Before Shaheen Bagh: The fights of the forgotten
Esha Meher takes a look at the history of ‘liberation’ for the Muslim woman, drawing from today’s protests at Shaheen Bagh before tracing movements way back in time.
The Indian General Elections of 2019 were fought on issues of identity, nationalism and mass rhetoric. When the dust of 23rd May 2019 was beginning to settle, the newly re-elected government was flexing its muscles. Difficult administrative decisions were on the horizon and like all power players, this government too had surveyed its surroundings, marking a distant threat and cushioning competitive advantages. Not a single entity, man or machine had predicted the rise of this locality in the national capital, that would become the single most repeated word of the anti government revolution. No other neighbourhood in the history of India went from being a proper noun to a common one, and finally a war cry and a slogan, altogether!
Shaheen Bagh has made history and like every mass phenomenon has held the attention of the media, historians, sociologists and linguists around the country. The women of Shaheen Bagh represent the image of a quintessential Muslim woman in India’s capital. Dressed in salwars, burqas and hijabs, they run, lead and manage this 24-hour protest. Some accompanied by toddlers, others by elderly family members and neighbours. As they balance national attention, political whattaboutery and/or judicial scrutiny, they go around juggling their jobs and daily lives alike. Multiple articles have been written about the power of these women. Some speak at length about how they successfully challenge the stereotype of the veiled Muslim, while others speak of the power of protests led by women.
The latter lacking no precedents in the pages of time has been truly analyzed from a global perspective, thus placing Shaheen Bagh right at par with a Seneca Falls or Times Square in history. From the earliest suffragettes to the Bra Burning Miss America protestors, women across time have wrestled with their fellow beings for right to participate in “worldly” affairs. Matters of the public domain such as politics, war, economy and diplomacy have traditionally been considered a “man’s business”, where women seen as an extension of a man’s property could only be forsaken as war booty or protected as fragile badges of honour.
From 1903, marking the beginning of the English suffragette movement to this day, the global discourse underlying women’s protests has ridden on the presumption that women take to the streets and are indeed powerful voices against the State on matters concerning their position, life and image in society. An exclusively women led protect for a non-gendered issue such as agitation for statehood, demand for demilitarization of simply a crumbling economy is still considered an anomaly. India, herself has seen women rise to the fore in instances seeking harsh punishments for rape, a ban on triple talaq among Muslims and penalization of torture in marital homes. But the list stops there.
The items on the proverbial list have been a matter of speculation but the exhaustive nature of this list remained beyond debate. ‘Besides, issues attacking their fundamental right to live, it is issues that affect right to food, shelter and livelihood that mobilize women the fastest’ This observation was aptly made by Indian environmental activist, Medha Patkar who is known as the chief mobilizing voice in the Narmada Bachao Andolan. This movement was launched in 1985 by Patkar, to protest against a series of large dam projects across the Narmada River that flows through three Indian states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) and demand just compensation for around 32,000 people who were displaced as a result of the project. This movement, though not an exclusively female one, was noted a largely women led protest similar to that of the Shaheen Bagh one.
But what makes Shaheen Bagh stand out, is its defiance of dual myths. It not only notes the presence of women on an issue central to citizenship and politics but also notes the presence and leadership of Muslim women, on a secular issue. The women of Shaheen Bagh swear by the Indian Constitution and use the national symbols of India as mascots of their protest. This group is the one whose tales of woes have kept successive governments in power. The political parties of India since 1947 have been competing with each other to establish the highest degree of machismo when it comes to “saving” of the Muslim woman. The Narendra Modi government flaunting its toxic patriarchy claimed to have liberated Muslim women when it criminalized the utterance of triple talaq, a practice already invalidated by the Supreme Court. By criminalizing an effectively non-existent act it might have harmed women more than it saved them, but that is a story for another day.
Shaheen Bagh might be the first collective act of Muslims asserting their rights to the motherland actively, but it certainly isn’t the first instance of ‘liberation’ for the Muslim woman. The Indian media in its fervor of discovering the liberated Muslim woman, might have forgotten the likes of Anis Kidwai or Abadi Bano Begum whose role in the Indian independence movement remains uncontested, but history remains firm in its narration of their contribution.
