Shaheen Bagh, the Farmers’ Protest and the Importance of Gender Inclusivity in Social Movements

Women gathered in large numbers in Bahadurgar, Haryana on Women’s Day, 2021. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

Author: Prasiddhi Shrestha

Last September, five Indian nationals were named amongst the 100 most influential people of 2020. One of them was an 83-year old woman Bilkis Dadi, who had been the symbol of strength and resistance against the newly introduced Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. The CAA is a controversial bill that was passed in December 2019 that allows access for a fast track citizenship for immigrants and refugees from India’s neighbouring countries Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It explicitly states that citizenship would be granted to people from Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian faiths. The bill, however, does not include Muslims –who constitute the majority of the population in all three of the mentioned neighbouring countries– in that list. Bilkis dadi had been one of the many Muslim women who peacefully protested the CAA by organizing what was going to be an indefinite sit-in in the neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi. The Shaheen Bagh protests started on the 15th of December, 2019 and had been quite the sight to see: a narrow street packed with women and their children, with poetry being recited as means to channel frustrations stemming from the CAA. Despite it being one of the coldest months in Delhi at the time, these women endured the weather to boldly stand for their rights and the rights of many others. The sit-in protest was only called off 100 days later, on the 23rd of March, 2020, due to fears arising from Covid-19.

Equally remarkable scenes were seen months later in India’s farmers’ protests that began in August 2020. Again, women played a crucial role in these protests that called on the government to retract bills that would allow for the opening of agricultural produce markets. On International Women’s Day, the 8th of March 2021, as many as 50,000 women participated in women-led demonstrations across Northern India. They wore mustard clothes symbolic of the mustard fields of their hometown, chanted slogans and marched.

Women gathered in large numbers in Bahadurgar, Haryana on Women’s Day, 2021. (Photo Credit: Reuters)
Women gathered in large numbers in Bahadurgar, Haryana on Women’s Day, 2021. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

For all that, it was not long before Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest faced public scrutiny and discrimination based on the gender of the protestors. These women were shamed for choosing to protest instead of staying at home and were often labelled as sellouts who were acting on someone else’s behalf. The fact that they predominantly belonged to religious minority groups, Muslims in the case of Shaheen Bagh and Sikhs in the case of the Farmers’ protest, also meant they were met with further insults. People accused them of being manipulated by the male members within their communities and questioned their character.

This reaction shed light on the stubborn reality of today: women face persisting challenges that discourage them from participating in public spaces. Not only is it harder for women to participate in protests due to societal norms that expect them to stay home, it is also more common for their political opinions to be disregarded as uninformed, or a misunderstanding by many. Upon their participation, they also face constant disapproval and limitation by society and state institutions. 

Despite the hurdles, when the women of Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest did assert their presence, they introduced an important feminist perspective to the movement which gave many the chance to understand the intersectional consequences of the policies they were protesting. By voicing their dissent, women not only utilized their agency but also allowed for the public to understand the gender-specific issues with the presented policies.

Societal and institutional discrimination against women in public spaces

Women often face patriarchal and institutional practices that discourage them from occupying public spaces. This was evident in the case of Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest as well. The women conducting and participating in the two protests were constantly labelled as proxies, implying that they were too gullible to be doing what they had been doing. The notion was that these women did not have the free will to behave in a certain manner and hence had been acting on someone else’s behalf. This discouragement was endorsed not only by public figures but also through the state’s actions. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a north-Indian state, once wrote that women do not need independence; they need protection. That a woman must be taken care of by her husband, son, brother or other male figures because they themselves do not have the capability to live independently. His words play on a particular propaganda that deem women as incapable of thinking and speaking for themselves, insisting that they are inferior to their male counterparts.

Till date, Yogi Adityanath has neither retracted this statement nor apologized for his remarks. His misogyny has instead transcended into his government’s complacency towards outright gender-based crimes and hate speech. In particular, it provoked gender-based discrimination against the Muslim women who were are at the Shaheen Bagh protests too. These women were seen as people defying the ‘natural’ hierarchies and structures that Yogi Adityanath and many of his colleagues had defined in their works and in public. The Chief Minister went as far as to say that the women were being pushed forward by others.

In another instance, the Chief Justice of India, Arvind Bobde, on behalf of the court, stated that it would be appreciated if “elders, women and children will not participate in the present protests” in reference to their participation at the farmers’ protest. Once again, women were viewed as a discardable part of the movement. Institutional actions like these have justified and legitimized behaviors and practices that make it hard for women to express themselves publicly and assert their positions on given issues. Moreover, this cycle of validating misogynist standards normalizes the occupancy of public spaces by men.

The importance of women’s representation within movements

Because of societal and political reasons such as those mentioned above, women represent a significantly smaller portion of public and political spaces in India and South Asia at large. However, the need for more representation remains immense to which Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest serve as evidence. The participation of women in both the demonstrations prominently highlighted the cross-cutting effects of the CAA and the Indian Agriculture Act of 2020 (IAA) and the struggles that each bill would bring for different groups of people. By participating in these demonstrations and voicing their specific gender-based concerns, women introduced a feminist perspective to the aforementioned bills.

The demonstrations at Shaheen Bagh effectively called out the marginalization of the Muslim community in India, with an emphasis on how women, in particular, become subjected to greater discrimination within that demographic. The women-led protests initiated several conversations around how Muslim women are in an especially disadvantaged position with the passing of the CAA bill. These discussions underscored how Muslim women would possess the hardest time with documentation due to the relatively low literacy rates within the group as compared to the national average. Furthermore, once women were to be stripped of their citizenship rights, they faced greater chances of abuse and violence. These concerns would have perhaps been overlooked had the face of the movement lacked any female representation. Having shown that the stakes for women were just as high –or even higher– than that for men when it came to the CAA, women exercised their agency by claiming their political right to express dissent. Through their actions, their message was clear: women were equally capable of demanding and necessitating change as their male counterparts.

Similarly, in the farmers’ protests, female demonstrators represented millions of female farmers who were going to be affected by the IAA. Here too, they spoke of how the exploitation of farmers would directly affect women farmers more due to the patriarchal society and state. This is because, despite over 75% of rural women in India being involved in agriculture, only 13% have ownership over the land they work on. Since women farmers had been sidelined for so long, many had not expected their participation in the farmers’ protest. Hence when they did engage with it, it came as a reminder to many of the hard work and contributions of women farmers to society.

In both of these protests, women defied the traditional role of being a homemaker, a role that the patriarchal society has attributed to them. Their actions demonstrated that, when included, women are strong forces within movements and provide a critical perspective of their own. By choosing to publicly express her dissent, Bilkis Dadi and many others along with her have indeed highlighted and demonstrated how women can be influential in steering the direction of social movements.

Bilkis Dadi, at 83, remains an icon for the strength and perseverance displayed by the women of Shaheen Bagh. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/ Getty images)
Bilkis Dadi, at 83, remains an icon for the strength and perseverance displayed by the women of Shaheen Bagh. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/ Getty images)

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Miss. Prasiddhi Shrestha is currently working as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in political science from Sciences Po Paris, where she specialized in Asian political affairs. Within the field of politics, she is especially interested in social justice, international security, and conflict and development.

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