The idea of Shaheen Bagh: Muslim women across India are coming out to protest new citizenship law

Nilofer Sadiq is very busy these days. Every day, she wakes up around 5 am, cooks for her family, then sends her three children to school. After that, she goes to work at the Catholic school where she teaches physics and maths. Now another responsibility has been added to the daily routine: she has to sit in for her shift at Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan, where a group of women have been staging a continuous protest against the Centre’s new citizenship laws since January 7.

“I’ve come straight from work, I haven’t even eaten,” Sadiq said on Tuesday. “No I have to go back for the kids, give them guidance with their homework. My son has a maths exam tomorrow. I’m a maths teacher.” She broke off laughing.

Sadiq, and the other women at Park Circus Maidan, feel the same way – some homework may go unsupervised right now, but if they do not leave the house to protest, their children might not even be able to go to school anymore, declared foreigners in their own country.

The other Shaheen Bagh

“We went on rallies after the law was passed but then we got inspired by Shaheen Bagh,” said Farhat Islam, one of the protesters at Park Circus Maidan. From 1pm on January 7, they started round the clock protests. “It’s the first time we’re coming out. I’m a housewife.”

For about a month now, women have gathered in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh to protest against the government’s citizenship project. The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by Parliament on December 11, makes undocumented, non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan eligible for citizenship – indicating that Muslims seeking refuge are not welcome. Over the last year, the government has repeatedly claimed that the new citizenship law would be the precursor to a countrywide National Register of Citizens, intended to identify so-called illegal immigrants and deport them. Taken together, it is feared, the law and the register will work towards excluding Indian Muslims from citizenship.

A protestor at Shaheen Bagh holds her child.

Of the many protests that spread across the country, Shaheen Bagh stood out. It has been organised mainly by women from the neighbourhood, most of whom are Muslim and visibly so. The Delhi Police that cracked down violently on demonstrations elsewhere was confounded by a legion of women in headscarves, quietly sitting through the night in protest.

Many were housewives who rarely left their homes. Now, the domesticity they had known all their lives was marshalled to subversive intent. Women swaddled babies, fed fellow participants, distributed water, laid down rugs to for protestors to sit on. A shamiana was arranged, giving the protest the air of a family function where all were welcomed warmly. Visitors cutting across communities flocked to it – students, activists, celebrities, even some politicians.

“We have to find our own voice,” say the women of Shaheen Bagh.

The idea of Shaheen Bagh has spread to other parts of the country. In Kolkata’s Park Circus, also a Muslim-majority area, many women were new to protest. While some were doctors, lawyers and teachers, familiar with professional worlds, others were entering the public sphere for the first time.

“It’s a very different feeling,” said Nuzhat Parveen, a housewife who lives in Kolkata’s Hati Bagan area. “As Muslim women, we stayed at home, maybe sometimes talked to our neighbours. Now we’ve come out, we’ve met Hindus, Sikhs, Punjabis. We all think the same way, we have found unity.”

Her sister-in-law, Amreen Begum, also a housewife and first-time protester, agreed with her. “We’re all eating and drinking together,” she said. “We don’t want New India. We liked our old India, where everyone lived together.”

Women in charge

It spread beyond the metros. In Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, in Gaya and Patna in Bihar, in Hyderabad in Telangana, women declared their intention to launch Shaheen Bagh-style protests. Not all protests were large. In Uttar Pradesh, still recovering from a burst of police violence, they were quickly dispersed. Some women here attended to protect the community’s protesting men, hoping their presence would check police excesses.

But in Kolkata, as in Delhi, women are in charge. On the first day at Park Circus Maidan, there were around 60 women, estimates Farhat Islam, but by the night of January 12, there must have been 5,000. The crowd thins in the mornings and afternoons, then swells again in the evenings with artists, students, seasoned protestors and Park Circus residents. Apart from slogans of “azaadi” and “amra kagoj dekhabo na [we will not show our papers]”, there are street plays and some very earnest (though tuneless) singing.

Twenty five women have been taking turns to keep vigil round the clock. Many of them have been zipping to and from homes in various parts of the city. Farhat Islam is part of this group. So are Parveen, Amreen Begum and her mother, Nur Jahan Begum, making it a family effort. Some of them have their husbands in tow. Farhat Islam explains her husband has kept his business shut for the past week to join the protest. But the men hang back while women run operations from the patio around which protesters have gathered.

This band of women belongs to the Az-Zumar organisation, founded by a woman called Asmat Jabin, which offers free coaching for both boys and girls, organises sewing workshops for women and conducts health camps. Recently, they also conducted a campaign to alert people to update their Aadhaar and voter ID cards. “We won’t show our documents [for citizenship counts like the NRC] but we are responsible citizens, we will keep them updated,” said Farhat Islam.

Az-Zumar has not advertised its presence. As in Shaheen Bagh, the women at Park Circus Maidan are particular that these protests are not identified with an organisation or political party. “Any party or organisation can come, but only as Indian citizens,” explained Farhat Islam. “They can’t take the organisation’s name – see, we have not put up any banners.”

Citizens and mothers

Both at Shaheen Bagh and the Park Circus Maidan, women give two reasons why this present moment has jolted them into political participation. First, they view this as a fundamental battle for their identity. Many are incensed that the NRC might ask them to provide documents dating back decades to prove their Indian ancestry. “We are Indian but we have to prove we are Indian,” said an indignant Ambreen Begum. “We voted them [the Bharatiya Janata Party] into power, now why do we have to prove we are Indian?”

One woman at Shaheen Bagh feared the history of Indian Muslims would be erased. “We have also given our blood for this land, our prime minister should think about that,” she said, speaking to NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar. “Our ancestors have fought. My grandfather gave up his job. They need to understand that our sacrifices are also in this soil.”

They also see themselves protesting as mothers, especially after the police shut down student protests with force. Shaheen Bagh is close to Jamia Milia Islamia, which saw a violent police crackdown on December 15. The university has close ties with the surrounding community, which is protective of the students. “Women here came together in greater numbers after December 15 because there was an attack on our students,” explained a woman at Shaheen Bagh. “Mostly, it is mothers who have come out here. My children will go to university and live in hostels – we have seen our children are not safe there.”

Protesters at Shaheen Bagh on December 31. Credit: PTI

‘Whatever is in our hands’

But the Shaheen Bagh and Park Circus Maidan protests face two very different administrations. In Delhi, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has been cautious about the citizenship debate, not wanting to alienate any voters on the eve of state assembly elections. The police, controlled by the Union home ministry, have been openly hostile to protests in many parts of the city.

On January 14, the Delhi High Court passed an order in response to a petition complaining about roads being blocked for the Shaheen Bagh protest. It directed the Delhi Police to “look into the grievances ventilated by the petitioner” and to keep in mind the “larger public interest as well as the maintenance of law and order”. In the evening, it was reported the police would use “persuasion” rather than force to clear the roads of protesters.

The very same day, the West Bengal government enforced Section 144 to stop a rally supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has positioned herself as one of the main opponents of the new citizenship law and the NRC, the police have been largely sympathetic to protests against it.

Agitators at Park Circus Maidan have appealed to the administration to provide logistical support: a ladies toilet, a tent to sit in and permission to use a microphone. The women at Park Circus Maidan plan to keep going till January 22, at the very least. That is when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a batch of petitions against the Citizenship Amendment Act. What course the protest takes after that will depend on the court’s decision.

Sadiq, for one, is not brimming with optimism about their protest. “I don’t know what effect it will have,” she said. “But I have some satisfaction in my heart. Whatever was in my hands [to do] for the next generation, I did.”

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