The “liberation of the Muslim campaign” is one of those ideas that transcend national boundaries. The oppression of the headscarf remains a universal rhetoric where Indian polity and media merely parrot what the West tells them. The quintessential muslim women is always painted as a helpless and faceless soul trapped behind layers and layers of garments and patriarchy alike. A google search of the term presents us with an encyclopedia of faceless women huddling under their hijabs, jilbabs and chadors. The top news section would show us the Saudi Women’s demand to travel unsupervised, or an “Islamist” kangaroo court’s barbaric punishments for being inadequately covered. Missing from the array would be the leading women of Islam, starting from the first Muslim, Hazrat Khadija, a powerful trader in the Middle East, who never veiled in her lifetime to Hazrat Aisha the formidable political opponent and military strategist and commander.
If women from the Prophet’s family were kept out, even then, history would offer us figures of veneration from every sphere of life, from spiritual learnings to politics, cutting across disciplines like mathematics, architecture and statecraft. The Sufi saint Rabiya al-Adawiyya (CA 717-801) equals the stature of the famous Chisti saints in terms of teachings and contributions where she advocates proximity to God over ritualistic processes. But mainstream discourse of Sufism remains silent on her and spiritual contributions to the Order. On the political front, it is figures like the formidable Queen Arwa of Yemen (CA 1050-1138) who changed history. She was often compared to the Biblical Queen of Sheba in the interests of a fair description of power that she yielded over her subjects and allies alike. Pari Khanum (1548-1578) was described as a ‘Golden Link in the Safavid Chain of Command’ by the Historian Hossein Kamaly. She had an oxymoronic name which translated to Lady Sir Pari that can only go to show the extent of reverence and submission that she automatically commanded in Persia.
The stories of Terken Khatun (CA 1205-1281) are retold even to this day as she goes down in history having maneuvered the Mongols avoiding impending invasion. Extremely close are the stories of Shajara Al Durr (d. 1257) and Sayida al-Hurra of Tetoan (CA 1492-1560), as they played power and risked its perils among the most dreaded conquerors and dynasties of their times. No reference to muslim feminist history can be complete without the name of Tahereh (born Fatemeh Baraghani)(CA 1814-1852) who was the first recorded Muslim female in Iran to have appeared in public to deliver a sermon without a headscarf. She not only preached in the public space but went on to predict the arrival of the founder of the Bahai faith, which is now a major world religion.
In the post 19thcentury world, when politics was divorced from courtly statecraft and precarious alliances, Muslim women continued to play their part in history. World War II spy, Noor Inayat Khan’s is celebrated across France and Britain. Halide Edip is credited to have created modern Turkey alongside Kemal Ataturk, Egyptian musician Umm Kulthum and her contributions to the Arab-Israeli six day war is far from forgotten. Zaha Hadid, the renowned architect and Maryam Mirzakhani the world famous mathematician are a force to reckon with. Within our own country, the journalistic courage of Rana Ayyub remains unrivalled by her male counterparts in today’s almost right wing India. And yet, the mainstream narrative glorifies, laments and reiterates the plight of Muslim women who are apparently victimized by their own religion, structurally.
Shaheen Bagh is not the exception. It is the face of a norm, a norm that sees the light when oppression touches the sky. Muslim women have always led, created and opposed establishments. And history, stands witness to this. However, the female patience, muslim or otherwise is only evoked with time. It rules itself with stability, warmth and force. Vengeance, a surge of power and displays are not necessary markers of protests like Shaheen Bagh. They endure, they adjust and they wait. But once the wall of injustice and endurance gives away, a revolution is created. Shaheen Bagh is not the first. And Shaheen Bagh will not be the last.
The Spy Princess, Shrabani Basu
A History of Islam in 21 Women, Hossein Kamaly
Forgotten Queens of Islam, Fatima Mernissi
Images: Esha Meher / Waled Adnan
Gillian Brocknell, For International Women’s Day, Here are 7 of History’s Greatest Protests, The Washington Post, 2019 available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/03/08/internationalwomensday-heres-seven-historys-greatest-women-led-protests/
Nilanjana Bhowmick, Women Don’t Give Up, Time Magazine, 2019 available at https://time.com/5765702/india-protests-women/
Nicole Puglise, How these six women’s protests changed the World, The Guardian, 2017 available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/21/womens-march-protests-history-suffragettes-iceland-poland
Nizam Pasha, For the First Time since Independence, Muslims Have Emerged On to the Streets, The Wire, 2020 available at: https://thewire.in/rights/anti-caa-nrc-npr-protests-muslims