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The Hopeful Legacy Of Shaheen Bagh Is Of Women Reclaiming Their Space In Public

The anti-CAA-NRC movement was much more than just that. It was also women coming out and reclaiming their place in the world.

“Most of our menfolk were in prison, and then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle, women had always been there of course but now there was an avalanche of them, which took not only the British Government but their own menfolk by surprise. Here were these women, women of the upper or middle classes, leading sheltered lives in their homes- peasant women, working class women, rich women- pouring out in their tens of thousands in defiance of government order and police lathi, it was not only that display of courage and daring, but what was even more surprising was the organizational power they showed.”

The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru writes fondly about how, when the men were imprisoned during the Civil Disobedience Movement, the women came out in huge numbers and took their place. This marked a turning point in the Freedom Struggle, because it proved conclusively that the people of India would not stop till the nation attained Independence.

In the years to come women continued to play an important role in the Freedom Movement. Not just well-off and well educated women, but the common woman. Mothers, sisters, wives, daughters- regular women who’s names are not recorded in history, but who made the same sacrifices as the men. Women who supported their men folk. Women who went against their men folk. They all fought for Independence.

However, once India attained freedom, these women disappeared. There were a few women who continued to lead public lives. As members of the Constitute Assembly, 15 women helped draft the Constitution of India. There was a woman in the first Cabinet announced by Nehru. An Indian woman was the first ever to be elected President of the United Nations. But, by and large, they disappeared from public life.

In the 73 years since Independence, women in Indian politics was the exception, rather than the norm. When a third of the seats under the Panchayati Raj were reserved for women, many of them went to the wives or daughters of local leaders who kept them as a proxy and continued to govern. There were notable exceptions of women sarpanches getting elected on their own merit, but they were not the norm.

Women had officially ceded public spaces.

Then, came Shaheen Bagh

It started as a group of women who came out to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act, and refused to leave. While residents of Delhi were complaining about a colder than usual winter, these women, with their young children, protested round the clock, outdoors.

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These women were not highly educated. Almost none of them worked outside the house. Most had lived their entire life in and around the colony where they were protesting. They were not members of any political parties. They had not held office. But they believed that the CAA was discriminatory, and they were willing to undergo hardship to protest against it.

Gradually, the news of their protest started spreading across the country. Similar protest gatherings sprung up in other cities. The international press started covering their protests. The government was forced to take notice.

What made the protests truly remarkable was how articulate the women were. Journalists who spoke to the protestors marveled at the fact that every protestor they spoke to could explain exactly why they were protesting. They were amazed at the depth of knowledge, and the courage of conviction which each of the women displayed.

The women of Shaheen Bagh inspired the nation. They reminded women to stand up and speak up. They forced men to start taking women seriously as political entities.

Internationally, they forced people to look beyond the burqa and recognize that Indian women were capable to asserting themselves politically.

Women came out again into public protests

The women of Shaheen Bagh were protesting against the CAA and the proposed NRC. What they achieved was viewed in the context of the specific issues they were protesting against. However, the movement was much more than just that. It was women coming out and reclaiming their place in the world.

The women of Shaheen Bagh came out of their slightly cloistered existence and for perhaps the first time in their lives interacted with people very different from themselves. They evolved as individuals. They borrowed books and periodicals from the libraries set up at the venue, and expanded their world view. They came to see themselves as people who could write their destiny instead of merely being mute witnesses.

For people working on gender rights, they held out the hope that Indian society would finally start taking women seriously and allow them public and political equity. The hope was that unlike what happened after Independence, Indian women would not surrender the newly won freedom.

The protest continued for three months till the pandemic forced them to bring it to a halt. Gradually, the protests wound down, one location at a time. In subsequent months, attempts were made to discredit the movement. Political parties and individuals tried using it for their own political gain. People with narrow political ambitions attempted to sully the image of the movement.

However, the spark that Shaheen Bagh ignited should not be allowed to die down. Shaheen Bagh should continue to inspire women, especially women from communities which are traditionally marginalised, to stand up for their rights and make themselves heard.

After Independence, women gave up their place in public life and returned to their home and work. Hopefully, that will not happen again, and women will continue to have their say in political affairs.

Image source: YouTube/ The Quint

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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