Why women lead anti-CAA stirs
A hypermasculinised state, which is what India is unmistakably turning into under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, becomes anxious at the first hint of challenge, particularly from women
The hypermasculinity of the Bharatiya Janata Party's politics, with its emphasis on strength, aggression and sexuality, has evoked a befitting response from women. They have turned the protests against the inequality inherent in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the grim possibility of exclusion of people through the mechanism of the National Register of Citizens in the future, into a women's movement.
Their everyday experience of inequality and exclusion has prompted them to constitute a substantial segment of those who have been buzzing against the CAA-NRC at the barricades, not at the rear but at the frontline, unafraid of the sharp edge of a masculinised state. Think of the group of women students of Jamia Millia Islamia who protected their male companions from policemen during the brutal dispersal of the December 15 protest; or of Anugya, who resurrected the constitutional ideal of equality through her poignant sound bites to TV channels; or of the 24x7 sit-in at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh which home-makers, in hijab, spearhead; or of Lucknow's Sadaf Jafar, who was beaten and humiliated during her 14 days in jail.
A hypermasculinised state, which is what India is unmistakably turning into under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, becomes anxious at the first hint of challenge, particularly from women. The state must flaunt its brute strength to shock and awe dissenters, as it did in Varanasi, which is Modi's constituency, incarcerating Sanya Anwar and Ekta Shekhar, who was separated from her 14-month-old child for nearly a fortnight. It is the BJP's culture of aggression that had its youth brigade run amok in Jawaharlal Nehru University, bashing its student leader, Aishe Ghosh, whose spirit has not diminished. Deepika Padukone must have Hindutva trolls torment her because, by turning up at JNU, she conveyed her contempt of chauvinists who expect silent submission.
There are reasons why universities have emerged as the epicentre of the women's fury against the CAA-NRC. For one, the enrolment of women in higher education touched a staggering 17.4 million in 2017-18, up from 1.2 million in 2010-11, according to the All India Survey of Higher Education. For another, in the past five years, the enrolment of Muslim students has increased by 37 per cent; of all Muslim students, girls constitute 46 per cent. Women account for 60 per cent of post-graduate and 70 per cent of M.Phil students. They, the survey shows, dominate the social sciences, which provide a sharp-focus lens to critique the state, society and gender relations.
The increasing presence of women in universities has enabled them to band together, with greater efficacy than before, against the harsh reality of inequality and exclusion on campuses. Some of the participants in the Jamia protest against CAA-NRC were merely scaling up their agitation against discriminatory hostel timings as well as to have a gender sensitisation committee established. Likewise, students of Banaras Hindu University took on the administration in 2017 against the unfair treatment of women and the rising incidence of sexual harassment. It is only natural for the hypermasculinised state, swaying to the tune of Hindutva, to think of slashing funds for centres for women's studies dotting Indian universities.
The CAA-NRC has become a catalyst for women to take their battle against inequality and exclusion out of universities. The cries of azadi, a veritable anthem at protest sites, have manifold meanings. Women in Jaipur demanded azadi to marry as well as not to marry. They demanded the right to have azadi in the "middle of a thoroughfare", without having to undergo sexual harassment. An 18-year-old spoke of the need for the young to also fight the battle in the family, publicly declaring that she must oppose her father's Islamophobia as it was no longer acceptable to her. Her battle against her father will also conceptually become one against Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah's shrill anti-Pakistan rhetoric; against the latter's description of infiltrators as termites and the BJP's celebration of the former's 56-inch chest.
The stunning aspect of the protest is the high participation of hijab-wearing homemakers, who are considered socially and politically conservative. Given that the CAA, widely regarded as the first stage in preparing the National Population Register and then the NRC, could tear apart families has drawn out Muslim women to the frontline. It is also said that they have been encouraged to step out into the public sphere as a strategic manoeuvre to restrain the police from turning belligerent to quell protests.
But then, those who preside over the hypermasculinised state are rendered ineffectual, as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated, through traits that are the opposite of those they possess; and through tactics that deprive the powerful of their capacity to scare, exhausting them. The women at the barricades understand, through their experience, that the CAA-NPR-NRC triad will bolster the psychology, supportive of inequality and exclusion, against which they have been fighting for decades.
The writer is a senior journalist
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