Featured image taken at the Shaheen Bagh protests in January 2020.
Seen together with the NRC, NPR, and the political majoritarianism spreading across the country, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) reveals a dangerous means to target communities on the margins. This means of counting and categorizing people also speaks of how the State chooses to ultimately exclude and ‘other’ groups of people.
However, some groups will always remain more vulnerable than others.
A fact-finding team from Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) visited Assam to understand the implications of such an exercise on marginalized and vulnerable identities, including women.
In the context of India’s largely patriarchal society, women, particularly those from marginalized and oppressed communities bear a much heavier burden of producing documentation, owing to a history and tradition of being denied land and lineage entitlements.
The report by WSS found that a lack of documentation, like birth certificates or marriage certificates, compounded with low levels of female literacy, make women extremely vulnerable stakeholders. It also observed the ‘inherent gender bias’ in the process of implementation, that implicitly alienated women. For example, officials often speak only to the men accompanying women, making it nearly impossible for women to attend hearings without male relatives.
As of January 10th, the CAA has come into effect — should it be implemented in spite of the protests, then women clearly stand to lose out in the data collection process. Perhaps that is why they’re taking to the streets the way they are, and as a result, facing brutal state repression as well.
Women at the #AntiCAA Protests
Across the board, over the past few weeks, protestors have faced the brunt of police brutality – and women have not been exempted. Women have been ruthlessly targeted, both in the midst of protests as well as in police custody.
In Assam, the bedrock of the north-east agitation, women from across age groups and communities, have been at the forefront of the CAA protests. Resistance in the form of processions, singing protests and hunger strikes have characterized this unique struggle.
#CAA_NRC_Protests peaceful yet powerful. The women of Assam protested in thousands, draped in traditional Mekhela Chador, Asomiya Gamosa, the symbol of Asaamese pride on wrapped on head , they perhaps sent the strongest message to New Delhi. pic.twitter.com/iVMoA3rXnk
— Ratnadip Choudhury (@RatnadipC) December 21, 2019
In Uttar Pradesh, the site of a complete breakdown of law and order, the scenario is grim. Congress worker and social activist, Sadaf Jafar recounting the brutality faced in police custody in Uttar Pradesh is quoted to have said, “I was brutally beaten up in police custody at the Mahila police station. Even the male cops had beaten me up. Male police officers kicked me and called me Pakistani. My family was not informed about my arrest.”
In Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, two women were evicted from their home (in addition to being threatened by a mob of nearly 150 people) for unfurling a banner and raising slogans against the CAA-NRC during an Amit Shah door-to-door campaign to ‘raise awareness’ about the Act.
The police brutality witnessed at minority campus spaces like Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University is also questioned to be gendered with reports of sexual violence and abuse towards female students surfacing.
Hostel authorities trying to force Jamia students to release testimonies in line with the State narrative. They are forcefully trying to extract a statement saying, “Police didn’t enter hostels,” even though news of women being molested, assaulted, brutalised are known to us. pic.twitter.com/ppR6xCloFN
— Pinjra Tod (@PinjraTod) December 17, 2019
The protests, and their women protestors, in Delhi have witnessed disproportionate uses of force as well. Paroma from Pinjra Tod (a Delhi-based feminist student collective), recalls the violence at Daryaganj on the 20th of December, “The police had actual bamboo poles, we tried to shield people who were hurt and lying on the ground but to get to them, the police started beating us too.”
Women students from Jammu & Kashmir Hostel in #Jamia are being asked to leave the hostel. The administration has refused to take any responsibility and told women residents that if they decide to stay back its at their “own risk” #CAA_NRC pic.twitter.com/kzIt7waaeu
— Pinjra Tod (@PinjraTod) December 18, 2019
Muslim women who participated in the protest at the Delhi University Arts Faculty on December 16th also speak of how hijab-clad women were singled out and targeted by members of the ABVP, while the police simply looked on. Sana* an undergraduate Kashmiri student at Delhi University asks, “What is it about a dissenting hijab-wearing woman that triggers State machinery so much? The State response to protests reveals that this is no longer just about CAA, this is about how identities in this country are targeted, and how these identities must be protected.”
What Women Stand to Lose: Why Protest At All?
The CAA-NRC protests over the past month aren’t the first time women of this country have taken to the streets. But, given the pan-India nature of the movement, the presence of women on the streets has captured the public imagination: as they step out to resist, they do so not just for other women, but for everyone who stands to be affected by the Act. However, women are protesting right now, in the face of heightened vulnerability, shaped by their gender.
— Pinjra Tod (@PinjraTod) December 17, 2019
The recent protests, for example, have rendered campus spaces extremely unsafe and volatile. These are the same spaces that women, especially those from marginalized sections arrive at after immense struggle. During the protests at Jamia Milia Islamia for example, women students from the Jammu and Kashmir hostel were asked to leave the hostel as the administration absolved itself of any responsibility, adding that women staying back would do so at their “own risk.”
Sahana*, a Muslim student from Uttar Pradesh studying at Jamia Islamia says,”I fought against the prospect of marriage to come to Delhi and study. Now my parents regret letting me go. They’re worried. They’re calling me home. But my home is also burning, so where do I go? The only thing I can do is stay here and protest for my right to a Muslim identity in this country.”
Women also stand to lose the most from these protests, far more than their male counterparts. Be it the young Muslim female students of JMI and AMU, the mothers sitting in at Shaheen Bagh, or the women taking a stand on social media – most are at the receiving end of rape threats for voicing their dissent. However, this vulnerability does not seem to have deterred women across the board: as the protests grow, the visibility of women only increases.
For many women, these protests and the visible resolve of women in spite of dire consequences, have been an act of reclaiming space.
Natasha* an Assamese undergraduate at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University explains, “Whether for thousands of Assamese women back home on the streets fighting to preserve their ethnic identity, or for Muslim women here at sit-ins at Park Circus or in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, this movement has been about reclaiming public space which people never thought Indian women could occupy. We are reclaiming our space in this struggle, and breaking stereotypes about who can take to the streets.”
This comes alive in Farheen’s (a student from Jamia Milia Islamia) address at Shaheen Bagh on 22nd December.
“Modi sarkaar ko lagta hai ki Muslim auratein bohot masaoom hain aur woh unke liye koi bhi law bana dein hum maan lenge. Par yahaan aake dekhiye ki hum masoom nahi hain, hum apna haq jaante hain!” (The Modi Government thinks that Muslim women are very innocent and that they can make any law for us and we will accept it. But come here and see that we are not innocent, we know our rights!)
Perhaps it is the years of oppression that women, particularly women at the margins, have faced that makes them understand oppression more and thus, resist it more. And so, it is the women of Jamia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh, who have truly led the way. The distinct mark of women on this movement is heard in the cries at daily protests,
“Jamia ki ladkiyo ne raasta dikhaya hai, toh Jamia ke ladkiyo ko Inquilab Zindabad
Shaheen Bagh ki auraton ne raasta dikhaya hai,
Toh Shaheen Bagh ki auraton ko Inquilab Zindabad!”