By Shefali Anand, February 6, 2020, USNews
NEW DELHI – Women have been at the forefront of protests in India against a new law, with some women literally sitting on the streets day in and day out for more than a month.
The scenes across the country are part of a broader wave of movements in patriarchal nations where women have lately come out to claim public spaces, says Krishna Menon, dean of the school of human studies at Ambedkar University in Delhi and an editor at the International Feminist Journal of Politics.
The protests in India are against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that makes it easier for some religious minorities to obtain citizenship, but not for Muslims. Critics say the law violates the secular principles of India’s Constitution.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the new law “does not affect any citizen of India of any religion,” but many people disagree, and Menon says the public demonstrations have launched a new role for women. In protests in December, two young women who bodily shielded their male friend from attacks by the police at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University became icons of the protests.
In Delhi’s Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, hundreds of women, including grandmothers and housewives, have been sitting in on a stretch of road since December. They have inspired similar sit-ins by women elsewhere.
While women in India have previously participated in political movements, their presence in the current protests is a turning point, especially for Muslim women, Menon says. “These women are clearly nobody’s props. They are their own women. They have their own minds.”
U.S. News & World Report spoke with Menon, who discusses the implications of women’s participation in India’s protests. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
U.S. News: What is different about women’s participation in the ongoing protests?
Menon: I would like to place this in a larger context.
Last year, Sudan saw a movement largely led by young women, against the 30-year-long dictatorship of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. If you recall, the image of Alaa Salah, the 22-year old girl who stood on top of a car and was chanting slogans and she had women all around her.
Prior to that in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, there have been initiatives by young women to claim public spaces, to imprint their presence on the cities, and the roads and streets, and literally own the space.
Turkey has a movement where young women dress up, and they use motorbikes and they want to be “seen.” Pakistan has the famous Girls at Dhabas movement where young women visit roadside eateries or “dhabas,” and just sit there and have tea, breaking the stereotype of ‘good women don’t go to dhabas.’
In India, one of the biggest developments across university campuses was the “Pinjra Tod” (break the cage) campaign. It began in 2015 at Jamia Millia university, to protest early curfew for women students living in college hostels or dorms. (Most Indian colleges require women students to be back in the dorms earlier in the evening than male students). Pinjra Tod spread like wildfire across campuses. It is trying to question some of the so-called pillars of Indian society.
So I think a new crop of young women are there on university campuses, who see the possibility of empowerment and transformation through higher education. They see education not just as a career-building mechanism but as a democratizing tool.
There is clearly a link between that kind of sensibility, and the articulation that you see in the young women who are standing up to the police now.
U.S. News: Is Pinjra Tod a reflection of the anger of women against societal restrictions?
Menon: It is not anger. It’s the desire to be equal citizens. How can you claim to be a democracy which guarantees equality to all its citizens and have a situation where women hostelers are locked up in the evening?
U.S. News: Women have long demanded greater political representation in India, with 33% confirmed seats in the lower house of parliament. Are the women of today fighting for a different agenda?
Menon: No. They see that political empowerment can’t happen on its own. They realize that in a society where you can be killed for wearing a dress of your choice, there’s really no point in only asking for 33% reservation. You have to ask for more.
U.S. News: What about the participation of Muslim women, especially at Shaheen Bagh?
Menon: These women have been sitting in the cold, and you know that this winter in Delhi has been extremely harsh.
They have been there every night, in sit-ins, with poetry, and songs, and music and much food and laughter and chatting. The night sometimes ends with the screening of documentaries and films. I believe they screened a film on Mussolini. They are bringing their children along, and the backdrop is photographs of Mohandas Gandhi and the Constitution of India.
This is a turning point in the way in which Muslim women are participating in Indian politics. They are their own leaders and they have an agenda which is much larger than themselves. The agenda is the defense of democracy in India, the defense of plurality in India, and the defense of the Indian Constitution.
U.S. News: Many of the women, Hindu and Muslim, are coming to protests against the wishes of their conservative families. Could this have repercussions?
Menon: It’s not easy in India for young women to step out. For young women to step out and be part of a political movement, it is even more difficult. And to stay out the night? Good heavens! And they’re doing all of this.
These women understand their desire to break free of the rigid hierarchy of their family is not unique to their family. It is part of a larger structural pattern of Indian society. And they understand that the Constitution is the tool to address those structural hierarchies.
U.S. News: Are they learning from women’s movements in other patriarchal countries that you mentioned?
Menon: Certainly. These patterns are evident in the way young women are moving out, trying to own the city.
Interestingly, they are trying to engage in modern politics but not necessarily project a “Westernized” image. In Sudan, for instance, they are dressed in traditional attire, they are speaking and chanting in their own language.
So they are breaking the old binary of (the) modern, empowered, politically active woman versus the traditional woman. That’s very significant. The women protesting on the streets in Delhi, Bengaluru (Bangalore), Kolkata, these are actually women from the heartland of India, and from the margins of society. They have begun to understand the value of freedoms that the Constitution guarantees.
That is why the commitment to the Constitution, and the fierce energies that they are bringing to these protests.