POLITICS
18/02/2020 9:06 AM IST | Updated 18/02/2020 9:59 AM IST

Shaheen Bagh’s Women Have Transformed Who Speaks For India’s Muslims, Says NYU Anthropologist

Dina M. Siddiqi, a professor of anthropology at New York University, says the monopoly of religious men and cherry-picked politicians speaking for India's Muslims has been broken.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Women hold Valentines Day placards during a sit in protest against CAA, NRC and NPR at Shaheen Bagh on February 13, 2020. They have appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to come and talk to them.

NEW DELHI — For Dina M. Siddiqi, a professor of anthropology at New York University, the women of Shaheen Bagh have changed who speaks for Muslims in India.

“What has really been undermined is going to the usual guys about what Muslims think in India and what they prioritise,” said Siddiqi, an expert in gender and feminism in South Asia. “I think that has really gone. These women are very eloquent about what they think should be done and what they want.”

The women of Shaheen Bagh — Muslim women who challenged the Narendra Modi government and Parliament over a problematic citizenship law — have passed into folklore for galvanising lakhs of people who oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). 

Hundreds of women have sat on a public road in a locality called Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi, demanding lawmakers to repeal the CAA, which critics say makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship. When combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to identify people living without documents, critics say, the CAA discriminates against Indian Muslims. Women of all ages have sat, sang, spoken and sloganeered, day and night since December, even on nights when the temperature dropped to 2 degrees Celsius. They have moved thousands, and, on some days, lakhs of people into making their way to the vibrant protest site in the nation’s capital. They have inspired other Muslim women to lead the anti-CAA protests in cities across the country. 

This unprecedented sit-in has also triggered commentary about the empowerment of Muslim women in India. What that means and will these two months on the frontline wrought any change for them were among the questions that HuffPost India asked Professor Siddiqi, who has family roots in Bangladesh, and who visited Shaheen Bagh in January.

While pointing out that there cannot be one voice that speaks for a community as diverse as Indian Muslims, and there is “no one Muslim woman’s voice in India,” she said that future voices will no longer be the monopoly of religious men and politicians, who, more often than not, are picked by their political masters to do their bidding. 

“That is an enormous step forward for women who are Muslim in India. That is terrific. Nobody is going to go back to those men who were not necessarily representative at all,” she said.

Here in India, we are talking a lot about how the women leading the Shaheen Bagh movement is unprecedented in terms of Muslim women exercising agency. 

This is an interesting moment. But there are all kinds of things that Muslim women in India have been doing that somehow don’t get counted as Muslim women exercising agency. In the controversial teen talaq movement, there were Muslim women who went to the courts. Even when you think about Shah Bano, Muslim women have been using courts to change laws for a while now. They are trying to change nikah halala. There is a lot happening.  

But this is a moment of hope for Muslim women movements as well as other movements. When I was at Shaheen Bagh, I heard a speaker say that we did not come out on the streets when the teen talaq thing happened, we did not come out on the streets when the Babri Masjid judgment happened, but we could stand back no longer. And the assumption seems to be that this time it is because of the Constitution and because the Constitution is so sacred. My reading would be that this is a particular moment in India in which Muslims simply cannot stay quiet because their very existence and subjectivity is at stake in the CAA. I heard one woman say that I’m doing this for our children’s future. I don’t even think they are thinking of this as a great feminist thing. It’s about the children, the sons and the daughters. I think they are thinking that if they don’t speak out as Muslims now then they will never speak out. 

I think they are thinking that if they don’t speak out as Muslims now then they will never speak out.

What did you think of Shaheen Bagh?

I saw three speakers. One was a young Muslim man from JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), who was very outspoken. There was lawyer from Patna and there was a Muslim woman community leader. I had never seen such an Islamised way of talking in India. The way that mubarak was being offered to these women was very openly Muslim. I think a lot of Muslims in India have realised that it is now or never to create a space where you can be a citizen and not be apologetic about being a Muslim citizen. I think the Shaheen Bagh movement feeds into that. There is an emerging Islamophobia which makes it hard for Muslims to be heard. This is a moment where Muslim hopefully can confront those issues of Islamophobia while standing as Muslim citizens of India. I see people calling out Islamophobia without having to apologise for being Muslim.   

I see people calling out Islamophobia without having to apologise for being Muslim.

Muslim women, at least in Lucknow, are leading the sit-in protest as a matter of strategy. They feel the police will pause before resorting to violence when faced with women. 

I’ve only been to Shaheen Bagh, but I’ve read a lot about the other places. Knowing what is happening in India, and knowing the long and dangerous history of being young, male and Muslim in India, it makes total sense. I don’t think it’s just about minimising the violence that comes down on bodies that resist the state, I think it’s also about the realisation that young Muslim men are particularly vulnerable. Muslim men would be the first to be labelled as terrorists, to be picked to up some kind of mob, and to be disappeared. I think the strategy is one that one sees elsewhere. When young men are vulnerable in a particular kind of way, the women come forward. A friend of mine, who was talking about former Yugoslavia and Argentina as well, said that when the men were being disappeared, the women would come in front. It is a strategy. It is a protective strategy of the young men. 

