The anti CAA-NRC protest that erupted in December 2019 across many places in India has broken many widely stereotypes associated with Muslim women. The most common narrative of Indian Women in general and Indian Muslim Women in particualar revolves around the oft repeated claims of them being oppressed at home, discriminated in society, and confined to the household. However the widespread participation of Muslim women in the pro-constitution anti-NRC-CAA movement has broken numerous stereotypes regarding women in general and Muslim women in particular. They did not limit their role to silent bystanders; instead, they were actively involved in every dimension of these movements and demonstrated that they are not only capable of understanding complex issues, but can also orchestrate grassroot movements to oppose the oppressive and discriminatory policies introduced by the government.
Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in South Delhi, became a prominent symbol for their non-violent resistance. It was the longest protest site against NRC-CAA. “I hardly ever leave my house alone. My son or husband accompanied me even to the nearby market. So I found it tough at first to be out here. But I feel compelled to protest” said Firdaus Shafiq, one of the protestors at Shaheen Bagh. What made the protests unusual was that protestors like Firdaus Shafiq were not activists they were everyday Muslim women and mostly homemakers.
Shaheen Bagh inspired women across India to stand together. Muslim women in Central Mumbai came up with ‘Mumbai Bagh’ to express their solidarity to Shaheen Bagh. Mumbai Bagh included almost four thousand women protesting. These large scale agitations encouraged women to join from different walks of life and religion to protest for the shared cause of revoking CAA and NRC.
However, all these protests have come with a price. To repress these agitations, several women have been arrested, some under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Women like Safoora Zargar and Gulfisha Fatima who have become icons of dissent have been arrested under the same. Even though Safoora Zargar was given bail on humanitarian grounds since she was pregnant, Gulfisha Fatima’s petition was dismissed. What is highly unfortunate and surprising is that most of these arrests have been made when the country is going through a pandemic.
Muslim women in India have been predominantly labelled as veiled, submissive, uneducated and voiceless. Thus, their mass level involvement has come as a surprise to many Indians. These women have reclaimed their spot in the public sphere, but this is not a sudden change. On one level, their participation could be attributed to the growing anxieties among the Muslim community about NRC-CAA. Even though officially NRC is meant to act as a check against illegal immigration, there has been a growing belief that it is being used to marginalise the Muslims and strip them of their identity. Thus this fear of losing their home is one of the motivators for active participation of the Muslim women, but the origin for this high self-awareness among them also has several other reasons—one of the prominent one being the increasing rate of education among the women of the Muslim community.
The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report for 2017-2018 indicates the same. The enrolment rate in schools for Muslim girls has increased by 46%. The same survey also indicates that in the same period, 49% of Muslims that were enrolled in higher education were women. Such data suggest that anti-NRC-CAA protests acted as a portal to show the sociological changes that Muslim women were going through and that the belief that Muslim women are uneducated or illiterate is far from the truth.
Muslim women’s participation in these political movements has not only incorporated a sense of novelty to these movements but also helped women to recognise the strength within them and that they too can be the ones that lead change. It has also challenged several social constructs of patriarchy and provided a more prominent place for women in India’s socio-political fabric.