The force awakens: How women are leading the fight in India
What happens when women protest? A lifetime of bottled up angst finds voice in chants and slogans. Some bring along nursing babies, others put out old rugs to make space for more to join. There’s always food and water to go around. The rapturous applause you hear when one of them takes the stage to speak for the first time is the sound of resistance.
In India, the level of women’s involvement in protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, has been unprecedented. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh sit-in will enter its third month on March 14. Large numbers of women show up every day; and more than twice on Saturdays and Sundays. Similar women-led protests have surfaced in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Gaya and Mysuru. They’re braving unlawful detention, facing fire, tear gas, arrests and death threats. Most of these women are juggling day jobs, studies, household duties and child rearing.
What’s driving them all to speak up? For many, it’s a combination of long-simmering resentment and resilience. “Many of us have grown up in cultures that value the silence of women. Our women have been asked to perpetuate cultures that devalue us, and we refuse to let that continue,” says Priyanka Paul, 21, an illustrator and activist who speaks through her art on @ArtWhoring on Instagram. “You’ll find there’s a stronger sense of sisterhood now. And yet, women have always been at the forefront of revolutions; we just haven’t been told those stories.”
OUT IN THE OPEN
Those stories are harder to hide now. In Chile, women showed up on the streets in the thousands last year, protesting sexual violence with the rallying cry, ‘The Rapist Is You’. Over the last few months, Iraqi women have taken to Baghdad’s streets in defiance of a radical cleric’s calls for gender segregation at anti-government protest sites. In Sudan, women protesters are leading the pro-democracy movement.
A key trigger for Indian women’s public resistance was the December attack on students within the Jamia Millia Islamia and Delhi University campuses, amid the anti-CAA protests.
“These protests are actually a fight against the larger system of inequality,” says Elsa Marie D’Silva, CEO and founder of SafeCity, an app that maps reported instances of sexual harassment of women in public places. “Women are more likely to stand by the LGBTQ community for transgender rights and same-sex marriage in India, they will push for climate change movements, stand in solidarity with other minorities and vulnerable groups. That is what is unique about women’s protests.”
Trisha Shetty, a human rights lawyer and founder of the NGO SheSays, which offers women legal and medical support in cases of sexual violence, agrees. “As women, we intrinsically know what that feeling of being excluded is like,” she says.
Shetty sees the wave of involvement as a massive, decentralised, non-violent push. “Here, it’s not one leader but multiple local leaders, self organising and identifying leadership within them,” she says. It’s why she believes new voices must be encouraged. “The women who have taken to the streets for the first time must be given a mic, we must make sure their agency is celebrated and respected.”
For that, the web has been liberating. “I can call myself beautiful on the digital space,” says Paul of ArtWhoring. “My identity is valued here. Individuals have a voice. That’s the kind of platform it offers.” The digital space, however, comes with its own set of violence and restrictions, says Paul. There’s trolls and censorship, assumed biases, and navigating through it can be slightly restricting. But the platform digital spaces allows for makes up for that.
Artist Nalini Malani, whose works address issues of identity, gender and racial inequality, says making women’s voices heard is the only way for humanity to progress. But that must be preceded by the changing idea of masculinity, which might help sustain the movement too. “Men must not get away with feeling entitled. Men must find femininity in themselves and respect it. Therein lies the root.” says Malani.