The Story of Determined Organisers of Deoband’s Shaheen Bagh
By M Ghazali Khan
The successful women-only demonstrations against the ignoble CAA and NRP, or Shaheen Baghs, as they are being symbolically referred to, should serve as eyeopeners for those whose ability to think positively and analyse things intelligently has been destroyed by bigotry and prejudice.
These Shaheen Baghs should leave no doubt in anybody’s mind about how persecuted, oppressed or independent; informed or uninformed Indian Muslim women are about their roles, rights and duties.
These Shaheen Baghs have been going on since January, not only in big cities like Delhi and Lucknow but even a small but renowned town of Deoband is also witnessing one of the rarest phenomena where women have been holding an impressive sit-in protest since 27 January in the vicinity of and very close to world-famous Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband.
This protest was initially started by three women from the same family —two sisters, Amna Roshi, Fozia Parveen and sister-in-law Feriha Usmani. In my recent visit to Deoband, my hometown, I had a chance to talk to these courageous young women and other team members of Muttahida Khawateen Committee, a group managing and spearheading the sit-in. Below is the translation of a brief conversation with them.
Question: In a town like Deoband this was almost unthinkable that women would stay outside their houses for days and nights and hold such a successful sit-in protest. As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to convince the world that Indian Muslim women were the most persecuted creatures on earth and by passing the Triple Talaq Bill he has put an end to the oppression that they were being subjected to. What was it that has made you take such an extraordinary step and organise this protest?
Amna Arooshi: Oh surely it is because of the liberation, bestowed upon us by Modiji through Triple Talaq Bill, that we are able to organise this protest. Now this liberation of ours is bothering him. Having been liberated we are now using our independence to fight Modiji’s attempt to declare us as foreigners. But let it be clear that it’s not they who will deport and exile us but we will do it to these RSS guys.
Question: A good sarcasm! Please give an unsarcastic response.
Amna Arooshi: He has linked citizenship to religion which is against the secular character of the country. Then there are plans to introduce NRC and NRP, declare us as foreigners and put us in detention centres. The constitution given by Dr Ambedkar provides equal opportunities to all Indian citizens but some elements are unable to digest this fact. One wonders which world do they live in and dream of eliminating us. Therefore, we are sitting here against CAA and, God willing, will go from here only after having this black act withdrawn.
Question: What many are surprised at is that the women who started Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi are the students of Jamia Millia Islamia or have been exposed to higher education. Some of them come from a big city like Delhi. But what was it that has given such courage to women of a small and rather conservative town of Deoband to come out our their homes and organise such a successful sit-in protest?
Amna Rooshi: People have a very wrong perception of Muslim women, especially of women from Deoband with religious backgrounds. They think we are imprisoned in our homes, have no clue what is going on in the world and have no sense of what our rights and roles are. Yes we do observe Purdah but also keep ourselves abreast of current affairs and political and social developments. In our protests, we have women from all backgrounds, educated and uneducated. We are not sitting here out of some greed. We have not sacrificed our comforts at homes and are not facing severe cold weather and rain because of political ambitions. All these women have been reading and listening about CAA and NPR on their mobiles. The spirit they have been demonstrating here cannot be created by someone provoking and misguiding them. It comes from the clarity of purpose and commitment to a cause. Observing Purdah does not mean that having educated ourselves in Shari’ah we have locked ourselves in our homes and have locked our brains as well. What option you are left with when your very existence and the existence of your future generations is in danger? We know our religion, we are conscious of our traditions and are equally aware of what is going on around us.
Question: Before the Shaheen Bagh protest and ensuing sit-ins in the country, especially in UP, an atmosphere of fear was created and it seemed that Muslims will never have the courage to speak and stand against the injustices meted out on them. But you have shown extraordinary courage and because of this, you must be facing lot of pressures to end this sit-in.
