The Right wing has tried desperately to turn Shaheen Bagh into a ‘Muslim entity’. In doing so, it is tapping into the hate politics centered around the global image of a Muslim as a terrorist, and how terror is premised only on Islam. The protesters at Shaheen Bagh have also been subjected to threats and hate speech by BJP leaders such as Anurag Thakur and Yogi Adityanath, among others. Organisations such as Hindu Sena have unsurprisingly joined this chorus.
The Right has also used the hijab [of the women protesters] as a symbolism of being Muslim, a symbol of being subjugated and domination. It must be acknowledged that subjugation and domination are not just an internal subject of Muslim society but as they go out in public, something they face from outside their society as well. Despite that, women retain their own subjectivity and voice, which might burst not as speeches or in daily exchange but as — for instance — poems and songs. This is what Lila Abu-Lughod has shown so powerfully in her work, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society.
The project of ‘saving’ and ‘liberating’ ‘Muslim women’ from subjugation and domination also emanates from just such a discourse around the veil, as anthropologists like Shery Ortner have rightly charged. This saving and liberating discourse is also dear to many liberal and post-structural traditions in the social sciences and humanities. The oriental and Eurocentric discourses have a problematic vision of Islam. Like them, Western feminism also tend to see the hijab as a symbol of subjugation — and Shaheen Bagh questions this in many ways. This is being stated not in order to romanticise or sanitise internal politics, but to observe that this [skewed discourse] should not be the only point of reference in speaking about Shaheen Bagh.
Mohammad Iqbal, an Indian poet and philosopher, compared Indian Muslims to the Jews of Europe. For Iqbal, writes Faisal Devji, Muslims in India will be trapped as a minority in their own private sphere. Iqbal complains to Him in Shikwa:
Am I then, always
to remain a victim?
What am I—a flower,
to bloom in silence?
This position of being trapped is attributed to the nature of liberalism by Iqbal, in terms of how liberalism turned time to be an independent principle of the spiritual world, to be experienced in private life. In other words, liberalism turned spiritual practice into a private entity. On the other hand, space remained a materialist conception of liberalism, to be separated from the spiritual. This separation of time and space in lieu of the spiritual and material respectively, which also defined the public and private sphere, is crucial to understanding the unease of liberals when something like Shaheen Bagh surfaces because certain private things have become public.
This condition is also made possible by how we think of the question of ‘minority’ in India. Minority should not be only thought of in terms of religion. One ought to think of minority in terms of language, one’s capacity to bargain [for] political, cultural and economic rights, and even to protest. Yes, religion does offer a standpoint and axis of evaluation of one’s social location but minority cannot be reduced to only religion. Doing so undermines other factors that are intrinsic to making one a minority. Abul Kalam Azad voiced his concern about such a limited understanding of minority in a weekly called al-Hilal in 1912, and later revived it in his Presidential address at the Ramgarh Congress in 1940. This notion of minority — viewed just in terms of numbers and religion — still haunts us, which informs racism within India in multiple ways.
Our identities are multi-faceted. We perform different roles and functions as individuals, and they all define us. At the same time, we share a relationship with all the roles we perform. There are certain references that become a foundation for each of these roles. Religion alone is not that referent or background. However, discarding religion entirely as a reference or turning it into a stigmatised category is equally problematic. In short, we cannot speak about Muslims without considering religion and their belief in its entirety, nor ought we to reduce it to mere religiosity like Ranajit Guha did, and which Ortner exposed clearly in her work on ‘ethnographic refusal’.
One can see an interesting parallel between Shah Bano and Shaheen Bagh. One of the assertions from liberals is the call for women to act as rational individuals devoid of their religion. One ought to remember that the Muslim subjectivity imposed on these protesting women is not only a product of their religion, marriage, and family. Their identity is also a result of the kind of gaze thrown at Islam and their dress, which is constructed culturally, socially, historically and politically. This results in a complex subjectivity of Muslim women who are not freely choosing individuals, unlike the political subject in the western liberal social milieu, being pushed around by many external authorities.
Ortner asserts that we ought to retain their subjectivities, not just Muslim subjectivity, from the dominant ideological constructs. One might add, it is a result of the multiple subjectivities women are capable of, despite being dominated and subjugated.
