Why you should care
These protesting housewives and mothers have the most to lose.
A young girl darts through the crowd, dodging flagpoles and flickering candles. Breathless, she reaches the front and turns to stand on tiptoe, looking out across a sea of faces. She pumps one fist into the air triumphantly. “Azadi!” she yells. Freedom.
The crowd roars back at her. “Azadi!”
Soni is only 14, but what she lacks in years she makes up for in enthusiasm. Besides, all ages are welcome at this female-led protest at Shaheen Bagh, a small, predominantly Muslim-inhabited area in southeast Delhi.
Although it’s only one of many protests across the city, Shaheen Bagh has become famous for the determination of the women who lead it, as they’ve refused to leave since they got there. Their 24/7 sit-in has inspired copycat protests from women across the country.
For over a month now, women and girls of all ages — including great-grandmothers and children armed with flags and banners — have occupied one of the main highways leading out of the capital in protest of a new law. It began with just a handful of women from the local community, but word quickly spread, and now each night hundreds sit huddled out in the cold, singing and chanting under multicolored tarpaulins that stretch across three lanes of the road.
Unrest has gripped the country for the past few weeks since the announcement of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been criticized as discriminatory toward Muslims and a move away from India’s secular democracy. The new legislation, announced in December, would allow refugees from neighboring countries to claim citizenship within India — as long as they are not Muslim.
When activities finally die down for the day — at around 3 am — the women settle under blankets and sleep there.
While the ensuing protests have left more than 20 people dead across the country, the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh has remained peaceful, with singing, candlelit vigils and nightly speeches. During the day, volunteers hand out food, and local students have set up a library and drawing corner for children. When activities finally die down for the day — at around 3 am — the women settle under blankets and sleep there.
The protest began after violent attacks on students who were peacefully protesting at a nearby university. Bilquis, an 82-year-old grandmother who has been coming to Shaheen Bagh every day since, cites the violence, especially that inflicted on female students inside the dorm rooms, as the “final straw.” She shakes her head angrily. “It was high time that even the women, everyone, collectively spoke up,” she says.
Unlike other protests across the city, which consist mainly of students and Delhi’s educated elite, the women at Shaheen Bagh are predominantly local housewives and nearly all Muslim — those who stand to lose the most should their citizenship be called into question.
Rizwana Bano, a mother of three who goes home only for a few hours each day to cook for her family, says that the women had no choice but to get involved. “If they beat up our sons, kill our brothers, our husbands — what do they expect us to do?” she asks. “It’s inevitable that the women will rise up and fight for their rights.” Married off at a young age, the 27-year-old says that the village where she was born was wiped out in a flood years ago and no longer exists. She worries that she might not be able to provide the necessary documents if asked to prove her citizenship.
In the past few weeks, the protest has garnered more and more support. On New Year’s Eve, thousands turned up to Shaheen Bagh to celebrate in solidarity with a roster of guest speakers and, as ever, plenty of singing.
As the protest enters its second month, however, impatience at the roadblock is growing — police have publicly requested that the protesters move on, and many who use the highway to commute are losing sympathy with the cause. Although Shaheen Bagh has so far managed to remain peaceful, many of the women fear reprisals from the police and investigations by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
For now, though, for Soni and her friends who come here every day after school, the protests offer a rare chance for a new generation of girls to make their voices heard. “People choose their government, but why is the government now choosing people?” demands 12-year-old Shifa. “This is not equality.” The girls tell me they will keep coming until the government listens to their concerns.
It is one thing that the women of Shaheen Bagh, regardless of their age, all agree on. “I don’t care if it’s two months, six months — I’ll be here as long as it takes,” says Bilquis, adamant that the protests will continue until Muslim women stop being “othered” by the government. She gestures at the crowds gathering for the evening’s speeches.
“We were born here and we will die here, and no one can tell us that we don’t belong in this country.”