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Eye Of The Falcon: Shaheen Bagh And Beyond

Shaheen Bagh gave voice to India’s Muslim women. New, diverse collectives are now amplifying this voice of resistance and dissidence

Eye of the Falcon
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The spirit of the soaring falcon—shaheen—was not dismantled with the eviction of anti-CAA protestors from Shaheen Bagh in March 2020. The solidarities formed mostly by Muslim women at the peak of the protests have continued and converted into new collectives, protests sites, emotional support groups and individual acts of courage in the face of attacks on freedom and faith of the Muslim community in India. This is the new face of the politics of Muslim women in the country. Afreen Fatima, a student leader from Allahabad who pursued MA in Linguistics at JNU, was active during the Shaheen Bagh protests. Last October, Fatima formed a study circle ‘Muslimah Allahabad’ with her younger sister Sumaiya Fatima, an undergrad from Allahabad University. The study circle has 70 girls as members at present. They have held sessions on various topics, including ‘Braving hijab ban and state repression’ and another forthcoming on ‘Curating conversations: Moving forward’ on faith, politics and identity.

Fatima has also tried to allay fears and anxieties of Muslim girls who wear hijab. She even organised a protest against the clamour for a hijab ban that saw the participation of 300 girls. Such protests have been recorded in various parts of the country. A solidarity march was held at Calicut beach in Kerala, led by Jamia Millia Islamia’s student leader Ladeeda Farzana. Accompanied by men, the women were carrying banners that said, “Allahu Akbar”, “Hands Off My Hijab” and “Let me decide what to wear”. Several scholars, activists and artists from Kerala issued a statement against the “institutionalised Islamophobia” in educational institutions of Karnataka and called for “a proper legislation to protect the religious attire of Muslim women”.

Lawyer Avani Chokshi, also a member of a collective called Bahutva Karnataka, says that in 2019, the anti-CAA protestors met under the banner of Naavu Bharatiyaru. They lost their momentum during the pandemic. Recently, new solidarities have allowed them to regroup again and form alliances with other organisations and communities, including Muslims and Dalits. “The anti-CAA movement allowed us to build this solidarity in the face of communalism and state repression,” Chokshi adds. The anti-CAA solidarity forged two years ago was the foundation stone of these new movements that have now found various modes of expressions—from online campaigns with hashtags to ground protests and art forms like calligraphy and placards. In Kerala, queer activists also joined the protests. Protesters at Shaheen Bagh told this reporter in March 2020 that you “can’t kill an idea by removing the tents”. They were right.

As the protests spread in various provinces, the original site continues to simmer. Aware of what might lie ahead for them, Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh still meet in smaller gatherings. “During the pandemic they held video calls and shared protest poetry like Bol Ke Lab Azad Hain Tere on WhatsApp,” says Nida Fazl, a housewife and a protester at Shaheen Bagh. Every week Fazl and some twelve women meet at Shaheen Bagh. They recently held a large gathering of some 300 women in support of the students of Karnataka who were denied access to their educational institutes for wearing hijab. They rec­ount how all the markers of the Muslim faith, from mosque to madrasa and hijab to azaan, face the threat of erasure from public places. Muslim women are being bullied and harassed by radical Hindu groups. Eminent Muslim professional women were auctioned online. On January 2, Farzana shared a post on social media underlining that “the motive behind this is to disrupt the public life of Muslim women”.

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Fazl feels that Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh were prescient in keeping the resistance alive even after their removal from the site. It was a necessary mode for them to survive. The quest for justice and the demand for dignity make the ground fertile for the re-emergence of the idea of Shaheen Bagh two years after the space was dismantled. Academic Soumyabrata Choudhury wrote a book titled Now It’s Come to Distances in which he studied the Shaheen Bagh protests, pandemic and social distancing.  He says, “Wherever the thought of justice begins to exist, Shaheen Bagh will begin to exist. And whoever is affected by the thought becomes the immortal of justice.” Choudhury underlines that the “political capacity for new enunciation grew at Shaheen Bagh” and “a new historicity of the name ‘Muslim’ was created, which could only be visited subjectively.” Quoting B.R. Ambedkar, he says, “The only way a new association can be wagered is by inducing a new common feeling.”

Shaheen Bagh broke the perception of some leaders from various brands of politics, “who claimed to speak for us—Muslim women speak for themselves”.

