Defiant, the women of Shaheen Bagh lead India's resistance

Defiant, the women of Shaheen Bagh lead India's resistance
Comment: Modi has mounted a grave threat to India's secular democracy, and the women of Shaheen Bagh will not stand for it, writes Aniqah Choudhri.
5 min read
05 Mar, 2020
For many of the women at the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, it's their first protest [Getty]
On 15 December last year, a group of local women in the Muslim majority neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, began a blockade of the nearby six-lane highway, that continues to this day.

What started with fewer than 20 people has grown to include crowds reaching 100,000, and has since become one of the longest sit-in protests of this size in modern India.

Elderly women, housewives and school children sat through one of the coldest winters in Delhi for nearly 100 years, in what for many of them - whether they are 7 or 70 - is their first political demonstration. 

Their protest comes in response to the divisive Citizen Amendment Act passed by India's parliament on 12 December.

The Act aims to grant citizenship to immigrants hailing from neighbouring countries' Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities, but not to Muslims, who are pointedly left out. This doesn't just put Muslim migrants in danger of being deported or held in detention centres, but also Indian Muslim citizens, if they fail to "prove" their citizenship with documents many of the lowest paid Indians don't know how to get hold of.

Since the Act became law, protests have raged all over the country, and thousands have taken to the streets to object to the threat it poses to India's secular democracy. In Shaheen Bagh the protest has grown with the support of volunteers to cover nearly one kilometre of the highway.

Elderly women, housewives and school children sat through one of the coldest winters in Delhi for nearly 100 years

On India's Republic Day, the national anthem was sung as three elderly women known as the "dadis of Shaheen Bagh" hoisted the Indian flag. Despite starting as a small protest expected to fizzle out in a few days, it has become the heart of the anti-CAA protests in Delhi, and has sparked inspiration for other women-led protests across India.

On 7 January, a group of women in Park Circus Maidan, Kolkata, (another predominantly Muslim neighbourhood) led a sit-in protest against the CAA. As with the women of Shaheen Bagh, this was, for many of them, their first political protest. In Mumbai, over 100 women have been holding a sit-in against the CAA for over a month.

In Shanti Bagh, hundreds of people, mostly women and students have also been protesting the CAA for over a month. Similar protests in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand are also taking place. The women of Shaheen Bagh lit a spark whose flame has now engulfed the country, and women are at the forefront. 

The price many of them have already paid is not insignificant. They have been fired at by Hindu fundamentalists, and incendiary speeches have been made against them by several BJP politicians.

Read more: The pogrom in Delhi is only the start of the spectre looming over India

On 23 February, Delhi witnessed the death of 49 people, most of them Muslim, in a spate of anti-Muslim violence that saw homes destroyed and 
three mosques set alight. A school was torched and shops were ransacked.

On the same Sunday the protesters at the female dominated Hauz Rani sit-in, another anti-CAA blockade, saw an increase in police violence and 
many of them have reported cases of sexual assault from the police as well as pysical beatings.

This is yet another example of the way the police have been either passive in the face of violence against the protesters and civilians, or complicit in it themselves. One protester, Firdaus Shafiq, told the BBC that before this, she rarely even left the house alone, "My son or husband accompanies me even to the nearby market. So I found it tough at first to be out here. But I feel compelled to protest." 

Many of the demonstrators in Shaheen Bagh and similar protests across India were not activists before this. For many, this is the first time they have engaged in political struggle, and the strength of their movement shows it is their very lives they are fighting for.

The police have been either passive in the face of violence against the protesters and civilians, or complicit in it themselves

Their movement is already of a scale unimaginable in the UK. As Modi attempts to redefine what it is to be Indian, and protesters fight to keep a society where Hindus, Muslims and all or no religions can live together in a secular, democratic country, the CAA has touched on the painful and recent history of Partition. The assumption that Muslims cannot belong to a non-Muslim country is a dangerous ideology that is spreading globally

As one protester from the Hauz Rani sit-in put it: 

"Why does the RSS keep demanding that we must go back to Pakistan? Why will we go to Pakistan? If we wanted to go, we would have left with Jinnah. India is our birth place. We will live here and die here. We will not move from here. You need to stop dreaming that Muslims will leave India. Modi Ji, stop seeing this dream. Let the country function according to the constitution."

Aniqah is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Independent, gal-dem and Exeunt Magazine. She also writes fiction and poetry and has been published in several anthologies.

Follow her on Twitter: @aniqahc 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.