Battle for India’s Soul: At the Front Lines, Women Bear the Brunt of Age-Old Sexism

The political sphere has seen considerable change in the past few weeks in India. Women have become the defining face of resistance against the heavy handedness of a government impervious to citizens’ concerns, be it the shadow of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, or the issues plaguing a university.

In Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, it is women across age groups, many with babies in their arms, who have been at the frontline of the peaceful anti-CAA protests for over 72 days. At Jamia Millia Islamia University, it was female students who fiercely protected a male friend from the lathis of the police during their anti-CAA demonstration on December 15; and, in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which was overrun by an attacking mob on January 5, 2020, it is the image of its student union president, Aishe Ghosh, with a bandaged head, which has remained in one’s mind – strong, raging and calm at the same time.

JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh. Photo: PTI

The intersection of political rights and assertion of gender that has characterised these protests, has been unparalleled. United in discrimination, women from all walks of life have joined voices, and those from marginalised communities have also lent their support. Even the stoic silence of film actor Deepika Padukone at JNU sent a powerful message to the country – that she was willing to risk the fate of her first production venture by standing with the assaulted students and teachers of JNU.

And yet, the women who have been leading from the front in sit-in protests initiated by them are met with sexism each day. Count the innumerable number of times male speakers, whether at Shaheen Bagh, Seelampur, Hauz Rani or Inderlok and many other places, address women as ‘humari behen, betiyaan, maayein, dadiyaan’ (our sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers). It seems the importance of those women is only in relation to them! Why are we unable to respect women beyond their familial roles and relationships?

Moreover, these forms of address are not restricted to those who are new to public speaking. Influential and popular critics of the government have consistently relied on this trope as well. It shows how deeply ingrained patriarchy is that we are unable to acknowledge women leading a movement beyond the social roles they are expected to play. We don’t see them as fighters in the movement they began, but as ‘dadis, behens and betis’ who were braver than anyone imagined them to be. Even this imagination of their strength is woefully limited by patriarchal notions.

Saluting courage and patronising women for having courage are two very different things. The patronising attitude speaks of such deeply rooted notions that even a progressive Indian can be ‘surprised’ that a woman can exercise her choice to lead a protest, put herself physically in the space of conflict, and lend her voice to give a call that is followed.

There is little doubt that under the governance model of the Modi-Shah government, supported by the Sangh parivar and its offshoots, a deep sense of violent misogyny and patriarchy has been amplified across society. One can see it in the manner women are referred to, be it the BJP’s reaction to Renuka Choudhary laughing in the Rajya Sabha as the prime minister was speaking; Modi asking parents to plant trees for timber that can be sold for the daughter’s wedding or even the highly problematic Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign.

Or take the belief of a godman with an immense following, namely that women’s active engagement with the world is a pressing reason for the rise in cases of depression in our society, which further cement patriarchal narratives.

Also read: The Complicated Truth About Separating the Personal From the Political

It has become routine for women vocally dissenting the politics of divisiveness are almost always met with threats that are sexually abusive in nature. To the patriarchal Indian male, the greatest insult is vitriolically violating a woman’s physical and sexual agency.

The sheer impunity that such acts enjoy is what accounts for the magnitude of shift towards misogyny. Earlier, many of those trolls would be anonymous; now they proudly broadcast their identities and the protective cushion they enjoy under the current regime. Some of them are followed on Twitter by no less than the prime minister of the country.

Take the BJP’s recent salvos against the women of Shaheen Bagh. The top trends for three consecutive days boasted hashtags like ‘Shaheen Bagh ki Bikau Auratein’, with Amit Malviya (the head of the BJP IT cell) tweeting about how each woman sitting at Shaheen Bagh had been paid Rs 500 to do so. The protestors responded to these bizarre claims with sarcasm, anger, and humour at every point.

Another question often asked is, ‘Where are the men?’ betraying the expectation of seeing men ‘lead’ and hearing their voices in a dominant role.

The intent behind such statements is jarring for it implies that the ‘rightful’ or accepted and expected place for women is decidedly inferior to the position a man holds, and that her foremost duty of domesticity, seeing to the comfort of the man and the family, must not be ignored.

The sheer joy of being at the peaceful Shaheen Bagh protests is the manner in which a humble yet defining act of defiance has given rise to solidarities across the gender spectrum. The divides of class, caste, religion and age melt away as women stand together in solidarity, and the men with them.

Both men and women welcome visitors/protestors at the site, men serving them tea and the women alive to the needs of the community of citizens that has come together these past 70 odd days. Women entrust their children to women who are not known to them as they go up on stage or run a protest-related errand. The smiles that build these relationships are of defiance, courage, hope and togetherness.

You can read more from Saumya Baijal on her blog

Featured image: A protestor holds her child during a demonstration at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Photo: Reuters