Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh shows new protest culture — one that replaces angry men with women of quiet strength
Sites like Bengaluru's Bilal Bagh are offering women a safe and inclusive place to sit together and be united in their disagreements with the state.
On Bengaluru’s Tannery Road, the minaret of Masjid-e-Hazrath Bilal towers over everything else. Nowadays, the minaret is also the wayfinder for “Bilal Bagh”, a road converted into a 24x7 protest site against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).
For the past 30 days and counting, Muslim women are staging a continuous, peaceful, sit-in protest at Bilal Bagh. And on any given day, hundreds of others from around Bengaluru arrive here to join them.
A casual observer, at first, might mistake the shamiana as the site for a boring family function, but as you approach, the speeches and songs heard inside, and the skits performed, reveal Bilal Bagh. Only women are allowed inside the shamiana, while men stand on the periphery where a photo exhibition circles them. But the stories best told in Bilal Bagh come from the Bagh’s core, where a makeshift stage is.
Khatun Jannat, 19, first came to Bilal Bagh a few days before the protest's one-month anniversary. She saw women sitting cross-legged on the carpet or perched on chairs talking among themselves, or paying close attention to what was happening on the stage. Jannat also spotted a few volunteers — dressed in neon jackets over their salwar-suits, distributing packets of biscuits and tea — and walked up to them. She whispered that she wanted to recite a poem on stage.
The volunteers promptly pointed her to the registration desk. Jannat, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, hesitated. She felt that she had demonstrated enough courage by coming up to these women; now they were expecting her to do more? She began to withdraw. This manner of officiating her request made her rethink. But the volunteers sensed her reluctance and at least two offered to walk with her to the registration desk. They escorted her, gently cajoling her along the way to not let doubts grip her now; telling her that she should, after all, get up on stage and recite that poem.
Jannat collected herself and recited her poem which was more like a fiery speech: Himmaton ko toda ja raha hai (They are breaking our strength). Mulk se nikaalne ki saajish hai (It’s a conspiracy to throw us out of our country).
She alighted to a respectable applause and immediately dissolved in the crowd. “My heart was racing,” she later told me. “But not as much as it had been when I heard about the NRC/CAA or the Delhi riots”.
The first time Jannat came to Bilal Bagh, she was astonished that women were sitting there with neither fear nor curfew. But Jannat, heavily pregnant, couldn’t do that. That night she returned to her husband and told him that she wanted to meaningfully participate in the protest — perhaps he could write her a poem? The husband did as told and Jannat arrived the next day to make herself heard. “I would not have dared otherwise,” Jannat said, “But the culture of Bilal Bagh felt comfortable; it felt different.”
For the past two months, several protests against NRC and CAA across India have seen many women take lead, but what has allowed women to exert their presence — especially for those with restrictions on their movement — is this new “culture” of protest.
Sites like Bilal Bagh are offering women a safe and inclusive place to sit together and be united in their disagreements with the state. As lots of children throng this protest site, the atmosphere isn't of incessant anger, but of togetherness... perhaps even celebration: Volunteers are continuously serving refreshments, as a range of programmes — songs, speeches, and skits — keep the participants engaged and entertained.
It is also instilling courage in women like Jannat, who, otherwise, are not allowed to leave their homes.
Many women who sit for hours at Bilal Bagh are homemakers, women who’ve never been away from home for as long. But now, the same husbands and in-laws who restricted their movements are egging them to go, to take the children with them, and to participate in the protests. That the protest is in an outdoor awning where men are not allowed, then, obviously creates a sense of security for both, women and their families.
But none of these women call themselves the organisers. In fact, volunteers insist, there’s no such thing as an organiser at Bilal Bagh: "All of us are in it together." But some faces are more regular than the others and they begin to be treated with mild reverence. Like 50-year-old Waheeda, or aapa, as she is fondly called.
Waheeda is on her feet all day, serving tea or snacks to whoever visits, sits, or raises slogans with the women of Bilal Bagh. “My form of protest is to look after everyone who comes here,” she says. As hundreds of people arrive at all times in the day, some even in the wee hours of night, Waheeda works for over 16 hours, barely getting a few hours of sleep. But what she loses, she says, she gains in the form of interaction with “diverse people who believe in the rights of Muslim women like me”.
Bilal Bagh has since become a place of interaction for those who might otherwise not meet one other. Eminent personalities like Medha Patkar, Ramachandra Guha, Naseeruddin Shah have arrived, as do students and professionals from affluent parts of the city. Artists, too, bring their English-speaking troupes to perform for the women. A translator accompanies them.
Nida Khan, who works for a tech company, has been frequenting Bilal Bagh, and she calls the protest “a very good form of resistance”. That many women who are protesting here might be subjugated at home is common knowledge but Nida thinks this is an opportunity for women to claim public space, to know what might be possible for battles yet to come. “When you’re pushed to a wall, you resist,” she says. “This is our form of defiance.”
Khan spends many nights at Bilal Bagh, while her husband, like the husbands of many other women inside, stands at the periphery. Waheeda and other volunteers serve tea and snacks all night too; in fact, serving more and more tea as the night falls.
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