Women

'Walls Are the Publishers of the Poor': How Women Sketch the Language of Resistance

"There are many first time protesters and people who have not received a formal education. For them, these walls are an important medium," said a student of Fine Arts.

New Delhi: Much has been written about the role of women in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens protests. But women are not just at the forefront of the protests, they are also responsible for the artwork that is housed on each wall, every corner surrounding the protest areas in Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh.

Women protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia during the anti-CAA and NRC protests. Photo: Ismat Ara

Simeen Anjum, a second-year student of Fine Arts at Jamia Millia Islamia has been a vocal voice in all of the protests that have happened in and around campus. However, her modus operandi is different from that of others. She doesn’t shout slogans or organise crowds; she picks up a brush, some colours and paints the walls.

One of the walls painted by Simeen Anjum and her friends. Photo: Ismat Ara

According to her, these paintings on the walls suggest that art is one of the strongest means of resistance. “Art conveys the same message in a different way, that is more effective. It has been a strong tool of resistance throughout history. That’s the thing about art,” she says.

Also read: In Photos: Students Fight Back During Jamia’s Year of Rebellion

Simeen has been actively involved in making graffiti and murals at various protest sites including Jamia and Shaheen Bagh. While talking about her work, she quoted Eduardo Galeano and said, “Walls are the publishers of the poor”.

Women protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia during the anti-CAA and NRC protests. Photo: Ismat Ara

She then explained, “In the Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protests, there are many first time protesters and people who have not received a formal education. They can’t read. For them, these walls are an important medium to understand what’s happening. And even for people who are just passing by, they can, within a few seconds, look at our art and gauge what’s happened.”

Another wall mural created by Simin, where she painted the portrait of JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh, who was attacked at the JNU campus. Photo: Ismat Ara

As an art student, Simeen felt it was important to contribute to the anti-CAA and NRC movements at Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh. She said, “I think the CAA and NRC are a very, very direct attack on the secular fabric of India. No matter what religion or community you come from, it is very important to speak out against it, especially at this time it is even more important for people to step out and be a part of the protest.”

Also read: We Are Seeing, for the First Time, a Sustained Countrywide Movement Led by Women

Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh have both seen large mobilisation by women during the past two months against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. After the attack by Delhi police on students inside Jamia Millia Islamia’s university premises, Shaheen Bagh roared with anger. The protests at Shaheen Bagh have only increased with every act of repression.

Simeen Anjum painting. Photo: Ismat Ara

“What distinguished these protests from the other protests is the fact that it is led by women. I have never seen so many apolitical people come together and do something so politically despite the violent oppression against them by the state,” Simeen said. “Where I come from, women have never been part of any kind of political or public gatherings in an open sphere. But now the same women are showing us the way,” she added.

A mural painted by Simeen which translates into, “We will fight till the time there is a need for it”. Photo: Ismat Ara

Speaking about her art, she said, “A community has been formed with all the artists. Some are painting walls, some posters and some are just making graphics for the internet. People are coming together and using art in various ways and not just visual art, but also other forms such as singing, dastangoi and theatre.”

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The anti-CAA and NRC protests in Jamia, as well as Shaheen Bagh, have seen women’s participation in huge numbers who have not just taken to the streets, but also the medium of the internet to spread their message through art online.

Khansa Fahad, a second-year student of Jamia Millia Islamia in the B.Tech department, calls herself “a nerdy Muslimah” as well as a “lover of art”. Her artwork ranges from handwritten notes, letters and posters to mehendi designs. Seemingly aesthetic artwork, they all have deep political messages underneath.

One of Khansa’s posters which features placards in several languages. Photo: Ismat Ara

Some of Khansa’s Instagram posts. Photo: Ismat Ara

During the anti-CAA protests in Jamia, Khansa made a poster with Rahat Indori’s couplet on it, which went viral on Twitter. It read:

Sabhi ka khoon hai shaamil yahaan ki mitti me
Kisi k baap ka Hindustan thodi hai.”