Amna Rooshi: Yes, the District Administration has used pressure and has tried to make us end our protest. Since 27 January, when we started this sit-in, our families are being pressurised and 105 of our colleagues have been issued notices accusing us of sedition and militancy. One of our brothers, a journalist who works for a Hindi daily, has been pressurised and asked to make us go back and end the protest. But he has asked us not to worry about what happens to his job and remain steadfast on what we think is right.
We were not shaken when, on 27th January, the day when we came here and started the protest, we had to face an extremely cold weather and heavy rains, along with notices from the administration, surely nothing can make us change us our stand now. That was the time when no one was coming forward and raise voice against this unjust act. So, we thought we should stand up to protect our constitutional rights and rais our voices against this injustice. Someone had to do this. So I talked to my sister and together we went door to door telling and educating women about the danger and seriousness of the issue.
Question: Are you two real sisters?
Amna Rooshi: Yes we are real sisters and this is our sister-in-law. Thus three of us from the same family started this protest.
Question: Did you have any experience in public life before and did you have any connection with a social or political group?
Amna Rooshi: No, this is the first time we have come out of our houses to organise a campaign like this. Neither we had any connection with any social or political organisation before nor do we have it now; and nor do we have such ambitions for future. What prompted us to organise this sit-in is the seriousness of the issue, the zeal to stand up against injustice and protect our identity as a religious community.
Are we supposed to watch in silence programmes being chalked out to eliminate us and our future generations? What our future generations are going to face as a result of these unjust pieces of legislations, they will ask us, ‘What were you doing when these laws were being enacted?’ What answer would we have to their questions?
Question: Today I saw tractor-trollies full of women returning the protest. Are you getting support from women from adjoining villages as well?
Amna Rooshi: Praise be to God, now our voice is reaching far and wide and wherever women are learning about us they are coming to join and support us, not only from adjoining villages but from cities like Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnore and Nanauta. However, the majority of our supporters are from Deoband.
Question: a petrol pump, a Bhatta (brick kiln) and some other businesses in the town are reported to have been ceased by the administration. Were the owners associated with your protest?
Amna Rooshi: People who sympathise with such causes are often harassed. The government is trying to use them to pressurise us. But we are not going to succumb to these tactics. We will go home only after having these cursed laws rolled back. God forbid if anything worse happens to us we will have the satisfaction of facing it while fighting for the right and just cause.
Question: At one stage some respectable personalities from the town, including the rector of Darul Uloom, came to you to convince you to end the protest but you threw your bangles on them.
Iram Usmani: No, the rector of Darul Uloom was not among them. We respect him. Had he come with them we would have never acted in this fashion. Those who came included a former MLA and the present Chairman of Nagar Palika (Municipal of Board). What made us upset was the fact that on that day it had been 13 days since we had been sitting here. From severe cold weather, heavy rain and pressures, what was it that we had not faced during that time? But none of them bothered to come and ask us if we needed any help and support. Their audacity enraged and impelled us to took off our bangles and threw on them. We are sitting here to protect our rights. These ‘Respectable’ people should have supported us and should have given us strength. But they came to make us go home.
Question: You are holding this protest almost in the vicinity of Darul Uloom Deoband. As I can also see at some distance madarsa students raising anti-CAA slogans. Does the Darul Uloom support your campaign?
Salma Ehsan: Neither they have openly supported us nor have they opposed us. As you can see this is a women-only protest and we cannot expect the rector of Darul Uloom to come and sit here. However, because he has said that to protest is the right of every Indian citizen, we assume that he supports us morally.
Question: Big protests like this incur big expenses. How are you managing these costs?
Salma Ehsan: We are not doing any fundraising nor are we asking anyone to help us. People are helping us out of their free will. Some sisters bring food to share with the protestors.
Question: For how long will you continue your protest?
Amna Rooshi, Fozia Parveen, Iram Usmani, Salma Ehsan, and Ferha Usmani, all in one voice, ‘We are with the Shaheen Bagh protestors. Whenever they call their protest off, we will end ours as well. We are with them whatever decision they make.’