‘Shaheen‘ in Urdu means ‘white royal falcon or hawk’. It is known for its flight and its ferociousness.
The metaphorical significance of Shaheen Bagh could not have been more apt than at this hour when the resident women of this decrepit, congested, unplanned lower middle-class Muslim settlement have made it into the epicentre of a mass agitation on their citizenship rights.
For more than a month now, Muslim women have been fighting ferociously like falcons to combat bigotry, identity politics and also misogyny. Undeniably they have shown exemplary courage and resilience in the face of stiff opposition from the state and its agencies. Their sit-in protest has now become a motif of silent protest along the lines of non-violent Gandhian protests.
Shaheen Bagh’s women are now seen as the torchbearers of the protest to save the Indian constitution from neo-fascist forces.
These resilient women of Shaheen Bagh of varying ages, faiths and social classes, are seen as role models by protestors across the country who, are now happily emulating their style of protest. The sit-in protests, as opposed to the marching protests, evoke a strong sense of persistence and resilience. The protesting women could sense the obduracy of the incumbent government in denying the citizens their right to voice their concerns; hence they decided to register their protests through a sit-in.
Reclaiming the public sphere, redefining their roles
In the years to come, Shaheen Bagh would be etched in the annals of history as one of its kind. It would be remembered for being exemplary on several counts, more so as a movement spearheaded by women who had so far been identified as facelessness, muteness, and with practically no engagement in the ‘public sphere’.
The precursor to this female-led agitation was a video of a female student from Jamia Milia Islamia University, ferociously trying to guard her fellow male student against a brutal physical assault by the Delhi police. The image of a defiant young girl who was courageously shielding her male co-student from state-sponsored violence went viral within hours evoking a deluge of reactions-from anger to empathy, and from demystification to abhorrence. Many interpret this iconic image as a strong motif to reassess the notions of female vulnerability and male physical supremacy.
The heroic image of the semi-veiled girl was consumed by vulnerable groups of students and women to draw inspiration from. They could probably instantly connect to the vulnerable yet ferociously defiant poster girl’s resolve to fight for their rights.
Soon the lanes and by-lanes of Shaheen Bagh were inundated with women, of all ages, marching in solidarity against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
With their steely resolve, they were going to rewrite the history of women, who until now had never made their presence felt in the public sphere, and who had been victims of androcentrism and patriarchal normativities since antiquity.
Sexualising the sacred space
Muslim women have been subject to intersectional discrimination as they are discriminated against both as Muslims (inter-community discrimination) and as women (intra-community discrimination).
From the issue of the demolition of the Babri Masjid to the subsequent verdict delivered by the Supreme Court in favour of the perpetrators of the crime, Muslim women’s’ voices were never given due consideration.
It seemed as if these women ceased to exist or did not matter either to the Muslim community or to the Indian state. But what is noteworthy is the fact that during the entire history of the dispute over the Babri Masjid there weren’t any protests or agitations by Muslim women. Does keeping women away from mosques and public spheres have strong political ramifications for the entire Muslim community?
In India, there are few mosques that have separate arrangements for women to offer prayers. Unlike other religious institutions, Muslim men and women, except during the Hajj rituals, do not indulge in gender-inclusive congregational prayers.
The practice of excluding Muslim women from places of worship and public spaces to the confines of the domestic space, since antiquity, has had an adverse effect on the Muslim community at large.
In fact, such gender-based discrimination has led to a gradual decadence of the entire community and, has directly or indirectly, been responsible for the relative backwardness of Muslim community on several indices of social development such as, education and employment in the formal sector.
Non-engagement in the ‘public sphere’ is reflective of the way the patriarchy has worked within the Muslim community against the egalitarian spirit of Islam seeking equal participation of men and women in socio-religious and political affairs. It is a documented fact that the Prophet’s youngest wife Aisha would pro-actively participate in meetings concerning governance, welfare measures, and in battle-strategies.
