to the protests looks at how the defying acts of these women are in sync with the global fourth wave of feminism, and important acts that write her-story.
The protests at Shahen Bagh soon developed into a larger movement that came to “define not just the way protests shaped up against the new law, but how the nation looked at women in general, and Muslim women in particular,” said Uzma Ausaf and Zia us Salam in their book. The protests, if not completely shattered the stereotypes surrounding the Indian-Muslim women, they managed to give them an alternative space in the media, one that one was not limited to their stereotypical representation in mainstream Bollywood, even though most media channels’ portrayal of the protests was far from genuine.
The voices of women (Muslim women, specifically), that finally gained some amplification becomes an important thread that runs throughout the movement. With the Parliament passing the bill banning Triple Talaq, it was made to like the victim Muslim-women had been saved from the clutches of Islam. It wouldn’t be entirely correct to claim that institutional Islam has not been a means of the subjugation of Muslim women. However, creating a narrative that portrays these women as damsels-in-distress to further another system that actually contributes to the subjugation is what Islamic feminists have been arguing against.
The women protesting at Shaheen Bagh came as an unexpected surprise as they were raising their voices not only for themselves, but for their community and country, and as they subsequently went on to stand for all those who had been oppressed, from Rohith Vermula, to the Pandits of Kashmir, while being extremely vocal of their Muslim identity. Women speaking up for issues that are not women’s alone has been a characteristic feature of what some feminists are now calling the global fourth-wave of feminism. Another characteristic feature of this wave is that ordinary women are not being spoken for, they are speaking up for themselves. At Shaheen Bagh too, women who had never stepped out of their houses were sitting at the protest site speaking loud and clear, their demands, singing revolutionary songs, well aware of their centrality in India’s resistance against CAA. Furthermore, it is the vastness of their struggle in terms of how they incorporated their ordinary daily-lives into these protests that make them stand out. For them, they say in an interview to The Wire, having stepped out of their homes, having sung resistance songs, having been known by the world, was a part of their victory.
Protest-poet Iqra Khilji, who was a prominent voice at the Shaheen Bagh protests has repeatedly talked about how the women of Shaheen Bagh, in their act of protesting are resisting on two fronts, fighting two evils – fascism and patriarchy. Khilji says that although there have existed prominent women Urdu poets like Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, most of them have been from across the border. In the protests against CAA/NRC/NPR, the Indian-Muslim women have finally found their voice in Urdu poetry. By writing in Urdu, they have defied the imposition of the state’s Hindutva, and have reclaimed the language of their ancestors, in which mostly men wrote. The strong feminine vocabulary of these protests has been recorded in the poetry and art that has come out of it.
Another prominent poet that emerged from the protests at Shaheen Bagh, Nabiya Khan’s poem ‘Ayega Inquilab’ became the tagline of the protests.
“Ayega Inquilab, Pehenke Bindi Chudiyan Burqa Hijab”
This line could be seen on artworks, on posters, on graffiti painted on walls, and smeared across social media. Her poem, she says, was a response to what the Indian Prime Minister had said about “identifying the rioters from their clothes”, and what the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh said about the Muslim men wearing bangles, “Chudiyan pehen rakhi hain,” (they are wearing bangles) because it was the women who were protesting.
The protests at Shaheen Bagh were a double-edged sword for the state. On the one hand, the resistance was for a unified, inclusive India, something that the state’s philosophy of Hindutva is against. And on the other, the representation of the power of the veiled Indian-Muslim woman goes against the Hindutva idea of their victimhood. Along with the poems of Khilji and Khan, women also found their voice in reciting the revolutionary verses of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and Habib Jalib, thus claiming both the revolution and the verses.
The past decade in India witnessed an aggressive, masculine nationalism that was used by the state to first, come to power, and subsequently, decide where the power lay. The women of Saheheen Bagh, through the revival of national symbols, redefined patriotism in their struggle to reinforce their belonging to their land. Specifically, the revival of the heroes of Independence, Bismil and Ashfaq, Maulana Azad, and most importantly Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was their attempt to recall the birth of India. The hoisting of the Tricolour by the four women at Shaheen Bagh, on Republic Day 2020 definitely put forward the question of who does the nation really belong to, by creating an alternate space that was led by women as opposed to the hoisting of the national flag in the same city, at the same time, by the head of the state.
The coming together of women from different social, political, physical spaces at Shaheen Bagh’s pandal questioned the status of the women of the Muslim minority in India, it painted a new image of the Muslim women internationally, and most importantly, it brought together women from different backgrounds and generations, and wove through them a thread of recognition and sisterhood, something that was lacking among women from different generations because of their different responses to the western idea of feminism. In a TED talk, Khilji addresses this tear in the feminist movement among Muslim women, using hijab as an object that threatens the power of some, and gives power to the others.
By creating and recognising this sisterhood, throughout a struggle that is not limited to save only themselves, but also their community and their country, the women of Shaheen Bagh have successfully claimed their attire, their identity, the physical and political space where they would never be imagined, the language, and have registered a claim to their nation. In doing this, they have made a major contribution to the writing of her-story.
Alfisha Sabri is a student pursuing English Literature from University of Delhi.
Edited by: Nuzhat Khan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.