As one steps into the dusty, hot streets of Washermenpet, the site of Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh, one can feel the determinism and resolute of the Muslim women who refuse to move.“We will fight till our last breath,” several women claimed. Muslim women from different parts of the city camp there, day and night, some reaching there after work and some arriving early in the morning after their household chores. They have abandoned their day-to-day business and livelihood because this is more important. They’d rather do their best and fight now than live in perpetual fear under a government they cannot trust. They’d rather make lesser sacrifices now than be thrown into detention camps in a country they’ve lived for generations.
“One woman was wailing loudly during one of the protests. She was terrified because she did not know where her son had been taken. But for what? Are we killing or stealing? Are we terrorists? We are merely registering our dissent through a silent protest. We are not igniting violence. We are not doing anything wrong, we are just fighting for our rights. We have lost trust in this government. First, they interfered with the Islamic Code that we have been following for ages. We kept quiet. Then they demolished the Babri Masjid, we still let Allah take care. We have been quiet through it all but we are losing faith now,” a 30-year-old acupuncture specialist from the locality confessed.
On 14th February 2020, India saw the birth of Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh. After days of asking local authorities for permission to protest, the women of Washermenpet decided they had had enough. The local mosque had been giving them regular updates on the grave political situation in the country and encouraged the people to join local protests. Unable to sit still in the uncertainty any longer, that afternoon, after Namaz, the women gathered on the streets of Old Washermenpet without waiting to tell the men or the Mosque and began their indefinite protest.
The women in chennai’s shaheen bagh Would rather do their best and fight now than live in perpetual fear under a government they cannot trust. They’d rather make lesser sacrifices now than be thrown into detention camps in a country they’ve lived for generations.
Later, the men joined and sat around the women in Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh, attempting to safeguard them from external violence. It was peaceful till the evening, which was when the badgeless police arrived in an attempt to disperse the protest before it gained steam. They promised not to hurt the women and under this false premise, and in the hope of due diligence to the law that prevents policemen from dealing with women, they moved forward. Soon, the police began taunting them using violent slurs after failed attempts at dispersing them. Then the police tried to dispel the crowd by unleashing physical violence.
“When we went forward, 10 policewomen dragged my friend forcefully to the van. Her husband stepped in to save her but he was also beaten up mercilessly by a gang of policemen. We are not used to this kind of violence,” says a middle-aged Muslim woman, whose family has been a native of Washermenpet since her great-grandfather’s time. While 20-year-olds around the world have the privilege of imagining frivolous utopias, one in Washermenpet had to go through the traumatic experience of missing a police lathi on her body by a hair’s breadth. She was witness to the stripping of a woman’s hijab who was subsequently dragged by her hair to the van. She could only shout as her brother broke his arm, when the police hit him instead of her.
Many protesters sustained injuries either in attempts to save others or flee police brutality. One woman had her hand stuck in a police van door throughout the ride around the area. In an extremely inhuman display of power, the police refused to stop the van to free the woman’s hand.
According to a neighbour, she has still not been released from the hospital. What is even more concerning is that the streetlights were switched off to hide the occurrences of the night. She recounted how they all scrambled into nearby houses, regardless of whose it was, in an attempt to save their lives. Through all of this, the women were adamant. Half an hour later, after the police dispersed, they reassembled in the same spot and stayed through the night. The women however, refuse to move till the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is repealed.
“We will continue fighting till we die. Even if we lose our lives, we will die fighting for azaadi,” proclaim the women with a solemn determination. They face the risk of losing the only home they have ever known. The women, who clearly outnumber the men in leading the protest, feel that the government with its specific policies are excluding the Muslim community. “They see the Muslim community with distrust and are intentionally Other-ing us. Their actions do not correspond to the secular fabric of our nation. They think of us as enemies,” remarks one of the women who has been key to sustaining the Washermenpet protests.
