I am writing this a few days before International Women’s Day. There was a time when, as March 8 approached, I longed to go into hiding. I knew there would be invitations to talk on the day. But how could I say what I really wanted to? How could I say that I longed for a time when there would be no Women’s Day, because it would mean that that women had become equal participants in the world, natural sharers of the privileges and responsibilities the world offered?

Now, for quite some years, I have not had to worry about being invited. Women’s Day has acquired glitz and gloss, events are sponsored by cosmetic companies, jewellery and sari shops and the guests invariably are young and attractive women. We no longer remember that Women’s Day began as a day dedicated to working women.

Even today, we have a huge mass of women who sweep our homes and our streets, who do back-breaking work on construction sites, women who do unskilled and poorly paid jobs of maids and carers for the very young and the very old. Besides, there are all those women, once called “only a housewife”, now dignified with the title of “home maker”, but whose work still remains unrecognised. These are the women we should think of on Women’s Day.

Shattering stereotypes

This year, however, I think of another group of women, of all those sitting in innumerable places throughout the country, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Women who we thought had never gone out of their homes and, if at all, were always escorted by a male, even if the male was only ten years old. Women who were hidden behind a burkha, who were not much educated, who had many children and were perhaps, possibly, one of four wives of their husbands. The stereotype has now been successfully shattered.

Protesting women have been sitting day after day in the full blaze of public gaze. They do not shy away from the media, but talk confidently, explain why they are protesting. The questions they are asking are simple: is the state entitled to make a law that excludes Muslims? Does this law not smack of discrimination? Does the Constitution allow this discrimination? And, is this the country our forebears fought for?

It is said that the women have been sent out by men to fight their battle for them. But could the women have done what they are doing without sufficient courage and conviction of their own? I read a nasty little article that said that women go to the protests to escape their dull, humdrum lives. Only a man could have said this. It is just this humdrum routine that makes sure that families live in comfort, that food is ready at the right time, that clothes are washed and ironed, that the house is swept and dusted, that men and children are looked after and guests are welcomed. All these are still a woman’s duties, something she takes seriously – even if she has a job.

A protest in Delhi on December 20. Credit: Prakash Singh/ AFP

I went with a friend to a women’s protest in Bangalore. A place distant from the city I know. Very different from the middle-class Bangalore I am familiar with, places like Malleswaram, Jayanagar, Indiranagar, the Cantonment. We drove through narrow roads that looked like they were rarely swept, the road bordered on both sides by unending rows of small shops. I was saddened by the shabby surroundings, by the sense of being in a ghetto. The gleaming dome and slender minarets of a mosque, pointed out to us by everyone of whom we asked the way, only emphasised the derelict old buildings that surrounded it.

But when we entered the protest site, things changed. A woman came and held our hands and smiled her welcome; the loudspeaker was so deafeningly loud, it made talking impossible. A young man repeatedly called out “Inquilab” to which the women shouted back “Zindabad”. No hesitation, their voices loud and clear. “Hum eka hai”, a young women shouted. “Eka hai,” they echoed back with gusto.

Speakers spoke in Kannada, Hindi, English. The women‘s laughter and applause at the right times showed that they understood the languages. And that they understood their cause, they knew why they were there.

The century of women

I have been sure, I have said it often, that this will be the century of women. Not because women are superior, or men inferior, but because men are tired and jaded. Whereas women, coming out of centuries of confinement and suppression, have all the energy and enthusiasm of frisking calves and foals. Now I wonder whether this is the turning point. Whether, once having come out, women will not go back into their seclusion. Whether they will realise that it is up to them to change their own lot. Whether they have found a new direction, a different kind of courage which will make them proactive citizens. Whether this experience will translate into an emphasis on education, on gaining skills, on preparing to become professionals, on aiming for a greater independence.

One has to admire the women of Shaheen Bagh who led the way in the matter of women’s protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. They have persisted despite derogatory remarks, despite jibes, ugly charges. They have not been frightened by the violence which came into their midst, or by the violence which surrounded them during the riots. They have stood up even to the Supreme Court’s gentle admonition that they need to take people’s hardships into account. Their courage is astounding.

Protestors in Guwahati on December 13. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

The response of the government on the other hand has been shocking; in fact, there has been no response at all. Their rigid stand has not changed, in spite of the fact that this movement has spread almost over the entire country. Nobody has deigned to talk to the women, not even the lowliest Minister. Do they think that it is below their dignity to talk to women? Do they think that women do not count, that women don’t have to be taken seriously? But no, just a short while ago, the government had said that their hearts bled for their “sisters”, for which reason they had rushed the triple talaaq bill through Parliament with great haste.

The government, for all their talk of our “ancient culture”, forgets that India has an old tradition of debate and discussion. Shankaracharya travelled throughout India, debating with other scholars, putting forth his philosophy, his ideas of Hinduism. Democracy thrives on debates. Not shouting matches, but well-reasoned arguments put out by both sides. For the government it is a great opportunity to listen to the voice of the people. But they continue to be adamant, mistakenly thinking, perhaps, that it is a sign of strength. It is not, not in a democracy. Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is brought in by politicians whenever it suits them, spoke of “the beauty of compromise”. The spirit of compromise, he said, is an essential part of satyagraha.

A gift has been offered to women on International Women’s Day. Which means nothing. The gift all women want is to be free of violence, whether on the streets, or in their homes. To be free of sexual harassment. Not to be discriminated against in any matter because of their gender. The only gift the protesting women want is the priceless gift of being treated like all other citizens of their country. These women are fighting for what is most precious to them, most precious to humanity: their children’s future. They are fighting for their homes, for their place in the country. The coronavirus has entered the country. In the midst of the fears and the measures being taken to fight this virus, perhaps we can spare a moment to think of what this pandemic is telling us: that we are all human. It is reminding us of our sameness. Perhaps, those of us who think of some people as unequal should ponder over this fact.

Shashi Deshpande is an award-winning writer. Her most recent book is titled Listen to Me.