These meetings would take place mostly in the premises of mosques. Thus, during Prophet Muhammad’s times, mosques were used as spaces for both sacred and profane business where women too could make their presence felt by being participants in both religious and political affairs.
Islamic feminists such as Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmad argue that the usurpation of women’s rights that were provided to them in accordance with the Sharia was due to the influence of the respective societal culture informed mostly by patriarchal normativity. Even in several Islamic societies where Sharia is claimed to be followed in spirit, it is not unusual to find misogynistic practices flourishing.
But these practices are due to cultural accretions that became prevalent after the demise of the Prophet. Within a few decades of the Prophet’s demise, stricter rules were imposed on women in the name of providing security to them from abuse and assaults from outsiders or non-Muslims.
Since then marginalisation of Muslim women has intensified, leading thereby to their withdrawal from participation in public affairs. The muting of feminist voices was one of the key factors that led to the mobilisation of Islamic feminists against the oppressive practices that supposedly were influenced more by the regional cultures than by Islamic injunctions.
Fatima Mernissi and other Islamic feminists argue that veiling practices and concomitantly, the confinement of women to the private space, intensified after the demise of the Prophet and such regressive practices impacted the overall mobility of Muslim women. Women were prohibited from entering the sacred space of mosques on the pretext that their presence would lead men to generate salacious and licentious thoughts that would eventually jeopardise men’s spiritual/pious thoughts.
Thus the blame of maligning men’s pious spiritual thoughts was put squarely on women’s corporeality. Thus to prevent the sexualisation of the sacred mosque space and the ensuing sexual distractions of men it was decided to disallow women from entering all spaces of socio-religious significance.
But the irony is that by not allowing women to participate in socio-religious affairs Muslim men are attesting to the notion that they possess a fragile spiritual self that could easily be compromised by the mere presence of a feminine body. Is it not then the Muslim men who need to be held accountable for their supposed lack of control over their sexual selves? And hence is it not then necessary on the part of the community to discipline its male members and help them nurture strong control over their sexuality instead of putting the blame for their sexual immorality on women?
Unsurprisingly then that in the entire saga of the Babri masjid, i.e., right from its being to its becoming, there is barely any evidence of female voices expressing the discontent or despair over its ruthless destruction and over seemingly biased ruling of the Supreme Court in November 2019. Both the state and the Muslim community did not bother to take cognisance of female citizens’ and community members’ opinion while engaging in the arbitration of a historic event.
What is most unnerving is the fact that by deliberately not engaging with Muslim women in debates concerning issues of religious identity or development agenda, Muslim men usurp the rights of women as rational and informed members and citizens who too possess the ability to arbitrate on contentious issues.
Whether these agitating women who have been sitting on dharna for more than a month now will be successful in making the government listen to their issues is doubtful. Will these women, who showed more grit and determination than men, in combating repressive forces go back to the faceless, voiceless, abominable world of ‘secluded existence’ once the agitation ends?
Like any other movement, this movement too may die down within days without bringing in the desired change. Even if it fails to nudge the incumbent government into backtracking on the CAA, there are many lessons and takeaways for Muslim men in specific and the Muslim community at large. It is high time that they allowed women to become significant participants in socio-religious matters.
Muslim women’s voices and perspectives should be given due consideration in the process of community building and in crafting the prospects of the younger generation. The mosque space should be made accessible to women as well and it should also be used as a rightful place to engage democratically in matters concerning secular and scientific education. Several churches and Gurudwaras in India provide information to community members on avenues of formal employment in India and abroad.
Muslim men too should take a lesson or two from these and allow half of their community population to contribute towards the real development and genuine progress of society.
So that next time when somebody tries to indulge in sacrilegious activities they would be countered by formidable women, women who are entitled to equal rights and who, therefore, should be allowed to shoulder their responsibilities in charting newer routes for communitarian development.
It is high time that the Shaheens be unshackled from the misogynistic notions about their sexuality and vulnerability. Let them soar higher up in the fathomless sky!
Dr Rafia Kazim is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at LNM University and a former fellow at CSD.