The Brave Women of Shaheen Bagh

Neither the cold, nor attempts at communalising the protests can take away the fact that Shaheen Bagh is testament to the Muslim woman's arrival in Indian politics.

Tum ghar ki ho shehzadiyan mulkon ki ho abadiyan
Veeraan dilon ki shaadiyaan
Eimaan salamat tumse hai
Ai maaon behnon betiyon duniya ki zeenat tumse hai

(‘You are princesses of households
In wilderness you are happiness
Faith in you is salamat
O mothers, sisters daughters you are grace of the world’)

These are lines from a poem written in 1905 by my ancestor Maulana Altaf Husain Hali as a tribute to women. Tonight I saw the words come alive in Shaheen Bagh.

More than 2,000 women were sitting on the road in the biting cold when we entered the Shaheen Bagh protest site, which had completed its seventh day. Huge crowds of men, young and old, stood all around the women in a circle.

From the stage we looked at the crowd, bright lights shone on the stage and audience alike. Posters and placards of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dandi March, and Babasaheb Ambedkar were displayed alongside slogans rejecting the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Act. In all my 35 years of working with Muslim women, I had never witnessed a scene such as this. What I was witnessing was the new generation of Muslim women who speak boldly without an iota of fear.

“We were born here and here is where we will die. We are not afraid of Modi or Amit Shah. Who are they to violate the most sacred testament of our nation?”

Bright faces and clear voices exuded confidence.

“Those who speak of ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao‘ allow their police to barge into the university and hit our girls. How can such barbarity be allowed?”

For most of them, it was the first protest of their life. They had come out of their homes in droves without any misgivings.

“What made you leave behind your grahasti? Your kitchen, your children?” The answer they gave was stunning. “My daughter asked me, ‘Mother, today they barged into the library and beat up the students. Tomorrow what if they break into my school and beat us up there?’”

Tonight, as I write these lines in the comfort of my home, it is a bitterly cold night of the shortest day of the year, December 22. I can see them sitting and sloganeering with stoic determination to turn the tide on the communal agenda, which is poised to destroy the basis of their existence. They are equally determined not to let this uprising become a ‘Hindu-Muslim issue’.

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These women are fully conscious of the imminent danger of this happening, as they hear about deaths of youth across Uttar Pradesh, in police action. Equally disturbing is news coming in from activists standing before Delhi hospitals, of youth with head injuries being stitched up secretly in ICUs. Hospital administrators colluding with police to avoid a medico-legal report.

It is the constitution they have come out to defend; it is a secular battle in which people from all faiths have become equal partners. Usually Muslim women are used for issues like triple talaq, ‘Islam in danger’ or as vote banks, as is visible when they line up outside polling booths. But this a different battle in which they stand up not only with Muslim men but with men and women of all faiths.

They know that in this sinister game of amending, distorting and eroding the constitution, they have everything to lose. Their right to worship, right to livelihood and yes, their right to staying alive.

I see Hitler’s face in a few posters, which evokes a flood of images. He too was democratically elected, by 37.3% of German voters. It brings up images of detention camps in Assam; what do they portend for the Muslims of India?

Images of lynchings, of the Babri judgment, of the Assam NRC all fit perfectly in the agenda of extermination of Muslims.

I am one of the urbane dwellers of Lutyens Delhi who feel they will not be touched. But then I think of Ehsan Jafri, former Member of Parliament from Gujarat, who was hacked to death in his kothi in Gulberg Colony of Ahmedabad in 2002. Could he ever have imagined this would happen to him? 

Watching the faces of women and men sitting in dharna at Shaheen Bagh, I sense the wisdom and valour which has brought them here. Their daily needs like food and water are provided by a community kitchen run by volunteers with pooled resources. Their spirit and will comes from within.

We need to go there everyday for inspiration. I live in the Jamia area which has been in the forefront and the eye of the storm since student resistance began on December 14. But tonight, what I saw confirmed that the pushback has begun across India with Shaheen Bagh’s women squarely in the fray. 

Muslim women have finally come into their own.

Syeda Hameed is Writer Founder Chair of the Muslim Women’s Forum.