Aditi Tandon in New Delhi
Starting December, powerful images of angry young women have been flooding mass media spaces like never before. From the Jamia Millia Islamia protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 15, to student agitations over the January 5 Jawaharlal Nehru University violence, women have taken control of resistance movements and are reshaping political narratives every single day. In the process, they are asserting the weight of a growing political constituency.
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Be it Aishe Ghosh, the JNU Students Union president who is at the heart of the campus unrest debate; actor Deepika Padukone who was trolled for selectively backing Left-affiliated JNU students, or Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protesters who’ve been on a prolonged sit-in against the CAA in this bitter cold — women are both making news and controlling the news cycle since the season of agitation began last December soon after the Delhi Police action on Jamia students. What’s driving the urban women’s rage?
“Women are protesting because they understand oppression better. The movement against CAA and National Register of Citizens belongs solely to the women and Indian youth. It’s a culmination of a series of developments we see as unjust, be it the Internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, discriminatory provisions of the Transgender Rights Bill, unreasonable fee hikes across campuses or the laws that target minorities. These protests are here to stay,” says 24-year-old Khushi Anand of Delhi University’s Laxmibai College, who has attended every protest against police action, CAA and NRC in the Capital since the law was passed by Parliament on December 11 last year.
Khushi sees the CAA-NRC combination as anti-Muslim and like others wants withdrawal of the legislation which grants early citizenship to six non-Muslim minorities (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Parsis and Sikhs) of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014.
Making sense of the protest
Do protesting women students understand the law? Do they believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he says a nationwide NRC has not even been discussed? It’s a resounding “no”.
Like Sugandha, a passout of Central University of Punjab, explains, “Home Minister Amit Shah says the national NRC will come. PM says it hasn’t been discussed. Who should we believe? This government seems to be protecting only those who profess their ideology. Also, there’s no debate on basic issues of expensive education and shrinking job markets. This is not a Left or Right issue. This is a fight for the future. Why should education not be free?”
Sugandha attended the JNUSU agitation opposing the fee hike last week even when it did not affect her directly.
While women mostly back the right to protest, many feel campus violence should not be condoned. On free education, too, there are counter views.
“Elementary education can be free but students, as they go higher, must learn to support themselves. That’s what students in other countries do. Moreover, they should respect the fact that people don’t pay taxes for riots or for damage to public property. It’s fine to protest but if any student hampers anyone else’s right to education, they should be rusticated,” feels Geetika, a Mumbai-based professional with strong views on Deepika Padukone‘s JNU pit-stop.
“I would have respected Deepika had she gone and stood with Nirbhaya’s mother that day. It was a historic occasion for all women. Convicts of a brutal rape had been issued death warrants after seven years. But Deepika goes and stands with one section of JNU students. For me, as a woman, justice for Nirbhaya was the biggest takeaway of that day, not JNU,” argues Geetika.
Delayed justice to sexual assault victims invites her rage, like CAA invites the rage of others.
Mapping the mobilisation
Documentary filmmaker and former Jamia faculty member Samina Mishra says she has never seen the current levels of women’s mobilisation around protests.
“Women have emerged as very strong leaders in this (anti-CAA-NRC) movement. There has been large-scale mobilisation of women who have never earlier participated in protests. The reason is their inheritance of what has been happening for years,” says Mishra, who studied history at St Stephen’s.
She notes with assurance that there have also been changes in the way women engage in public spaces.
“Iconic images of two veiled Jamia students with a lot of agency resonated widely. We also see many women engaging with public spaces for the first time. At Shaheen Bagh, I saw women struggling to simply assert that India is their home, which it unquestionably is. I have personally participated in many recent protests to stand against CAA, which I believe is unconstitutional and anti-poor,” Mishra remarks.
There are equally eloquent voices on the other side and some women believe the current anti-CAA rhetoric has gone too far. “Free Kashmir” posters have appeared in student protests on some campuses. A woman anti-CAA protester from Mumbai is under fire for holding up a poster seeking Kashmir’s “liberation”.
Sumita Kaul, a PR consultant who has worked on powerful campaigns on women’s issues like Mission Hazaar, says she’s happy to see females in the forefront of agitations but wished their grammar was visibly different and tone not so shrill.
“To me, the image of a Shaheen Bagh protester sitting in the biting cold with a baby in the lap is much more compelling than that of a student with a veil or a bandaged head. Being in communications, I understand how brands and ideologies use images and symbols to further agendas. Current images of women with bandaged heads and limbs are to me part of replication of the male model of protest. I’d rather women devised their own means of engagement,” Kaul says.
An alumnus of Miranda House, Delhi, she doesn’t share many of her friends’ anxieties on CAA and has her own reasons to back the law.
“I think people need to calm down. CAA is not all black or all white and I do not share the anxieties of many on this issue. Even at the cost of being isolated, I believe every country has the sovereign duty to account for its citizens. Fear mongering around a sovereign project is quite unfortunate,” Kaul feels.
A look back at women’s struggles
As Indian women show they won’t let up and will persist with their aspirations, political scientists who have observed patterns of protests across history say women leading agitations is not a new phenomenon.
“This is not happening for the first time. Yes we see a larger number of women participating. That is the result of enhanced awareness, improved education, employment avenues and larger space for expression. But even this is part of the larger process of evolution of women’s movement,” says Sushila Ramaswamy, Associate Professor, Political Science, at the Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi.
Historical records of the Indian national movement’s revolutionaries feature several women.
Sandip Bandopadhyay, who wrote on women in the Bengal revolution movement, mentions Pritilata Waddedar, who studied in Chittagong and Kolkata and was a teacher at an English medium secondary school. Waddedar was handpicked by leading revolutionary Surya Sen to attack the European club.
She succeeded in her attack and then committed suicide, says Bandopadhyay, recording a leaflet (found on her body): “I earnestly hope that our sisters would no longer nurse the view that they are weak. Armed women of India will demolish thousand hurdles, disregard thousand dangers and join the rebellion and the armed struggle for freedom and will prepare themselves for it. With this hope in my heart, I am proceeding today for self-immolation.”
Ramaswamy says the most prominent Indian woman revolutionary was Capt Lakshmi Sahgal, who led the women’s wing of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.
“The women suffrage movements of the UK and the US are other examples of women leading a cause which ultimately threw up two methods of struggle. One method was the constitutional and legal route and the other was the path of passive resistance which entailed breaking the law, offering arrests, fasting as a technique of struggle and using other means to shatter the image of women being gentle, besides signalling their power to take on the establishment,” Ramaswamy notes.
The current thread of women’s resistance in India seems to fit the passive resistance mode which Mahatma Gandhi employed successfully to fight the British with his civil disobedience and non-cooperation calls. There was no place for violence though.
Whatever the nature of protests, women speaking their mind is a positive sign for society, feel experts.
Director of Delhi-based Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences Nimesh Desai says there has been undoubtedly a long-time subjugation of women who have been pushed to the back. “Recent empowerment efforts have worked. Globally, too, the gender imbalance in every sphere is getting corrected. The benefit of a larger number of women articulating their thoughts can only be positive,” he says.
How positive? Time will tell.
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