Khansa Fahad’s photograph with her placard that went viral on social media. Photo: Ismat Ara

Talking about her photograph that went viral, she said, “Rahat Indori’s nazm is very powerful. And this particular phrase, it has a different level of energy. People relate to it and it’s also very catchy. I made that poster in a hurry. I just wanted to carry a handmade poster, and this phrase struck my mind. I had been reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy those days and, in it, I read about how Urdu had been ghettoised.”

Referring to her hijab, she said, “That seemed like the perfect opportunity to me, to resist in my own way, carrying my identity, wearing it proudly, celebrating it, without ‘hurting’ anyone’s sentiments.”

Also read: The Brave Women of Shaheen Bagh

She also added, “My poster got a lot of appreciation and hate at the same time. It was shared by a lot of people and pages. I’ve made a lot more posters which were scanned, printed and distributed several times.”

Khansa’s mehendi art in Urdu, ‘Ehtijaj’, which roughly translates into ‘protest’. Photo: Ismat Ara

In an online campaign, Khansa recently started a weekly hand-lettering challenge called ‘Letter to Resist’ where readers are invited to scribble letters in their own handwriting the way they like, click a picture of it and post it online.

Talking about this online campaign, she said, “In response to the devastation occurring all across the world due to the irresponsible, inhuman, criminal decisions taken by governments – we thought of a way to bring people together who choose humanity over cruelty.” The hashtag #Lettertoresist has over a hundred posts on Instagram.

A post on Instagram with the hashtag #Lettertoresist. Photo: Ismat Ara

Referring to the reported police brutality that occurred at Jamia Millia Islamia as well as Aligarh Muslim University campus premises on December 15, 2020, she said, “Our hearts are filled with sorrow and anguish and blood to fight for the losses that have incurred, losses that are immeasurable. We brought this challenge so that people can talk about their vulnerabilities and tell others that we are together in all this- bomb blasts and airstrikes, laathi-charges and firings, and as far as justice is concerned- dates and delays.”

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Shah Kulsum, another young student of the Fine Arts Department at Jamia Millia Islamia, is credited with the addition of visuals along with words on placards used during the protests. She said, “During the initial days of these protests I realised that people have only words written on posters and no pictures. They failed to grab the attention of people at first sight. I started making posters with pictures on them and later noticed how this became a trend.”

After doing street art for two days, she realised that she wanted to do something that had a long-lasting impact. That’s when she, along with Simeen Anjum, started painting graffiti on walls and roads.

Kulsum’s artwork on a road outside the Jamia campus. Photo: Ismat Ara

Talking about the protests, she said, “People of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia started this protest all by themselves and today people of all classes join these protests in huge numbers. Trust me, I have met people who have come from Maharashtra, South India, UP and are staying here for the protest’s sake. Shaheen bagh is is a mela of democracy. Muslim kids ask Sikhs to tie turbans on their heads, and Muslim men wear the turban. They eat, sleep and sing together. It’s beautiful. Sometimes, I feel like the whole of India has gathered together. This is the real India, which we are fighting for through our art.”

Kulsum believes that one cannot separate art from social issues. She said, “Art is derived from social issues. Art reflects the pain, agony, hurt and damage of society. Art also reflects love, care and desires of the society. Today we are in pain because of CAA and NRC, society is in pain, and our art is reflecting that pain, damage and hurt of society.”

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During the anti-NRC and CAA protests in Jamia and Shaheen Bagh, several artists have emerged and collectively contributed to the movement through different art forms such as poetry, songs, sketches, placards, posters, paintings and graffiti. Some go to protest sites, with packets of sheets and markers and make posters on the spot as per the demands of people, while some paint on walls.

Women protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia during the anti-CAA and NRC protests. Photo: Ismat Ara

What stands out among these artists is that they are young, fearless women who have no qualms when it comes to asserting their identities while protesting.

Ismat Ara is a Mass Communication student at AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.