These unprecedented times of COVID-19 reflect how the urban liberal upper classes’ politics, solidarity, and allyship change at convenience. Yet again, Muslim women from Shaheen Bagh and other parts of the country are taking some of the first blows in an emergency so that the urban elite can ‘self-preserve’ as per their own exclusionary ideas of self-preservation and safety. I will not try to appropriate Muslim women’s narratives by pretending to speak on their behalf. I will only critique the token activism of people who share my own or a similar social position, and whose solidarity of convenience disappears at Muslim women’s times of crisis.
On March 20, Narendra Modi called for a countrywide ‘self-imposed’ janta curfew, asking everyone to stay indoors on March 22. ‘At 5 pm, we will stand at our balconies, windows or doors for 5 minutes.We will show our gratitude to those maintaining essential services by ringing bells, sounding sirens, clapping or clanging utensils’, he said. At the same time, the media continued reporting shortages of healthcare, testing and safety equipment, and essentials for health workers and medical practitioners in many parts of the country.
On March 21, the media reported that the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh would defy the janta curfew and continue their anti-CAA, anti-NRC protest that had been going on for almost 100 days. They said that the protesters had been taking medical and hygiene precautions.
On March 21, the media reported that the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh would defy the janta curfew and continue their anti-CAA, anti-NRC protest that had been going on for almost 100 days. They said that the protesters had been taking medical and hygiene precautions – they were being individually sanitised with hand sanitisers; people with flu symptoms were being asked to leave, given masks to wear, and advised to go to government testing centres; wooden benches that could accommodate three to four women were placed one meter apart; and sick and elderly people and children were asked not to come to the protest site.
The episode unmasked the hobbyist allyship of the urban Hindu liberal elite. They and much of the media were very disappointed with the women of Shaheen Bagh and criticised them relentlessly for wanting to carry on their protest. Videos, tweets, and posts trended on social media asking the women to go home. Those who had earlier visited Shaheen Bagh to show solidarity seemed concerned that the virus would spread because of the women and make society ‘unsafe’. Many of them asked the women to leave for their ‘own good’. The women were shamed on digital media and accused of not caring about their children’s lives. Some even went to the extent of proposing that the women should be bribed with biriyani so that they go home
Internalised misogyny, Islamophobia, and classism were blatant in the Hindu liberal elite’s patronising and shaming. They were not outraged that many others who also don’t have the privilege of social distancing or healthcare, were outside, working every day – perhaps because much of the working class works for the liberal elite and the working class going home would inconvenience them. They had one specific agenda – to make the women of Shaheen Bagh go home – because this wouldn’t inconvenience them, as the women were fighting their own fight. And because, throughout history, protesting Muslim women have made them uncomfortable.
Liberal solidarity for Muslim women disappeared again, and the women of Shaheen Bagh became ‘those women’ who ‘don’t know’. Attempts at destroying the women’s agency and depoliticise the situation by people who will perhaps never be at the other end of guns and petrol bombs, were fully normalised for the ‘greater (or rather the majoritarian) good’.
THOSE WHO HAD EARLIER VISITED SHAHEEN BAGH TO SHOW SOLIDARITY SEEMED CONCERNED THAT THE VIRUS WOULD SPREAD BECAUSE OF THE WOMEN AND MAKE SOCIETY ‘UNSAFE’. MANY OF THEM ASKED THE WOMEN TO LEAVE FOR THEIR ‘OWN GOOD’. THE WOMEN WERE SHAMED ON DIGITAL MEDIA AND ACCUSED OF NOT CARING ABOUT THEIR CHILDREN’S LIVES.
If we do not support Muslim women’s decisions in a Muslim women’s movement, we are not allies to their protest. Who are we to define risk and safety for those, whose realities we have not lived? There are many who feel unsafe, and are fighting death, with or without a pandemic, because of Islamophobic violence. There are many who do not have the privilege of social distancing, self-isolation, self-care, or safety equipment – regardless of whether they are on the street, at a protest site, or at home. There are many whose homes can be destroyed, broken, and burnt down any moment. Does the Hindu liberal elite otherwise care about Muslim women’s working and living conditions? Why do they get to define ‘right to life’ for Muslim women? Why do they get to decide which is more unsafe for the women of Shaheen Bagh – a detention centre, saffron terror, or a pandemic?
The women of Shaheen Bagh ultimately decided to continue a symbolic protest on the day of the janta curfew and most of them vacated the site, leaving their footwear and signs. Only five women seated at least a meter apart on the benches, protested at the site, at a time. On the same day, an unidentified man hurled a petrol bomb near the protest site and more petrol bombs were found.
Janta curfew day, 5 pm: bells ringing, utensils clanging everywhere! In some neighbourhoods, people in big groups were out on the streets with bells and utensils and speakers and drums! Some played a seemingly popular remix ‘Go, Corona, Go!’ from their speakers, some shouted slogans, and some burst crackers! Confused animals ran helter skelter to find a place to hide.
It was perhaps the most unusual and chaotic hour that a generation has witnessed. In many places, there were no boundaries for the noise or the chaos, or the processions of people! They hailed Modi’s ‘masterstroke’ against corona and didn’t care about the dangers to which their chaos was exposing many elderly people, children, people living with heart diseases, people living with mental illnesses and disabilities, and animals, besides the obvious danger of contagion.
For the Hindu liberal elite, it was at best funny that their neighbours made an intimidating amount of noise and ruckus while exposing entire neighbourhoods to risk of contagion. They made jokes, shared funny videos, and laughed about it. They weren’t half as outraged as they were at the women of Shaheen Bagh who had initially wanted to continue their sit-in protest.
It shows a lot about who the Hindu liberal elite wants to really police and why. And who they wanted to threaten with their idea of safety – which only means safety from things that can inconvenience them (like protesting Muslim women), and not safety from saffron terror that will never come for them.
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