War against brahmanical patriarchy
As someone rightly said, there are women who birth children, and there are women who birth revolutions, and there are women who do both; Shaheen Bagh proves just that
Ineeded no navigational assistance when I got off the Metro at Jasola Vihar. I walked onto the footbridge leading to Shaheen Bagh. Once at street level, I hesitated for a moment. My gut feeling to take a right was validated by my having sighted groups of people emerging from that direction with the Indian tricolour painted on either or both cheeks. I continued walking until the road seemed shut, then I went left and then right. By now the energy was palpable, even someone with a visual impairment could have found her way to the protest site. I was lured by the energy. It was 9 pm but the streets leading to the tented zone where, for over a month, Muslim women have been staging a sit-in against the discriminatory CAA and its potential weaponisation in conjunction with the NRC and NPR, were teeming with people exiting and entering. There was possibly no way of tracking how many people were there at any given point in time that evening, as bodies that were leaving were being continually replaced by bodies that were joining in.
On Wednesday, January 15, Sikh farmers and activists had come in from Punjab to offer their solidarity with the Muslim women. By the time I was heading there, a vast section of them had already made their way to Gate No. 7 at Jamia Millia Islamia. As I finally approached the site where it seemed, easily, like there were people in thousands, I had goosebumps. After having been in Goa and Mumbai over Christmas, spending time with my family of origin, I felt elated to have returned 'home' to Delhi.
The atmosphere at Shaheen Bagh was unlike anything I have ever encountered in my life. It was unlike any and every other protest I've been to before. It is outright impossible not to feel awed by what the women who began it have accomplished, how they have managed to sustain the movement, the extent of the hospitality they have facilitated, and the kind of alliances and solidarities they have established through their de-centralised form of leadership and their generous capacity to listen.
When I arrived, the mike was held by a woman who had walked from Ahmedabad to New Delhi with her daughter to vocalise her support for the death penalty for the four men convicted in the gruesome Nirbhaya gang-rape case. While I totally empathised with her rage when it comes to the way women's bodies continue to be treated as objects, I wasn't able to share her enthusiasm for the death penalty, and I doubt I ever will, no matter how gruesome the crime. I am not able to bring myself to share blood lust that is harboured by the spirit of vengeance. I am more interested in how we can and must revolutionise the world by identifying and acknowledging the damage that has been done by institutionalised and informal forms of patriarchy. But I appreciated many of the points she had to make, about the many flaws of the current system of disseminating justice; how it is unequivocally biased towards those who have gender and caste privilege, and wealth to boot. She said it was the first time in her life she was ever speaking on such a public platform, which surprised me, because she was so eloquent, articulate, and clear-minded. She had experience, though, with dealing with power, since she's been working for an NGO for some years now.
Like her, there were many people who spoke, some who sang, and there was one moment that was so incredulous, involving four men each of whom represented four of the most popular religions in India — a Hindu priest, a Muslim imam, a Sikh man and a Christian who held a bible. Each of them was wearing their religious identity, and they led the protesters into a choral chanting to enunciate how the members of each of these religions were brothers (bhai bhai). The men seemed a bit clunky and each one was keen to hog the mike.
Later, at the back, there was a nervous energy as two men climbed up a high-voltage electric pole to place the tricoloured flag at its summit. When they descended, many bystanders clapped, more out of relief that there wasn't an unfortunate accident. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. Further back, there were more men in groups happily chanting calls for azadi, but usually over the sound of someone speaking on the podium. All along, though, you could clearly see, the women continued to sit and listen in the central nave and along the peripheries. They were paying attention, chiming in on the parts they agreed upon. They weren't there to participate in a mela, like many of the men who were there at the back on Wednesday evening. Perhaps because they had made time for this, because this was now their central occupation, their bodies behaved differently than their male counterparts.
When I left, around 11.30 pm, the crowd showed no sign of abating. I loved the idea that there is now this space within Delhi where you can go at whatever time of day or night and find someone who cares as much as you do about speaking against fascism. I loved that on the day I went there I found just one other person I knew. As someone rightly said, there are women who birth children, and there are women who birth revolutions, and there are women who do both. Make no mistake, this is not just a fight about religious discrimination. This is a war against brahmanical patriarchy. Silence is not an option. It's up to us women to take centre stage as a collective.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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