Shah Bano was criticised for rejecting what the court offered her as settlement. We are all aware it was not so much about the rejection but about the basis on which she rejected the settlement. It is to be noted there that Shah Bano approached the civil court to seek support from her husband after their divorce. The court ruled in her favour, but it ran into a controversy due its conflict with Islamic divorce law. Shah Bano then went on to reject what she had been awarded by the court, and expressed her solidarity with Islamic laws.
Shaheen Bagh, at this point, is also a lesson that certain historical times produces certain subjectivities which we cannot pre-empt or control. For many, it was unthinkable that so many hijab-clad women came out for a protest in the capital of this country — a protest that has gone on for over 50 days now. Ashis Nandy aptly notes that cultural and psychological survival requires the fragmented and shifting self. Shah Bano and Shaheen Bagh are testimonies to the fact that shifting identities draw an unnecessary gaze and criticism.
We will better understand Shaheen Bagh by focusing on what it has done to the discourse of resistance against CAA. Our attention ought to be on its contribution to the resistance against fascist politics and the CAA. Instead, our attention is fixated on who they are and how they have managed to come together, despite being who they are. Hence, questions of who is paying them or serving biryani, and even gunshots, find currency.
The support of Shaheen Bagh for Kashmiri Pandits cannot be reduced to a lack of political imagination, will or poor understanding of history. It ought to be read as the severity of external domination, such that a dominated group borrows the culture of the dominant to critique their own world. Such a view shows us that resistance is not just opposition, Ortner argues, but can be truly creative, transformative and can collide not just with the enemy but with oneself, so much so that it even repels the self. Creativity is not lost on Shaheen Bagh. In fact, creativity is the very foundation of Shaheen Bagh’s being. From singing melodious songs to knitting mufflers — all of this shows the dynamism of who they [protesters] are. In essence, resistors are not just resisting, they are doing a lot of other things as well.
Shaheen Bagh also shares a romanticism for its spontaneity, however, I find such romanticism stealing its innovative and alternate politics. Romanticism also hijacks the sensibilities of an individual and imposes definitions and roadmaps. The romantic tribute and unease liberal intellectuals share about Shaheen Bagh is deeply problematic, as much as it exposes their own politics. There have been many attempts to crush Shaheen Bagh but I also find the romanticism and imposed subjectivity by liberal intellectuals to be equally damaging.
I am personally more intrigued by the various forms of protest, art work and how the protesters have shared space with anyone who shares solidarity with them. It also bears remembering that the Delhi Police stormed into Jamia Millia Islamia on the same day that Shaheen Bagh began observing people’s gatherings.
The ability to be creative and produce beauty is present in every being. Shaheen Bagh is a creative form of resistance; it is aesthetically powerful and diverse.
It is a site of azaadi, but not solely that. Azaadi was also the most central concern for Iqbal. And for him, nothing is perfect; everything is defined by imperfection and incompletion. Only in this imperfect and incomplete world, Iqbal thought, could one find both freedom and beauty. In other words, azaadi and beauty are not different things, and beauty is thus imperfect. They also need not be romanticised to be perfect and ideal. As the brilliant Devji writes, Iqbal’s images of ‘incompletion, longing and unrequited love’ in his poetry comes from a ‘Shia vision of history as one of loss and imperfection’ over a Sunni vision of ‘victory and accomplishment’. Can we appreciate Shaheen Bagh for its imperfections?
Any kind of romanticism is damaging. The romanticism I allude to here is the result of denying the internal domination and subjugation of one’s being. At the same time, it can also be a result of attributing more to something than what is. In essence, they [Shaheen Bagh protesters] should not be turned into an ‘industrial football’ being kicked around in play. Such romanticism is also seen when Arundhati Roy — in her article ‘India: Intimations of an Ending’ — downplays chauvinistic Assamese nationalism, denying and underwriting the internal politics and subjugation within the caste Assamese society of the Muslim and the “Bangladeshi”.
To protest is not illegal. Let us bear witness to this history and stop romanticising Shaheen Bagh, and in effect, both domination and resistance. At the same time, we should also not undermine it. Let the protesters speak their language without fear. Let the grounds of private and public shift, even if just by an inch. Let us stop ourselves from asking them what they ought to do and celebrate the tragic affection for imperfection.
And recall James Baldwin, who in a debate with Malcom X in 1963, noted that to sit-in is not ‘passive’ and carries a tremendous amount of power. Shine on Shaheen Bagh.
Suraj is a PhD candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore and tweets @char_chapori
Banner and scrolling photos: Women protest against the CAA at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. Via Getty Images.