Why Should Women be Kept Away from Protest Sites?

Social Commentary

Why Should Women be Kept Away from Protest Sites?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In the eyes of the law, women and men are considered equals. So it was perplexing when at a hearing in the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) expressed his appreciation for assurances that women, the elderly, and children would be kept away from protest sites by lawyers appearing on behalf of protesting farmers. The protests, taking place nationwide but concentrated around New Delhi, have been going on since farmers decided to march to the capital in November 2020 in opposition to three controversial new laws by the central government. Thousands of farmers and their supporters have added their numbers to the protest, and many among their ranks are women.

Keeping the elderly and young children away from crowded protest sites while a pandemic rages is a prudent decision. There is also the consideration of emotions running high at a protest, with the potential for violence to break out in event of a trigger. Both groups could be considered a vulnerable population, and the decision is taken in the interest of their safety. But by clubbing women with these two groups, the SC commending the move to keep them away from the protest sites hints at an antiquated, patriarchal mindset toward women’s independence.

For years, there have been countless examples of women who stood up for their rights, and changed the course of history by doing so. From Rosa Parks to Rani Laxmibai, women have employed many different methods of expressing dissent. Indeed, the huge protests against the Indian government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were spearheaded by the women at Shaheen Bagh, whose sit-in protest became emblematic of the popular resistance to the CAA. Bilkis Dadi, an octogenarian female protestor from Shaheen Bagh, was made it to TIME magazine’s list for “Person of the Year”. At the farmers’ protests as well, photographs of white-haired, elderly women joining in were symbolic of the universal nature of the protests.

Isn’t the SC sending the signal that women are somehow inferior to men?

Announcing that women should be kept away from the farmers protest (or indeed, any protest) is a bizarre declaration, especially if you consider the numbers. According to the Indian government’s 2011 census, 98 million rural Indian women found employment in agriculture. A report by Oxfam in 2018 found that 33 per cent of the agricultural labour force is female. Their stake in the future of Indian agriculture makes their participation a necessity and an inevitability. By encouraging them to refrain from joining in the protests, isn’t the SC sending the signal that women are somehow inferior to men?

The move to clear out women, along with the elderly and children, from protest sites has been met with sharp criticism. The SC itself has recognised the legitimacy of the farmers protests, saying that every citizen of India has the right to peaceful protest. And yet, the SC is also asking women to refrain from exercising that right. Srivatsa YB, a member of Indian Youth Congress, called the proceedings a “blot on our judiciary”. Discouraging women from making themselves heard is a hallmark of a patriarchal society, at odds with the massive progress women have made in the last two centuries.

Even the right to vote, the key component of a universal franchise, was only granted to women on the back of the massive protests during the Suffragette movement of the early 20th Century. Agitation is how marginalised groups, including women, have always acquired rights from the establishment, which is inherently resistant to change. By denying that avenue to Indian women, the judiciary is setting a problematic precedent as far as gender equality goes in the country. Until women’s voices are heard, their rights will always be pushed to the background.