As protests wracked India in the aftermath of a controversial citizenship law passed last year, a wrinkled 82-year-old grandmother sitting with defiant eyes and prayer beads in her hands became the face of resistance to the legislation.
Known only as Bilkis, she braved New Delhi’s coldest winter in more than a century to sit for more than three months in the front rows of a protest led by Muslim women. Her fiery resilience won her a place in Time magazine’s 2020 list of 100 most influential people.
The magazine said Bilkis became the “voice of the marginalized” and the symbol of resistance “ in a nation where the voices of women and minorities were being systematically drowned out by the majoritarian politics of the [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi regime.” She features in the magazine’s category of icons.
Bilkis came to be popularly known as one of the “dadis” or grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh – a largely Muslim neighborhood where women had blocked a major road after Modi’s Hindu nationalist government passed a law that critics have slammed as discriminatory because it excludes Muslims from the list of six religious groups among persecuted minorities in three neighboring countries that can get expedited citizenship.
“For us, there is no fight between Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Our fight is with the new law. That is why I am sitting here. Take it back and I will get up,” she told VOA in January.
Her slight bent frame wrapped in a shawl, she arrived every morning and sat late into the night listening attentively as women read out the preamble of the constitution, made speeches and sang patriotic songs as a reaffirmation of their citizenship.
Bilkis was vocal about what drew her daily to the protest – worries that the new citizenship law will set the stage for a national register of citizens that could make some Indian Muslims vulnerable by calling on them to show proof of citizenship. Modi’s government has said such fears are misplaced and denies that the law is discriminatory.
Those assurances have done little to ease the fears of women like Bilkis, who said she was determined to fight religious discrimination in a secular country.
“We will not accept this law. This is a free country and that is how we want it to stay,” she said.
'We will not budge'
The Time article on Bilkis said she “gave hope and strength to activists and student leaders” and that “she deserves recognition so the world acknowledges the power of resistance against tyranny.”
In India, rights activists said the protests spearheaded mostly by Muslim women such as Bilkis against the citizenship law were significant.
“This was a new revolution. It was led by women, particularly Muslim women and their emergence from their homes not to save the Quran, but to protect the constitutional values, that gave the protests a lot of meaning,” according to Annie Raja from the National Federation of Indian Women.
After being named by the magazine, social media paid tributes to the woman who became the subject of songs and poems and whose dogged presence at the protest inspired many similar demonstrations in the country.
Bilkis had vowed to stay on until the law was taken back. “I will come daily whether it is for two months, six months or one year. We are ready to face anything, beatings, stones or bullets in our chest. But we will not budge.”
That did not happen – the protest was cleared in late March after India imposed a stringent lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bilkis told local media she was happy to be recognized by Time but would have been happier if the law had been scrapped.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana also figure in Time magazine’s list, which also features leaders and pioneers.