The Women of Shaheen Bagh: A Revolution to Change Everything
Rohitha Naraharisetty writes about the women of Shaheen Bagh – who have become what governments have almost never had to contend with: a community forged by shared lived experiences standing before the might of the state without a leader to speak for them.
‘The women of Shaheen Bagh’ is a refrain that has, for many, become representative of the shining beacon of resistance against all odds in what is arguably India’s most existentially terrifying moment. In the leaderless protests that have washed over the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens, to be implemented nationwide, several solidarities have been forged as the institutions holding our secular republic up failed, one by one. The people who rose to fill the vacuum left by leaders who have long deserted the scene have been the women, the queer, the Dalits and the Muslims of the country.
Amid the arbitrary impositions of Section 144 of the CrPC across cities, several protests witnessed remarkable moments where women walled themselves around men, preventing the police from roughing them up and hauling them into detention. A video from Delhi that has gone viral shows how a group of women threw themselves over a man being thrashed by the police in order to protect him with their bodies. This is an ingenious use of the law that has thus far been paternalistic towards women as being in need of protection, wherein male police personnel are not allowed to touch women. In the days that followed the state violence at Jamia Milia University that sparked the eruption of protests across the country, there have been several women- and queer people-led protests, women only protests, Muslim led mosque solidarity protests, and others that have decentred not only the primacy of the state, but of the masculinised leader who is looked upon to steer public energy and agitation towards a cause deemed appropriate by them. The culmination of all these forms of protest may arguably be found in Shaheen Bagh, which has been the seat of a sit-in for several weeks on end with no signs of stopping despite attempts to disperse them.
At Shaheen Bagh, women have and continue to brave freezing Delhi winter temperatures with their children in tow; they sing, they chant, they share responsibilities of care work and huddle together for warmth and protection. Others who join report finding comfort in a space where bodies are allowed to safely touch, reach out to one another in gestures of compassion and solidarity, and where for the first time, space can be occupied without the need to shrink oneself to belong. In a state that has historically and consistently excluded their voices and has spoken for and over them, their dissent is in their unrelenting presence before the state and the nation, registering their existence through visibility and a radical occupation of public space in a time of crisis when women are traditionally shepherded into the confines of the home, charged with keeping the hearth and reproducing the labour of the men who do the talking, the fighting, the doing.
Shaheen Bagh: Subversion of Structure
In the history of this nation, ‘womanhood’ has been appropriated by nationalists who embarked on a homogenising project, personifying the country in feminine terms in their vehement proclamations of defending her sanctity. Women have been the locus of a community’s honour; guarded as treasured goods or otherwise violated as plunder. They have been but a bargaining chip in our secular history, wherein self-proclaimed religious leaders traded and negotiated with the state in ways that involved the taking and giving of rights and entitlements to and from women. The overtly militaristic emphasis on national security has meant being one of the largest spenders on defence, waging wars whose most damaging effects materialise on the bodies and psyches of women. The language used to belittle enemies is feminising. The laws designed, after hard fought battles, to right the historical and cultural wrongs visited upon women in the form of dowry violence, inheritance, marriage and divorce laws and so on are decried as leaving potential for ‘misuse’ when they are merely being used. The impassioned rhetoric against affirmative action of any kind has pushed historically vulnerable people further into the margins. Our history documents the experiments of men and/or masculinised actors with the people of the country, the land they sit on, and the manipulations of sovereignty and the property regime to placate other actors working on behalf of doctrines that are in turn made, dictated, and preserved by men.
In India, there has been no space for anyone who is not masculinised, who does not ride on the backs of the marginalised in order to grandstand, appropriate, and play their own political games. Citizenship has never been a static category for those at the margins; now, under renewed attack, the very idea of it is under complete overhaul, rendering millions stripped of their citizenship in both name and in practice. In a patrilineal system, male identities form the locus of citizenship around which others must arrange themselves. Marginalised genders do not have names that the state can recognise as their own without their being appended to a recognised, male entity. Documents are thus a luxury that people with unstable names and whose histories are oral cannot afford. Documents are a privilege that those denied access to education by the Brahminical powers that be, cannot afford. Making oneself legible before the state from a marginalised position is thus a feat that has arguably never been achieved in this scale until now, with the revolution being led by hitherto unknown faces and names.
The women at Shaheen Bagh, who come from marginalised social locations, have come out in subversion of the patriarchal diktats obstructing mobility, occupation of public space, and visibility. They thus represent what Latin American feminist Raquel Gutierrez (2018) has termed ‘the politics in feminine’: one in which the dominant masculine rationality that organises ideology, statehood, religion, and all the structures within which individuals are subjects, is undermined. Such a politics does not make demands of the state, for doing so would be to recognise the state as a legitimate entity. This is a politics that seeks a complete and total upheaval of the social relations that have thus far structured lives and institutions, one that seeks to change everything. It does not mean, as the name might suggest, merely the participation of women in movements, but a completely new way of doing politics itself. Shaheen Bagh has become the site of state anxiety, as prominent and charismatic figures such as Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan and Kanhaiya Kumar have all arrived at the scene to mark their presence and show of solidarity – not as leaders, as is commonly the case, but as pillars. On Republic Day, the mothers of Rohit Vemula and Junaid Khan, two young marginalised men who have lost their lives to institutionalised and communalised murder, hoisted the Indian flag and for perhaps the first time, showed us what that day means for the nation – a celebration and reclamation of the Constitution and resistance to the powers that undermine it, as opposed to militarised shows of strength in the form of the annual parade before guests such as Jair Bolsanaro, who is the very antithesis of all that Shaheen Bagh means and represents. These women did not have to shed their motherhood or associated notions of femininity to make such an impact; indeed, what makes their resistance so powerful is in their assertion of the identities that are typically used to constrain them.
It might therefore be said that what is being articulated now is the desires that have for so long been buried under the repressive apparatuses of the state and its institutions. It is the desire of self-determination over one’s body, of dignity, of speaking, of expressing, of asking, of questioning, of rejecting, of being seen, of being heard, of not needing to prove the validity of one’s existence, of being able to take up space, of being recognised without paperwork attached to one’s name. It is the desire to be free of anxieties accompanying marginality, of freedom from precarity, of freedom of speaking truth to power. These desires are not tangible claims to be fit and contained in the language of the rights regime.
The Constitution is a document that, while underscoring the primacy of rights, is one that is also constructed as a sentient, living watchdog allowing for the expression of these desires that lie outside the scope of being defined in legalisms. This is the freedom it represents; the ultimate desire of aazadi. And the women of Shaheen Bagh keep vigil, guarding the ability to desire without fear, through newly forged bonds, friendships, and collective action. It is no wonder that the state, with all the heavy killing machinery at its disposal, is unsettled with this force it has never encountered before. It is a force that withstands violence, threats, and force with unwavering, steely resolve. It is a force that cannot be moved, unless it wants to move itself. The women of Shaheen Bagh have become what governments have almost never had to contend with: a community forged by shared lived experiences standing before the might of the state without a leader to speak for them.
Their presence speaks for itself.