Voices in the face of bigotry
Typified and trivialised as the oppressed, ordinary women clad in hijabs have come forth as crusaders, set on making a stance against the injustice of CAA and NRC, while breaking, perhaps, a few long-held stereotypes along the way
By now you would have come across endless photographs of protesters holding placards in their hands against the Citizenship Act and NRC across India. If you were to filter those photographs, you would notice that the majority of the protesters were women. Now, if you were to observe more closely, you would find a majority of these women who hit the streets were wearing a hijab – a traditional face covering worn by Muslim women. So, what happened to the age-old image of oppression and victimisation of Muslim women that a section of media has always tried to link with Hijab? As thousands of hijabi women were seen not just participating but leading processions, giving speeches and raising slogans in a gathering of hundreds of men and policemen against CAA, NRC and police atrocities, the orthodox image of hijabi women was surely smashed! The protest intensified when it travelled from Assam to New Delhi. On December 15, violence was reported from South Delhi which led to the police resorting to lathi-charge and using tear gas. The very next day, a video started doing rounds on WhatsApp and Twitter which showed a group of five women resisting Delhi police while they thrash their male friend with batons.
Defiant face covered with a red hijab, a raised finger, standing like an iron shield against a charging baton wielded by Delhi police personnel to save her male friend who had been dragged to the ground. A 22-year-old student, Ayesha Renna, became the face of the Indian Citizenship Act protest that rocked the country in 2019. Ayesha, a history student of New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University was then seen along with her friend, Ladeeda Sakhaloon, an Arabic student as the poster girls of the protest, inspiring several cartoonist and sketch artists to draw various pictures portraying the sketch of 'Dissent'.
"Ladeeda is asthmatic, she was gasping for breath when police used batons. You could see her in the video lying on the floor later, as we cried for help," Aktarista, a Jamia Millia graduation student said.
Later several women from Aligarh Muslim University also took to streets and were seen hitting the campus with posters and placards denouncing CAA and police use of force against Jamia Millia and AMU students.
Delhi-based author Bushra Alvi Razzack says, "It is wrong to assume that every woman who wears the hijab is under pressure to do so from society. In fact, the hijab is an empowering piece of garment that protects a woman from being reduced to a mere object of physical desire. It is ridiculous to think that if one's head is covered, one's thoughts too can be suppressed. As seen in the recent protests, the hijabi women have been the face of the protest. This clearly negates the construct that the hijab is a statement of oppression!" She feels that thousands across India protesting against the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), including Muslims and opposition argue that the new law should be seen alongside the NRC.
At Jamia Millia University, a woman clad in black hijab is seen addressing a gathering of women. Holding a microphone, she occasionally looks at her phone to point out the repercussions of NRC and CAA. The woman, Misbah Ali, is a BA (Hons) student of the university.
"The world needs to realise that modernity lies in one's perceptions and not on one's garb. The hijab makes me more comfortable when I stand and speak in a mixed gathering. Modesty is a high virtue in Islam. A section of the media has painted propaganda about hijab and shown the women as oppressed, which is not true," she further added.
At some distance, a young girl was spotted raising slogans, leading a gathering of around 200 protesters outside the university. Another girl standing by her side played a dhapli (tambourine). The girl repeatedly raised her fist sloganeering against CAA and NRC – a sight quite unusual in normal days.
The question that I would like to raise here is if the history of Islam recorded incidents of women taking charge and leading protests? Yes, it does. The sister of Imam Hussain and the daughter of Ali, Zainab, confronted Yazid in the aftermath of the battle of Karbala in Iraq in 61 AH, when the captive family members of Prophet Muhammad were moved to Levant (historical region of Syria). Zainab delivered a sermon in which she humiliated Yazid in his courtroom full of men and exposed his army's atrocities against Karbala martyrs.
"We have also been carrying our babies to the protest site, since there is no one to look after them at home. Either we skip the protest or we carry our children. We find the second option feasible," said Fareeda, a local resident of Delhi.
Approximately 2 km away from Jamia Millia University, another protest was carried out at Shaheen Bagh where hundreds of protesters sat on the road with placards against CAA in their hands. Here too, women in hijab braved the chilly December winds and sat in protest round the clock. At 2 am, they could be seen adjusting the razai for their children – providing comfort to those too young to understand the struggle.
Fareeha, another girl in hijab, said, "If you know what you are standing for is right, your values should be considered modern. Society has set parameters to judge modernity by clothes. It is assumed that english speaking people are advanced and progressive. This is not true. No matter what language you speak, what you wear, your ideas, your actions and what stance you take on a given situation defines your personality."
As the protest gained momentum across the country and abroad, a young Mass Communication student in Pondicherry University, Rabeeha Abdurehim, rejected her gold medal in solidarity with the protesters against CAA. The girl who hails from Kozhikode in Kerala, told reporters after the ceremony that she was asked to leave the hall before President Ram Nath Kovind arrived.
"When the President arrived, they asked me to come outside. So condemning whatever is happening against students in India right now, I am rejecting the gold medal. I am doing this in solidarity with everybody – Muslim, Hindu and whosoever is protesting against the act," Rabeeha Abdurehim said.
In another form of innovative protest, Indulekha, a first-year student at the Government Law College in Ernakulam, wore a hijab and carried a placard that read: "Mr Modi, I am Indulekha. Can you identify me by my dress?". Her photo holding the placard soon went viral.
According to the CAA, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi migrants who have entered India without a visa on or before December 31, 2014 from the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and have stayed in the country for five years are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.
Women wearing hijab have played a prominent role in the on-going protest against CAA and NRC across the country, braving police batons and harsh weather conditions. They have certainly redefined the meaning of hijabi women as that of leaders and influencers. Though not by many, few still believe that hijab is something oppressive, but these young women have nullified these existing perceptions and have probably presented a new way of perceiving hijab-clad women.