They want the world to know that this act strategically excludes Muslims from its purview of persecuted minorities and makes it much harder for them to get an Indian citizenship if they don’t have a very specific set of documents. However, it affects the economically underprivileged, as well as other cultural, ethnic and gender minorities, who have lived in this country for generations, with no formal proof. The main problem is that birth certificates are a relatively new concept, especially for women. Education was not a norm for them in those days thus making birth certificates even more scarce.
While this would be a legitimate concern for anyone, for Muslim women, their fears are multiplied. One woman expressed her concerns stating, “My own mother does not have her birth certificate because during those times a lot of them were born in the homes. We don’t know her date of birth and only approximately know her age.”
While this would be a legitimate concern for anyone, for Muslim women, their fears are multiplied. One woman expressed her concerns stating, “My own mother does not have her birth certificate because during those times a lot of them were born in the homes. We don’t know her date of birth and only approximately know her age. She has started telling me and my sisters that she will be sent away and that our father will take care of us. I don’t think anyone should have to go through this.” What the women of Chennai’s Shaheen Bagh emphasise on repeatedly, is that they have lost faith in the government. They feel targeted, scared and vulnerable.
While they have received no positive response from the local ruling party, they have been able to manage food and water for the protesters through donations and crowdfunding measures. Volunteers keep a continuous supply of refreshments available for the protesters, making sure to give out water and glucose drinks at regular intervals. They acknowledge the support they received from their ‘sisters from other religions’ who had been with them throughout the protest, and expressed sincere gratitude towards them.
The protesters, when asked how one can help, just say that they want the presence of the public. They can go on only with their support. There have been days when funds were insufficient to buy food for everyone sitting at the protest. By the 14th day, the crowd was already waning. This scares the people sitting there, who themselves have left their homes, families and businesses behind to fight for a just cause. They are hoping that them putting their lives at a halt, and placing this above their personal and familial commitments, will bear some fruit and they earnestly pray only for it.
The government is doing nothing to gain their trust back and this seems like more than an adequate depictor of the current State’s Hindutva ideologies. The ruling party is clamping down on its citizens’ rights to express dissent and is trying its hardest to display a facade of absolute normalcy. An avid participant of the protests, who makes her way from Vyasarpadi everyday after sending her children to school, doubts the media, which seems so severely biased that she thinks it may be functioning in the interests of the ruling political party.
Despite their constant presence in the site of protest, the coverage rarely gets any screen time. Instead of relaying the sentiments of the grieved, they broadcasted long-drawn pieces on celebrities supporting the anti-CAA protests. The focus of the media is skewed more towards sensationalising events than serving the public’s purpose.
The media is one of the greatest tools in a modern knowledge society and this selective coverage portrays a lopsided narrative to the privileged who do not have access to the minorities’ struggles. Initially, only YouTube channels covered the Washermenpet protest. When news channels came later, instead of relaying the protesting people’s message to their audience, they painted a picture of the men as weak and women as joining the protests to get biriyani. Despite their constant presence in the site of protest, the coverage rarely gets any screen time. Instead of relaying the sentiments of the grieved, they broadcasted long-drawn pieces on celebrities supporting the anti-CAA protests. The focus of the media is skewed more towards sensationalising events than serving the public’s purpose.
The women of Washermenpet have been sitting on the road for 20 days now. They have endured police brutality, heat, hunger and sleepless nights worrying about their future in a country their ancestors have lived in for generations. The brave, brave women still have the strength to be kind to anyone who wishes to sit in with them. They make sure it is safe for people willing to support them in their cause.
The winding roads of Old Washermenpet are not places of violent resistance but of enduring resilience. They welcome strangers into their midst as they would do revered guests into their homes. They have faith in their cause, and they have faith in Allah. They are fearless and they will not stop.
This article has been co-written with N J Sadhana. Sadhana is a second year MA student who is an old soul trapped inside a young person. She’s obsessed with finding sociological explanations in seemingly common cultural practices and is interested in gender studies, development and policy-making. She strongly identifies with the spirit of a panda and loves blinding sunflowers. In her free time, you can find her watching food videos, making endless lists, roaming through quaint bookstores and fangirling over Michelle Obama.
All pictures have been provided by the authors.