Let us forget for a moment our like or dislike for the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement in India. Let’s just look at our TV or mobile screens and ask ourselves: when was the last time we saw so many women participate in a nationwide political protest? How often do we see women take to the streets on an issue that is not exclusive to them? Do we remember women being the iconic images of any movement in India? The answers would invite us to think about one of the most arresting features of the ongoing citizenship movement: women are rewriting the grammar of politics.
I first noticed this, much before the famous Shaheen Bagh sit-in, when I visited the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to address its students on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The talk was held at the university gate, in defiance of the administration’s orders. Halfway through my speech, there was a commotion because the mostly-male audience made way for about 50 women students, who took front seats. I stopped to hear what they were keen to tell me.
The women’s hostel was closed at 5.30 pm. They requested their warden to grant them special permission to attend the meeting. On being refused, they actually broke the lock of the hostel gate and came out, they told me. I invited some of them to speak and was stunned to see how articulate and well-informed they were. What’s more, no one was surprised.
Images of the last one month have confirmed that something is changing in India’s political culture: women students of Jamia Millia Islamia protecting their male counterparts from police lynching, women students of Puducherry and Jadavpur universities using their convocation ceremonies to make anti-CAA statements, the poise and resolve of JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh after being hit with a rod by masked men. We do not see such images very often.
And then there are Shaheen Baghs, now springing up all over the country. The idea of organising a sit-in close to the neighbourhood they resided in was a brilliant move because it removed one of the biggest impediments in the way of women’s participation.
I have been to three such protests so far: the original Shaheen Bagh in Delhi’s Okhla, its replicate in Khureji area of east Delhi and the one at Park Circus, Kolkata. Almost all the women in these places are new to any form of protest, not mobilised by any political group. They are mostly middle and lower middle-class women, who are educated. These women are not used to making political speeches, but they know their mind and can speak. Many of them wear hijabs; one slogan I heard in Park Circus was ” hijab pehenne ki azadi “, yet they are anything but shy or tongue-tied. They’ve picked up the art of sloganeering rather quickly. Everywhere I noticed college or school-going students being leaders or coordinating logistics of the protest.
Just public participation of Muslim women in a movement is a radical departure from India’s history of protests.
Outside these earmarked women’s protests, the number of women is noticeably higher in the anti-CAA-NRC movement. And it’s not just because protests in Assam always draw a fair number of women. This time the rest of the country seemed to have picked up from Assam. All the assemblies at Jantar Mantar, India Gate or Gateway of India had visible presence of women, mostly non-Muslims.
Changing rules of the game
To be sure, this change is gradual, not radical. Some of the post-namaz rallies and marches organised by community organisations were still all-men affairs. Women’s protests still observe a strict gender division of Janana-Mardana. Most speakers in women’s congregations are still men. There is some mention of women’s special difficulties in obtaining papers, but the rest of the agenda is not very different from the male voice.
It is also true that putting women in the foreground is partly strategic because this limits police aggression and the optics invite greater sympathy.
Yet the rules of the game are changing. Once women learn to step out of the boundaries of their homes, they cannot be pushed back to their private lives. In a short period, they have learnt to resist attempts of backseat driving by neighbourhood men. It is clear that there are far more natural women leaders in Indian society than our public life is willing to admit.
The movement for equal citizenship in India for all communities could well be a turning point in the movement towards equal citizenship for all genders.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.