The ‘new common feeling’ is something that arises in new historical conditions. “It is a combination of two features: One being a traditional Muslim, which is apparent, and second, using that very identity as a mode or form for saying something universal, like equality,” he adds. While giving the example of the grandmothers at Shaheen Bagh, who sat in protest to dem­and the universal value of equality, he says, “The dadis were present to not think individually but as a union, an association and an assembly demanding universal values.” He notes that the ‘new common feeling’ holds true in the face of the hijab controversy as well—“the girls in hijab are demanding equal access to education—they want to study within their own reality and context and have rejected an abstract world of uniformity and dress codes. Equality is not uniformity, in fact equality is recognition of differences.”

The hijab controversy, a targeted attack on Muslim-ness and on Muslim women, has the potential to overhaul how we think about pat­riarchy. Ghazala Jamil, academic and author of Muslim Women Speak of Dreams and Shackles, says, “The hijab controversy might prove to be a landmark similar to women’s participation in anti-CAA movement by challenging some of the established understanding of women’s rights and women’s activism.”

Since Shaheen Bagh, Muslim women in India have shattered many a myth, especially the long-held perceptions about ‘victims’. “Muslim women’s participation blasted several myths about them—that they cannot speak for themselves or that they were ‘learning to speak’ only now,” Jamil says. “The fact is that Muslim women were always aware about their realities and minority status, and could speak about their issues. What changed was that their opinions were being asked for now and heard.” Shaheen Bagh became an epochal moment because “Muslim women appeared collectively in public spaces, breaking the stereotype of being ‘the essentialised victims’, and the civil society was appreciative and sympathetic,” says Jamil. “It was a moment of great learning for everyone.”

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United front Anti-CAA/NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh

When the people woke up to listen to Indian Muslim women, they ensured that their resistance was in full partnership with Muslim men. The assertion of partnership with Muslim men was made in response to another myth perpetuated by the Hindutva politics around triple talaq, “to save Muslim women from Muslim men,” says Afreen Fatima. “We don’t need such saviours where you pit Muslim men against Muslim women,” she adds.

Muslim women say that the solidarities dating back to the anti-CAA protests have strengthened and they need to move their eye from the streets to the small acts of resistance in private spaces. The unity in resistance has changed the articulation for Muslims in daily life, especially women—professionals or housewives. In a conversation about what changed with Shaheen Bagh, some of the Muslim women said that they have come out of their shell and are comfortable to assert their anxieties as Muslims. “I am a Muslim and I am persecuted because of that,” says Ghaziabad resident Midhat Zaidi, an MPhil student and mother of a school-going boy. “I fight allegations that are usually thrown at Muslims by retelling the speeches I had heard during the sit-in protest,” she adds. More importantly, she says, “I am not ashamed of placing my lived realities as a Muslim in public domain,” which were earlier clubbed under the broader umbrella of a “marginalised or minority group”. Zaidi feels that “Shaheen Bagh changed things for me because our anxieties were validated, people were hearing Muslims, who were demanding equality. With these public appearances, I finally got over the urge to not withhold in articulating my lived reality as a Muslim in India.”

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Shaheen Bagh became a language, as asserting an identity was not a crime. Ghazala Ahmad, a professional from Aligarh, says, “Shaheen Bagh is the language and the agency of our own, which was only recently heard. It was not absent in the past but was unheard of so far.” Fatima says that Shaheen Bagh broke the perception of some leaders from various brands of politics, “who claimed to speak for us—Muslim women speak for themselves,” she says.

As I write about the struggles of these women, I am reminded of the Egyptian journalist who wanted to see her region through the lens of gender and, more significantly, without the available brand of feminism clouding the vision. Lina Attalah felt the pressure of “bourgeois or liberal feminism”, which she wanted to free herself from, especially because the Western world portrayed the women in the region as “victims and oppressed”. In a collection of essays, Attalah’s chapter “On a belated encounter with gender” reflects on how she never had “something smart to say to that nagging question: What is it like to be a woman journalist in Egypt nowadays?” In the face of these mounting questions she did not want to be viewed as someone recounting stories of sexism, patriarchy and oppression, “that would feed into commonplace Orientalist essentialism” and render her a “heroic survivor”. Nor did she want to engage in a “short-sighted defence of the Arab world.”

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She realised that between these two much-publicised stories she was left without the one she could relate to. “I had no third story to tell. No nuanced explanation of how we live a life of public engagement through the lens of gender.” But with time, Attalah found freedom in her complex world under the blue sky. In India, we call it Shaheen Bagh.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Eye of the Falcon")

(Views expressed are personal)

Eram Agha is an independent journalist

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