Armed with thick blankets, warm cups of tea and songs of resistance, hundreds of Muslim women of the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood have been braving one of the coldest winters in India’s capital Delhi to protest against a controversial new citizenship law.
For more than two weeks now, they have steadfastly protested under a tent on a public street since December 15. And as Delhi experienced its coldest night in a century, they rang in the New Year by singing the national anthem.
They have demanded for the revocation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The law, which came into effect on December 11, offers amnesty to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government says it will protect religious minorities fleeing persecution in these countries.
But the government’s words have done little to reassure India’s Muslims, many of whom fear the law will discriminate against them – and could even go as far as to push some out of the country or into detention centres.
“I hardly ever leave my house alone,” admits Firdaus Shafiq, one of the protesters. “My son or husband accompany me even to the nearby market. So I found it tough at first to be out here.
“But I feel compelled to protest.”
And it is women like Firdaus Shafiq who make the protest at Shaheen Bagh so unusual, according to activists and commentators.
“These women are not activists,” says Syeda Hameed, founder of Delhi-based Muslim Women’s Forum.
Instead, they are ordinary Muslim women, many of them homemakers, at the centre of a national debate – standing up to the government.
It’s hard to say how many women were present when the protest started but their numbers have swelled quickly. They first came out on the night of December 15 – when a protest by students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University ended in clashes with the police.
The protests against the act snowballed after that night, spreading out across the country.
While many protests have come and gone, and some have descended into violence, the site in Shaheen Bagh has remained consistently occupied and peaceful.
But as it sits on the border between eastern Delhi and Noida, a suburb, and serves as a crucial link for commuters, not everyone is happy.
“It’s affecting our business,” a local shopkeeper says, while a resident who works in Noida says it now takes him double the time to get to work. Protesters say they don’t want to disrupt anyone’s life and have pledged to keep their sit-in peaceful.
Yet other shopkeepers have come out in solidarity – some have even turned up with food. In fact, as the protest has grown, it has drawn people from across the city, from students to political commentators.
“We want to ensure that this protest doesn’t turn violent and that we don’t give the police a chance to use force against us,” one protester, who did not wish to be named, says.
“We’ve been forced to protest because of the government,” Ms Shafiq adds. “If we fail to prove our citizenship, we would either be put into a detention centre or banished from the country. So it’s better to struggle for our rights now.”
“The law violates the constitution,” says Humaira Sayed, a university student. “It may target Muslims at the moment but we’re convinced it will gradually target other communities too.
“As a Muslim I know I’ve to be here for my brothers, sisters, the community and for everyone else.” (Source: BBC)