When young men are vulnerable in a particular kind of way, the women come forward.

There is a lot of talk in India about how Muslim women have been politically empowered. What does that mean?

That’s a good question. What does it mean? It is true that women who are out there would have never imagined leaving their homes and husbands and sitting out in the open for days. These are not working women for the most part. Leaving their identities as wives and mothers — that experience will change anybody. In that way, it has got to be transformative for the consciousness of these women. And maybe other women of the same background will perhaps find a voice that they have not had before. It’s probably quite a coming into the consciousness for a group of women who are Muslim, in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise.  Will this mobilise into a classical definition of political empowerment — what does it mean — more women in education, in the political sector. If you’ve read the Sachar Committee report, there has got to be more structural changes to make those things happen. When we think Muslim women, we only think religious issues. And that’s just not true. Muslim women don’t just think about Muslim issues. 

(According to the Sachar Committee report published in 2007, the literacy rate among Muslims was 59.1%, lower than the national average of 65.1%, but Muslim women were at 50%, at par with women from other communities).

(While overall about 44% of women are engaged in economic activity, the figure for Muslim women is 25% overall and as low as 18% in urban areas, according to the report). 

(Muslim women are 6.9% of India’s 1.2 billion people. There are three Muslim women in the current Lok Sabha, 0.5% of the lower house, and zero in Rajya Sabha, the upper house). 

Leaving their identities as wives and mothers — that experience will change anybody.

What will be the impact of the Shaheen Bagh movement?

One really good thing that has happened, which is about women’s empowerment, is that the usual people who used to be representatives of the so called Muslim community — which is really really diverse, of course — people like (Syed) Shahabuddin — I think, that time has gone. That’s really really important. 

These women just speaking with so much confidence and eloquence and clear headed analysis. I think that is a huge shift. Politicians using Muslims as a vote bank, and then putting their cherry-picked people as spokespersons, and then deciding what are the women’s questions, I think those days are gone. That is an enormous step forward for women who are Muslim in India. That is terrific. Nobody is going to go back to those men who were not necessarily representative at all. They are just men with a particular kind of political capital. I think this is a huge step forward for a Muslim women’s movement or any kind of women’s movement.

(Syed Shahabuddin, an Indian Foreign Service officer turned politician, had sided with the orthodox Muslims cleric who opposed giving maintenance to a divorced woman named Shah Bano beyond the three-month long iddat period). 

Has the voice for the Indian Muslims changed because of  this movement, perhaps forever?

Well, I don’t know perhaps forever. But what has really been undermined is going to the usual guys about what Muslims think in India and what they prioritise. I think that has really gone. These women are very eloquent about what they think should be done and what they want. I think it will be much harder to go back to a former time when journalists and politicians would rush to particular faces and ask what do Muslims want.

What about Shaheen Bagh stood out for you?

I saw some posters at the back, the last poster was Rokeya Sakawat Hossain, a Bengali Muslim. She is a real icon for us (in Bangladesh). 

When I went and spoke to the women, in my semi broken Hindi and Urdu, I said that I bring solidarity from Bangladesh. They were so warm and welcoming. I was so impressed by the general feel of it. I was trying to find a word for solidarity and the woman next to me said, ‘you mean, himmat.’ We feel these things across the border. 

(Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, born in 1880, is remembered by people as India’s first Bengali feminist. The school she set up in Kolkata in 1911 remains one of the most popular schools for girls and is now run by the government of West Bengal).  

I was trying to find a word for solidarity and the woman next to me said, ‘you mean, himmat.’

Does this moment have to translate into something?

Well, what they want is to get rid of the CAA. I think that would be an incredible and most empowering achievement for Muslim women in India. That would give people a new kind of voice and hope. It would be incredibly empowering to individual women. It’s really hard to do these things. But if they can keep a sustained pressure on the government and they can generate the protests that are coming up all over the country, that’s an achievement. If they can get the government to respond in any kind of way, including the newly elected Aam Aadmi government, which has pretty much refused to acknowledge this, that would be a real achievement. Beyond that, how women choose to organise really depends on local issues. It was really clear that very few women thought that teen talaq was a huge issue, but then it became a national issue. The nikah halala is definitely an issue. 

What if it does not translate into something CAA-related? The Supreme Court could ask the Shaheen Bagh protests to wrap up? Would this moment then be forgotten? What will be its legacy?

I think the moment will not only not be forgotten, but this moment will become a memory that galvanises, a memory that gives hope, a memory that shows you can leave certain domestic structures behind. These are women challenging the state, and it’s an authoritarian state right now. Even if they don’t get what they want, this will not be a failure. Even if nothing outstanding or iconoclastic comes out of it, the stories around Shaheen Bagh will be important as a mobilising force for whatever happens in the future. These women will be remembered for being the first people to take to the streets against the CAA. That’s really a story of courage.

(Editor’s note: This interview is part of The Idea of India, HuffPost India’s monthly newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here)

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