In the middle of this global pandemic…I know that’s a terribly tired way to start a sentence…but I am using custom-fitted language to get you to read this. In these times of a billion panic messages per second, I have had some time to do what our Prime Minister has bidden us to. Stay at home and reflect. `Chintan,’ as many like to call it. And I have found this.
I am very middle class. That means that I am mostly in the middle of everything and stand for lots of nothing. Neither am I committed to the side of the very well-off who can pull out a rosemary and mince pie out of their larder using `leftovers,’ while fretting about having to be at home. Nor am I in-sync with most of India that does not have the luxury of staying in. I can self-quarantine. So this has made me very confused about where I stand vis a vis the protestors at Shaheen Bagh. Sisters and brothers I am naturally aligned with politically.
Conundrum of Corona and Constitution
Many have asked politely, hesitantly on liberal WhatsApp groups – shouldn’t the protests stop so that more people are not at risk of being ‘corona-ed?’ But if the movement that has glued all the resistance to our very discriminatory citizenship law disbands, are we kissing our constitution and secular values goodbye? It’s a conundrum that’s hard to resolve.
And then again, not. Today, these pictures from Shaheen Bagh spoke the loudest.
The women of Shaheen Bagh had answered what I was afraid to ask. By not turning up and sticking to the government mandated quarantine but leaving their slippers behind to stand in for them. The slippers spoke many things at once. They told me how the reading-writing middle class had got it wrong yet again. We who imagine we know it all. We who wash our hands for twenty seconds and never fail to leave our homes without sanitizers and masks.
Have we looked inside the spaces where the women of Shaheen Bagh sit? For three months straight, they have been vilified, called terrorists and anti-nationals. Have had crackdowns in their midst and in other protest venues in their name. Have risked being beaten, jailed, attacked with acid. And now, they have said their piece and even as they left their slippers in their place and conformed to what the government ordained, there were reports of vandalism and petrol bombs being hurled at the empty benches, past the yellow police barricades.
How Shaheen Bagh’s Women Turned their Lives Around
Have we been able to see? As we have stayed home and pointed fingers at protestors who haven’t, can we see? That the homes many of the protestors come from are clusters with twenty or more to a room and there is no elbow space, not to talk of keeping a safe distance? That there is often little or no water at the communal taps, to wash hands and no money for hand sanitizers. So their sitting in protest carries the same health risk as being at home?
If only we could un-corona our vision a little, we’d see how liberating it was for many of these women to step out of their homes and assert themselves for the very first time.
To utterly and completely disregard being told what to do by men and patriarchs and women who live under patriarchs….And now, cut back to our middle class twitter-on-overdrive world, we are only just beginning to wonder about the predicament of women who suffer domestic violence, being forced to stay indoors.
Back to Shaheen and women who dare to speak…can we see? How the simple and yet not so simple assertion of women to decide their own fate has turned the country’s politics inside out? That it’s made the government look schizoid as it speaks in two voices about when they will and how it will start to count citizens from non-citizens and whether there will continue to be lists of ‘doubtful people’ sent to detention centres or not.
We the Intellectuals Should Shut Up and Listen
Can we see that if the Shaheen-Baghers have to choose between detention centres and contracting an infection, is it really a choice? And finally, when the disease comes and goes, if it takes our constitutionally mandated right to protest with it, aren’t we all dead anyway? These questions have hung over the fog and filthy air where we are being held to ransom by a virus and draconian politics, each feeding off the other.
But do we really have to choose, is the point.
If slippers can do the talking, and we can all really begin to see why women are out protesting and that for some, the risk to their freedom outweighs all other risks, then we will not judge their turning out in the hundreds day after virus-day. We will also be able to see that we don’t really need to decide for them.
That we the self-appointed intellectuals or reading-writing people actually ought to just shut up and listen. And we will hear the most delightfully irreverent conversations. Women who will say how, when they first stepped out, some husbands remarked, “If you want to go out and protest, don’t bother coming back home.” Their reply for the first time in their lives was, “Okay, we won’t.” Until their starving husbands had no choice but to relent because of course, who will do the cooking and cleaning? Listen in, as I have on the couple of times I’ve been to Shaheen about the new solidarities being forged amongst women.
Best of the Times, Worst of the Times
“Do you know that once upon a time, in England in the 1970s, women led protests for their husbands who worked in mines to strike work,” I said to some regular Shaheeners. And I added, even though I wasn’t sure if this was fact or not…how some women had threatened not to sleep with their husbands if they didn’t comply. “Sex is a weapon,” I said. “Would you use it if you had to?” I asked just to see how far the women-in-defiance-and-solidarity thing could be pushed. “Of course we would if need be, but so far it hasn’t come to that,” two women remarked in unison. They threw their heads back and laughed, freely. A third who was half listening to a speech on stage, came closer upon hearing the word ‘sex.’ These are the best of times and the worst of times. Most of all, these are deviant times and it is great to stand back and soak it all up and just be.
I am using today to reflect on my own stupidity. The middle-class uncertainty and high-handedness getting in my way. And I resolved to stand firmly with those who protest in the times of coronavirus.
Protests, across time and civilizations, have never been one thing, but many. Never one mode but many.
Shaheen Bagh is the exemplar of the best of these traditions. And even when it does not fit our standards of hygiene and safety, it is still not our call to make on behalf of those who are standing for our rights, our existence, our survival as a democracy. They have made their own call on what is in greater jeopardy. And today, I did not stand out in my balcony but announced from every possible online and offline space to the world at large, I salute you, my Shaheen sisters. Inquilaab!
Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul
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