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Women at Center Stage in Protests Against India’s Citizenship Law

Women display placards during a protest, organized by West Bengal State Jamiat-e-Ulama, an Islamic organization, against a new citizenship law, in Kolkata, India, Dec. 22, 2019.

Chanting "freedom," Fozia stands among the sea of student protesters in New Delhi loudly demanding that the government scrap a new law that introduces religion as a criterion for citizenship for persecuted minorities from three neighboring countries.

"India will accept people from all faiths except Muslim. This is creating inequality," says the undergraduate student of Jamia Millia Islamia University that has spearheaded the protests against the new law. Wearing a black veil and giving only her first name, she refers to the country’s constitution that guarantees equality. "It is damaging the country’s basic structure," she says.

WATCH: Anjana Pasricha's video report

Women at Center Stage in Protests Against India’s Citizenship Law
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India’s new citizenship law that excludes Muslims from six religious groups who will get expedited citizenship if they fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has unleashed public anger across several Indian cities and many university campuses for being discriminatory.

But this protest at Jamia Millia, where many Muslims study, is unusual — on the front lines are hundreds of Muslim women from conservative homes who have traditionally stayed away from public places. As housewives and mothers join students to sing songs and hold placards on the street outside the university campus, some keep their faces covered or refuse to reveal their names. Muslims have almost never led protests in India but fears that the new law will relegate them to second-class citizens has brought many into the streets.

Female students at the university, many with hijabs covering their hair, have been at the forefront with their male counterparts since the protests erupted last week. Fozia for example ignores the chill in New Delhi’s winter air and arrives every morning at 7 am to organize the rally and ensure that arrangements are made to distribute water and food to those who camp here for several hours.

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, inside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, Dec. 14, 2019.
Protesters shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, inside the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, Dec. 14, 2019.

Many of them are furious not just with the new citizenship law but also with the government’s efforts to quell the protests. At Jamia, at least 200 students were injured when police lobbed tear gas after entering the campus last weekend to break up the student demonstrations.

Among the protesters is 55-year-old Rabia, who gives only one name and says her son was among those who sustained injuries when police entered the university library where students were working.

"Those of us who wear these clothes seldom come out of our homes," she says pointing to her black veil on which she has pinned a huge poster, "Save the Constitution." But her son’s experience has been a tipping point for her. "The situation has gotten now out of hand that is why we are out. Till they don’t scrap the bill, I will be out protesting," she says.

Police say they used maximum restraint and their action was meant to curb violence.

But many who witnessed first hand what happened to their fellow students were traumatized and are now determined to make their voices heard. Zakeera Roohi, an undergraduate student, says it is the "brutality" of the police that has made her lend solidarity to those present here as much as her anger at the new law.

The government has called the law a compassionate measure for minorities such as Hindu and Christian refugees who have no place to go. But many non-Muslims, both from Jamia and other colleges, who have joined the protests, fear it damages India’s tradition of a pluralistic society.

"I am a Hindu but this bill is affecting me because my fellow citizens and my fellow students are being affected by this," according to Sumedha Poddar. "In my entire one, one and a half year in Jamia, I have been with my Muslim friends. I have shared my lunch with them, I went to their home in Eid and I have celebrated their festivals."

Poddar was present on the campus when police stormed inside. She locked herself in a room to save herself.

Another undergraduate student, who refuses to give her name, has not told her parents that she is joining the protest but hopes that the hundreds of Muslim women present here will break stereotypes about the community. "I told my parents I am with a friend and got out," she says.

The chants being raised here are not just opposing the citizenship law, but also plans by the government to roll out a citizens’ register that will require all Indians to submit proof of their nationality. The government’s assurances that Indian Muslims do not risk losing their citizenship has failed to calm fears that their exclusion from the new law makes them vulnerable. And many are anguished.

"Why, why do we have to prove your citizenship first of all? Our forefathers have fought for this nation," says Roohi. "Then why do we have to prove our loyalty to the country?"

Out on this street for a second week, these young women are vowing not to back down from fighting a law that they see as an assault on India’s secular constitution. "Because we are Indian. We have basic rights. They are being trampled upon," says Fozia.

It remains to be seen whether these protests — the most widespread witnessed in recent years — will continue or slowly fizzle out. But they underline a loss of confidence among Muslims in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and growing fears that he is pressing ahead with a Hindu nationalist agenda.