From the Dadis of Shaheen Bagh to the Mothers of Manipur: The Strength of Women Protesters


From the Dadis of Shaheen Bagh to the Mothers of Manipur: The Strength of Women Protesters

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

A few weeks ago, even a Dilliwali would be hard-pressed to locate Shaheen Bagh on a map. Now, as the women of the tiny area – wedged between the Yamuna River and a posh pocket of the capital – continue to put up a spirited sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the following violence at Jamia Millia Islamia, Shaheen Bagh has shot to national consciousness. The mothers, grandmothers, and young wives of the area in Okhla have predominantly lived in the shadows. All of that changed on December 15, 2019.

It has been 20 days since the women of Shaheen Bagh took to the streets. At least, 200 of them, in the worst bone-biting cold Delhi has witnessed in 119 years, 24X7, mothers with their infants and grandmothers who remember the Partition, all sitting on the street waiting for a silent government to hear them. On New Year’s Eve, they were still there, singing the national anthem to usher in a new decade, declaring that the street would be their home until the government repeals the Citizenship Amendment Act. The women of Shaheen Bagh are now the face of the anti-CAA protests.

In an article in the Hindustan Times, “The Fury of the women of Shaheen Bagh”, Rajdeep Sardesai writes that these women have told him that the next time news channels want to know what the people really think about the act, they should be invited for talk shows instead of imams. In a panel discussion on NDTV, three grandmothers who were a part of the protest explained how NRC would demand of them documents they do not have, doubting the citizenship of those who had brought them into the world. They looked into the camera and asked why not a single government official had deigned to come and talk to them even though they’ve been on the streets for two weeks.

But the mother and grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh are not alone. As protests have become a way of life for dissenting voices in India, women are leading the way. In Jamia, where students were agitating against CAA, brave women gathered to shield a friend being mercilessly beaten up by the police. The video of the hijab-clad women, one of them pointing a finger at a police officer, went viral. Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Aysha Renna N, both students of Jamia Millia Islamia, have since become the face of the protests.

As protests have become a way of life for dissenting voices in India, women are leading the way.

Only 20 days later, it was their counterparts in Jawaharlal Nehru University who were under attack. Its Student Union President Aishe Gosh was assaulted by masked goons – the image of her talking to cameras as blood gushes down her face will be imprinted in our mind for long. Battered but not broken, Ghosh, who is protesting against the fee hike in JNU, is in no mood to back down. She says her fight will go on.

What these women have set out to accomplish has several historical precedents – in Kashmir, in North-East India, in Argentina, in Liberia.

The girls of Jamia and JNU and the women of Shaheen Bagh have descended from the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”, where Argentine mothers gathered in the Buenos Aires square in 1977 to demand knowledge of their disappeared children in the Dirty War of Argentina. They gathered, in distinct white scarves which had the date of birth of their disappeared children, defying curfews against mass assemblage to hold their government accountable. At the end of that year, Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the movement was tortured and killed by Argentine forces – but in 1983, the military dictatorship, like all dictatorships, fell. The perpetrators received life sentences over time, and Villaflor’s remains were later found and buried at Plaza de Mayo, for all to remember.


When mothers are in the street, the State better sit up and listen.

Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

Patriarchal norms were just as prevalent then as now. The gender roles restricted the movement of women in the public sphere, which is why when the Mothers entered the Plaza de Mayo, a public space with significance and dominance of men, what was personal – the role of the mother – became political.

There was a reflection of that in Kashmir, with the APDP or the Association for Parents of Disappeared Persons. According to the association, since 1989, the Indian army and its state forces have been behind the “disappearance” of 8,000 to 10,000 Kashmiri civilians. Javed Ahmad Ahangar, 16 years old, was picked up from his home on August 18, 1991, never to be found again. His mother, Parveena began an unending search for him and in the process mobilised an entire group of people looking for their loved ones. For over a quarter of a century, APDP under Parveena’s leadership, has been fighting for justice and demanding answers from the state.

Perhaps the starkest and most heartrending example of this is from North-East of India, from Manipur. On July 15, 2004, 12 women stood naked in front of Kangla Fort, protesting the torture and killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by the 17th Assam Rifles unit that had picked her up. They protested the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that enabled the unit to detain Manorama; the banners they held up read: “Indian army rape us” challenging the forces that had terrorised the people of Manipur. The 12 women were arrested soon after, but after repeated protests, the fort was vacated and the AFSPA removed from certain sections of Imphal Valley.

Now, the mothers of Shaheen Bagh are shooing away new, but very real, fears.

In 2008, a film called Pray the Devil Back To Hell won the best documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, which chronicles how a group of Christian and Muslim women of Liberia came together to end the 14-year-old Liberian Civil War, through prayers, curses, and peaceful protests. Liberia went on to become the first African country to have a female head of state.

The film documents what we often forget: When mothers are in the street, the State better sit up and listen. So when a woman in Shaheen Bagh gazes into the camera and demands answers from the Prime Minister, there is only so long he can hide behind silence and platitudes.

When irrational fears of monsters and bogeymen plagued us at night, it was our mothers who shooed away those thoughts, armed only with their familiar smell and the formidable power of love. Now, the mothers of Shaheen Bagh are shooing away new, but very real, fears. Now, the mothers of Shaheen Bagh, will sit in the the bone-aching cold until this government remembers the Constitution, and the promises that they made to the people they voted into power.