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At a women-led protest site in India, Muslims navigate identity, hope, and despair

By Manavi Kapur

At Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, hope and passion coexist with despair.

It’s been over two weeks since women—mostly Muslim—have been sitting in protest against India’s newly-introduced Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. This protest has been a nerve centre of unwavering voices against what has been perceived as a discriminatory law. Yet, do they now fear becoming irrelevant, and eventually being silenced? What do they hope to achieve from this protest?

Quartz India/Manavi Kapur
The woman protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.

They want the Act, which excludes Muslim immigrants from the swifter path to Indian citizenship, repealed. They are confident of an eventual win. The women of Shaheen Bagh have weathered one of Delhi’s worst winters, the fear of being forced out of their protest site, and their revolution being usurped by political organisations. Yet they soldier on, despite confusion over the leadership of the protest.

In an inversion of the darbars (king’s court) of yore and the panchayats (village councils) of today, the women sit in protest while the men stand outside a neat perimeter, looking on with keen interest.

Quartz India/Manavi Kapur
Women take centre stage at Shaheen Bagh.

They’ve been chanting slogans of azadi (freedom), patiently listening to various speakers talking to them about the Indian constitution and human rights. Celebrity visitors look at these women with as much interest as the protesters view the guests.

Quartz India/Manavi Kapur
Voices from Shaheen Bagh.

Abutting Jamia Millia Islamia, the university in Delhi where the current countrywide agitation against India’s new citizenship Act began abruptly last month, the Shaheen Bagh locality is rarely on the radar of privileged Delhiites. However, the passion of the women—and some very enthusiastic children—of this tiny colony has brought it national fame. The protests have been devoid of violence, and visitors are welcomed with a kind smile, a cup of tea, and sometimes a sweet or savoury treat from the community kitchen.

The protestors even rang in 2020 with a full-throated rendition of the national anthem.

Here are five voices of women from Shaheen Bagh with an unambiguous perspective on what made them step out of their homes and into the public eye, and what makes them keep at it.

Nahida Begum, 40

What is this harsh winter when we have the fire in our hearts? The children of Jamia (whose protest saw violent police action) have lit a spark, and it is our responsibility to keep the embers going. My daughter’s friend was in the Jamia library when the tear gas shell was thrown inside. She couldn’t move out of her room for two days because of fear. Is this how we want our children to live? We want azadi from this kind of humiliation. We are Indians and we have all made this country what it is today. No one government should be able to tell us we are not Indians.

Shabnam Khan, 35

The Delhi police is under the central government. What they did to our children in Jamia and other parts of Delhi is obviously what the central government under prime minister Narendra Modi is asking them to do. We are protesting against this government, not against India. I want to ask them that they talk about radicalisation, but aren’t you feeding the youth with aggression by treating peaceful protestors like criminals and terrorists? This government keeps imposing laws on us without even asking us if we want them. The triple talaq law was one example, and what can I even say about the way in which they implemented the whole Article 370 mess. But we can’t stay quiet anymore because it is no longer about just one aspect of our lives—it is now a question of our entire identity. We don’t want anything else. We just want equal rights as citizens, and to be able to live without the fear of being thrown in a detention centre.

Parveen, 28

Modi and Amit Shah have successfully removed the fear of fear itself from our hearts. None of us fear even being lathi charged anymore. Let them come at us with their lathis, we’ll serve them tea and biscuits and talk to them with a smile. We call ourselves Indians with pride, and we should not have to keep proving our patriotism because we are Muslim. This is not a Muslim-only issue, though. It is one that impacts the whole country. Why else would they arrest a non-Muslim like Chandrashekhar Azad? I just want to tell Modi-Shah this: I was born in India, I will die in India, and I will be buried in India. And we at Shaheen Bagh will not relent till this black law is repealed.

Afreen Khan, 34

My forefathers fought in India’s freedom movement. They fought for the idea of India. We have family that migrated to Pakistan, but my family chose to stay in India. Now, tell me, where should I get proof that my great grandfather was a freedom fighter? Where do we find papers of our identity when there was no Indian government to issue those papers?

Ghazala, 22

By insinuating that we don’t know anything about CAA or NRC, Modi thinks he can diminish our protest. But we are aware, we have read the Act. We also know what the constitution says. If we are so mistaken, why doesn’t Modi or Shah come and talk to us and tell us clearly? Why are they so afraid to listen to what we may have to say? Shah says one thing in Parliament, and Modi says another at Ramlila Maidan. Who should we believe? Where is their concern for their “Muslim sisters” that made them pass the anti-triple talaq law?