What did Shaheen Bagh achieve?

protesting Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh became an iconic figure for the Anti-CAA movement in India. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Hayaat Fatemah

The Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest that many tried to shake is cleared by COVID-19 after 101 days. Pandemics are attributed enough times for making history and changing courses of civilizations. The country that was bent on sending a population to detention centers is now in a crisis with not enough quarantine centers. With the country in lockdown, I pay tribute to the spirit of the women of Shaheen Bagh and the revolution they heralded unknowingly.  

Bangles seldom bring revolution, or perhaps they do, and their absence in history is manmade. We have been conditioned into equating symbols with meanings, for example, rose for love, ‘bhagwa’ for ‘sanghi’ and bangles for cowardice. The association of femininity with meek and coquette behavior was not challenged until three women students of Jamia Milia Islamia became the icons of protest.

Society is an amalgamation of myriad groups arranged in a hierarchal chain with power decreasing as we go down. Even in a food chain, a fox is both a predator and the predated, but what lies in the absolute end of the chain is grass, that which sustains life. The idea remains the same when we posit a minority at the bottom of the chain and it gets aggravated when we place women belonging to the same minority at the bottom. The metaphor is ridiculous yet profound as women too like grass is producers/birth-givers. The same has been the position of Muslim women in India.

The oppressed beings that needed saving from the lecherous Muslim Man. It is true that patriarchy is like the shadow that always follows, but in a context where women are deliberately portrayed as victims is sheer politicization of gender. The shackles of patriarchy in a Muslim household do not stem from Islam, but rather from are embodiments of the patriarchal mindsets. At the same time, the amalgamation of culture with religion has resulted in a staunch society that does not favor women.

The most significant achievement of Shaheen Bagh is that it changed the caricature of a Muslim woman in India. Wherein the idea of a burqa-clad woman was that of a suppressed, unread and orthodox woman incapable of making choices and discrediting her choices as patriarchal conditioning, the new Muslim Woman speaks, writes and protests. If she is capable of fighting the state, the idea of her being oppressed by a man has taken a peaceful backseat. Being a hijab-wearing woman myself, I too have been victim to some harmless and some provocative stereotypical accusations. After Shaheen Bagh, I have noticed a massive change in the mindsets of both men and women around me regarding how they perceive practicing Muslim women. 

The second achievement as I reckon is the diversity and unity of women from all backgrounds and all colors in the protest. It was primarily the homemakers that took to the streets and then the intellectual class of women including office goers, school teachers, professors and entrepreneurs who too were protesting with their voices and writings. The face of this protest was the collective of women whose lives until now revolved around their husbands and children. The women who needed permission from their husbands before stepping out were now sitting in the protest sites overnight. The burqa-clad homemakers have redefined their roles in society and have come out as active citizens protesting for themselves.

A 50-year old woman in Park Circus, when asked why she was sitting there with her children, replied “I am not doing this for myself, I have lived my life. This is for my children. I want them to live like humans.” The fear had permeated in the grass root levels. It is true that the implementation of NRC and CAA will affect the less affluent and poor foremost. A large portion of Muslims in India are poverty-stricken and strive to make ends meet. The claws of CAA will target them first. 

If Shaheen Bagh has helped the thousands of faceless and nameless women gain something, then it is the new self-esteem. Women, mainly from the ghettos and belonging to the Muslim community woke up to a realization that they too are capable of fighting. It added a newfound meaning in their lives. They assumed the roles of active Indian citizens with equal rights. This is a greater achievement than it sounds, as most homemakers in their households were not allowed to extend their spaces to the political field. Perhaps this was the reason for the commendable fervor in old women and ‘dadis’ of Shaheen Bagh who sat through the chilly winter nights adamant to not move, come what may.

The spirit of Shaheen Bagh was that of unity and solidarity, of strength and steadfastness, of relentlessness and fortitude. Shaheen Bagh will always be remembered as a symbol of strength, of truth, and one that does not die. Shaheen Bagh will be alive again. 

Hayaat Fatemah is a student of English Literature and History at Aligarh Muslim University. 

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