Shaheen Bagh, a spectacular woman-led protest gathering against the draconian and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), has slowed down to a standstill since March 24. The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic forced the women to put a halt on this 101-day sit-in protest that not only managed to gather international attention but also shook the Indian state to its core. Its fame and unprecedented support soon inspired several protests across the country gaining popularity and international attention enormously. In its 70 years of independence, this is the first time India witnessed such revolutionary protests.
People from marginalized sections have pointed out the Islamophobic and exclusionary nature of the CAA-NRC-NPR. The humanitarian crisis brewing in Assam, where NRC was implemented and detention centers made active, would send shivers down the spine of any conscious human being. In its desperate attempt to curb the voices of Muslims, who had begun to assert themselves unapologetically and fearlessly during the protests, the Indian state has been on a spree of charging Muslim activists and scholars with punitive laws. Sharjeel Imam, a scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University and an early activist and participant in the Shaheen Bagh protest completes 100 days in jail. And recently in another low, the Delhi police slapped the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on him. As a feminist, when I first came out in support of Sharjeel Imam, the reactions of progressive people were hardly welcoming; even the liberal, feminist and leftist lobby of this country was reluctant in coming out in support of an assertive Muslim scholar. Thus, we have been forced to ask: should not feminists stand in unconditional solidarity and support of Sharjeel Imam?
Why they must!
The willingness to understand the dynamics of an unconditional Feminist solidarity to an assertive Muslim such as Sharjeel Imam, must begin with the basic understanding of feminism. Feminism always strives towards making of an egalitarian society, where people of all sex, race, class, caste and ethnicity are treated equally and fairly. Firstly, any feminist who understands this, will first and foremost be against the draconian and undemocratic CAA, NRC and NPR because of its exclusionary and communal nature. Secondly, the fight is not only limited to protest against CAA, NRC and NPR, the fight is to eliminate the very idea of a majoritarian imagination of India in the shape of Hindu Rashtra. One must never forget that CAA, NRC, NPR are only three steps towards a larger goal of making majoritarian Hindu Rashtra. And Sharjeel Imam, being one of the faces of the larger movement against the making of a masculinist, patriarchal and exclusionary Hindu Rashtra, deserves our unconditional solidarity.
It is a well-known and widely discussed fact the Hindu Rashtra derives its supremacist majoritarian ideology from Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and there should be no doubt that Hindu Rashtra will push back women to domestic affairs and the personal will no more be political. The third Reich echoed with slogans like, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”, a slogan meant to push women back to the domestic domain and to essentialize their role as mothers and care-givers. A simple google search will tell you how German women were viewed and treated in Nazi Germany.
Sharjeel Imam, who is an assertive Muslim scholar, is a controversial name even among the liberal, communist and feminist circles. However, these progressive circles need to exorcise their unnecessary anxieties. Sharjeel’s identity assertiveness and his difference of opinion with them, shouldn’t stop them from lending their unconditional solidarities to him. Our failure to do so will make us collaborators to this fascist state which will continue to incarcerate Muslim activists.
UAPA and sedition charges are inherently meant to curb dissenting voices, including those of the feminist movement. Feminist philosophy of law argues that legal structures in their very core approve and encourage masculinist norms; in case of Indian legal system, such laws are meant to vilify and victimize marginalized sections such as Muslims, Dalits, poor and women. Hence, such draconian laws and charges are to be fought against, otherwise they only strengthen the idea of a chauvinist and authoritative Hindu Rashtra.
Deconstructing the myth around “Muslim men”
The Hindutva discourse projects Muslim men as “fundamentalists” who lure Hindu, upper-caste women for conversion to Islam. The historian Charu Gupta has noted how this discourse:
“constructs an image of the Muslim male as aggressive, and broadcasts a series of stereotypes and repetitive motifs, creating a common “enemy” – the Other. The luring of Hindu women by Muslim men is stated to demonstrate the “lack of character” of the sexually charged, lustful Muslim men, violating the pure body of Hindu women.”
This myth of Muslim men as ‘fundamentalist jihadis’, created by the stakeholders of Hindutva forces, is so vividly incorporated in the minds of upper-caste, upper-class Hindus, that even the most progressive and the most feminist women belonging to such families tend to view assertive Muslim men on similar lines. In case of Sharjeel Imam, the mainstream Indian media (read – lapdogs) went on to denigrate him as an Islamic fundamentalist, and unfortunately, feminist individuals and organizations along with liberal circles bought into this narrative and resented in furthering their support to Sharjeel Imam. To bust and deconstruct this myth of any Muslim man asserting his identity is an Islamic fundamentalist, one must go back to Franz Fanon,
“This sexual myth—the quest for white flesh—perpetuated by alienated psyches, must no longer be allowed to impede active understanding.”
If one is to borrow from Fanon’s argument of black men vis a vis white women, one can argue that to legitimize the voices of assertive Muslim men like Sharjeel Imam and to lend them our support in a larger movement against Hindu Rashtra, the feminists will first need to dismantle their own stereotypes about Muslim men which in many ways aid the Hindutva agenda in targeting and illegally incarcerating Muslim men. To reiterate, the myth of assertive Muslims as fundamentalist religious beings propagated by Hindutva forces must not exist, if we are to fight against an authoritative entity such as the Hindu Rashtra.
The oppression of assertive Muslims is (if not as rampant) similar to that of oppression of feminist voices in India. Both are the other, both are considered “fringe”, both are frowned at and most importantly, both are considered to be harming the “pious” Hindu-ideology of the Hindu Rashtra. Although, there is no denying that vilification and targeting of Muslims is much more than that of upper-caste women who identify with feminist politics. Such parallels need to be drawn not to compare or hierarchize the oppression of various oppressed identities, but to construct a larger unified front against a bigger and powerful evil, i.e., the Hindu Rashtra. The politics of finding commonality and building solidarities between the two struggling sections of the society is crucial for a democratic and secular future of the country.
To conclude, feminists and progressive circles are in dire need of some urgent introspection. A number of statements issued by various academics and liberals focusing on their disagreements with, and distance from Sharjeel Imam’s politics, also need to be revoked and a fresh statement and a fresh movement from all feminist and progressive fronts needs to be launched to halt this juggernaut of state-sponsored curbs on Muslim voices like that of Sharjeel Imam. If we fail in doing so, we are nothing more than privileged caste and class enablers of witch hunt of Muslims. As someone who has been raised in a privileged household and as someone who associates with feminist politics, it becomes my responsibility to intervene when the masculinist Indian state has illegitimately incarcerated Sharjeel Imam. Indeed it becomes a collective responsibility of feminist and progressive circles whose bodies are more privileged than that of a Muslim under the current regime.
Fanon, Franz. Black skins, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto Press, 1986. Document.
Gupta, Charu. “Hindu Women, Muslim Men: Love Jihad and Conversions.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 51 (2009): 13-15.
Parthasarathy, Padmini. bitchmedia. 15 01 2020. website. 28 04 2020.
Shambhavi Siddhi is pursuing her Masters in French Literature in the School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. A version of this article first appeared on ‘Feminism in India’.