From Silence To Assertion: The Journey Of Indian Muslims In Their Fight For Acceptance

The most unnerving aspect of the Ayodhya verdict was the silence of the Muslim community. The community was dissatisfied with the verdict and felt that justice had not been done, but nobody protested. It had lost faith in its sense of agency, citizenship rights and the democratic structures and processes in India.

The community was quiet during mob lynching, witnessing deaths of its members under false allegations of cow slaughter, abrogation of Article 370 and even when National Register of Citizens (NRC) was implemented in Assam.

The scenario started changing with the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). The message of the hurried process was clear: the government wants to take ahead its agenda of making a Hindu Rashtra: Rashtra which has a place for foreign non-Muslim refugees but not for Muslims.

People lost faith in the avenues available for seeking justice after witnessing the cases of seditionsuicide of Rohith Vemula, cuts in the funding of universities, fees hike and withdrawal of courses and scholarships.

The major driving force behind the protests were visible ruptures in democracy and a fear that India, in the 2020s, may become the Germany of the 1930s. The sacred book of democracy, the Constitution, were found to be under attack and the state apparatus unconstitutional.

Brutality On Students, Women Protesting On Streets

Police brutality against students in JMI.

The police atrocity on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University was the last straw. In these universities, Police forcibly entered the campuses and beat the students brutally, both male and female.

But this brutality failed to deter the students, who continued with their protest. This courage to stand by the threat to life and physical brutalities was appreciated and resulted in students across the country coming on the streets to protest in solidarity.

In the face of the state, which is taking side with its ideologues and Police and finding faults with the victimized students, yet another group of protesters came out on the streets: the women.

Troubled with the present and the future prospects of their children, they came out and sat on dharna, occupying public space in their attempt to draw attention to their plight and larger democratic issues and challenged.

It is important to note that both the protests by the students and women are democratic in nature, operating in the constitutional framework, and narrating the Preamble of the Constitution. Holding forth the pictures of national leaders like Ambedkar and Gandhi, both the protests are non-violent too: one demanding constitutional justice, and the other drawing attention on the injustice being inflicted on the Muslim community by the state and its agents.

The student movement, however, is proactive in demanding its constitutional rights, while the women occupying the streets are trying to win over an empathetic understanding of the wider society towards their citizenship rights especially in light of CAA, National Population Registration (NPR) and National Register of Citizen (NRC).

A Fight To Regain Rights

Both the movements have a significant population from the Muslim community who had been silent after partition, politically losing all rights to demand their citizenship dues.

The community got compromised and muffled with every case of discrimination—with the denial of justice in every case of mob lynching, and with inaccessibility to jobs and quality educational institutions.

Muslims came out on the street not challenging the repressive state but trying to evoke its good sense and responsibility towards its citizens.

Muslim community became quieter not only because the state was alienating but also because the civil society appeared to have found its ‘other’ in them under the influence of Hindutva ideology.

The popular definition of nationalism excluded Muslims. The silence broke when the young generation of the community was attacked, and no hope was left to extend a good future to the young generation. The community realized that no police, court, media or state machinery will come to its aid, and that they have to stand on their own.

The realization that they have nothing to lose gave them a voice and a sense of agency. They came out on the street not challenging the repressive state, but trying to evoke its good sense and responsibility towards its citizens. They worked towards reminding the state and the civil society of the democratic ideals of equality, fraternity, social justice and secularism—towards which the state is committed.

Redefining Secularism

The movement also redefined the Indian concept of secularism. It brought the concept out of its narrow definition of the relationship of the state and religion in terms of “dharma nirpekshta” (secularism) or “sarva dharma sambhav” (existence of all religions together is possible), where religion was considered a personal matter, not supposed to be interfering in the public sphere.

Interestingly, in this definition, traditions of religious communities also got defined as religious. No thought was given to the fact that community tradition may not as such be linked to religion or at least may not imply blind unreasonable following of religious philosophy. The narrow interpretation resulted in underplaying or negating religious identities as ‘not secular’.

The movement has to be taken as a movement of an assertion of Muslim identity; an assertion witnessed after almost 70 years of independence: 70 years of being apologetic of one’s identity and of underplaying one’s identity in order to be accepted in the wider society.

In this movement, one witnesses Muslims occupying public spaces as a ‘Muslim’, sloganeering for their constitutional rights with their veils on. As stated by a protestor, “Hum Muslim hain. Hum burqa pahante hain. Hum Urdu bolte hain. Phir bhi hum secular hain” (We are Muslims, we wear burqas, we speak Urdu, yet, we are secular).

Secularism denotes rational thinking and does not negate following community name and culture. It is against the blind following of religiosity and religious philosophy but does not deny traditional ways of life. Then, how does wearing a veil go against being secular? When a Hindu can wear symbols of religion on his/her head (bindi and ash marks) and can still be called a secular then why not a veil, scarf or a skull cap be treated the same?

Extending The Acceptance

The fear that had engulfed the Muslim community appears to be giving way to confidence in being a Muslim and in being a citizen. The assertive participation of Muslims in the movement appears to be stating, we are Muslims, and we are proud to be Muslims and are also committed loyal citizens of India.

We are Muslims, and we are secular because we reason and do not blindly follow our clergymen, maulvies and mullas. We belong to the Muslim community, but we also are individual citizens, we think independently and vote individually.

The assertion of a secular Muslim identity by progressive protesting men and women, working shoulder to shoulder with other community members brought the citizens of India together. These men and women are fracturing the process of ‘othering’ and extending the acceptance of Muslim people as equal citizens in the Indian polity.

Awakening

Further, participation in the movement has made the young Muslims politically aware, especially of their distance not only from their liberal leaders but also from the religious leaders. The former was too distanced from the community culture, finding faults if not negating the Muslim identity, while the latter distanced the community from the wider society, controlling by strengthening conservatism, enforcing non-secular blind faith rather than building a dialogue with the community culture and the wider society.

The movement unfolds a promise of middle-class rational leaders identifying with the community, its culture and ways of life and representing it on secular platforms as being a ‘Muslim’. These young leaders aspiring secular achievements have a promise to promote the democratic ideals of building dialogue and consensus.

There is no clarity whether the ongoing protests will be able to revoke CAA, NPR and NRC; however, one can openly argue that the protests have brought the Muslims out of their apologetic existence. The protests have given voice to the erstwhile quiet population to strike for the claim on their own identity and rights in a secular democratic framework.

The movement is successful in getting the Muslims accepted in the secular, progressive spaces of India as equal and legitimate citizens, removing the tag of being the ‘other’ which made people eye them with suspicion. It is also successful in building cohesion among Indians irrespective of their social status and give them faith in their collective strength and in the people’s power to negotiate with the repressive State.

Above all, the protest has delivered in Muslims accepting their identity as legitimate, not denying or negating their Muslim-ness while being secular.

Prof. Ranu Jain has also contributed to writing this article. It was first published in The Leaflet.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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