The image of a Muslim woman in a burqa has been the subject of sympathy, derision, and ridicule for decades. With her face covered and body wrapped in a large shapeless black gown, she is often seen as someone who has been forced to live in anonymity, deprived of any individual identity, as someone who has no will of her own and is not aware of her rights.
A mere shadow of the man she walks beside, absorbing his ideas and bowing her head before his will. Regardless of how educated she is, how socially and politically aware she is, a woman in a burqa is seen as an embodiment of everything that was wrong with medieval ideology. Even those who call themselves liberals see her as someone who is helpless and needs to be rescued.
What is interesting is that despite being muted she has always been central to India’s politics, be it Congress’ flip flops in the Shah Bano case or the Modi government’s decision to criminalise triple talaq. No one has ever asked her what she wants, what her grievances are. Her views and opinions have always been presumed and taken for granted.
What we are witnessing in Shaheen Bagh today is not just an extension of a civil society movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC, it is an uprising of Muslim women, especially those dressed in burqas, who are coming out to reclaim their voice and their space in public discourse. The women of Shaheen Bagh, who have spent this cold winter on the streets, staging a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC, do not need any spokespersons or representatives.
They represent themselves and are taking on the Modi government with a ferocity that has left many stunned. While shooting my story I interviewed several of these women who said that they are thankful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for emboldening them.
Many of them said that they did not realise that their veil could be used against the community till the BJP government framed and passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act. They said that they have always seen the BJP as a party that works against the interest of minorities but what made the party more obnoxious and intolerable was the government’s misrepresentation that it had the support of Muslim women, especially those behind veils.
A large majority of the women at Shaheen Bagh are housewives who ordinarily would not leave their homes unaccompanied but today they are sitting on the streets, day and night, fighting for their rights.
They come wearing tri-colour headbands, carrying infants and toddlers and bottles of warm milk to feed them. They come with their children because they have no one else to leave them with. They are the primary caregivers of their children and they come literally carrying their responsibilities on their shoulders. They are out on the streets to ensure a safe and secure future for their children. For the women of Shaheen Bagh this protest demonstration is a declaration of their independence and their free will and it is a battle they are willing to fight till the bitter end.
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