Ladeeda Farzana and Aysha Renna have been staying at a friend’s place for the last two days, unable to go back to their hostel rooms in the Jamia Millia University in Delhi. The last two days have also been hectic for the two 22-year-old young women from Kerala. Ever since a video of the two along with their friends at Jamia valiantly taking on the Delhi police went viral, they have been interviewed by almost every media house in the country and abroad.
“We never thought our video will go viral. There are and would have been videos of more brutal action by the police. A friend of ours had shot a video of police attacking people in the mosque at campus, but the police saw it and smashed his phone,” says Aysha, who hails from Kondotty in Malappuram, now doing her Masters in History at Jamia.
A portrait of Aysha pointing a finger at a policeman has become the defining image of the protests. Taking the form of cartoons, posters and memes, the picture has become representative of the struggle against the Citizenship Act. However, after the initial flurry celebrating the young women, Aysha and Ladeeda have come under severe scrutiny. Their previous social media posts, their assertion of their Muslim identity and even their declaration that they did not want to be boxed into a ‘secular protest’ is being severely debated across the country. While some have called the women ‘extremist’ in their views, others have lamented about ‘radicalisation’. Their social media posts have garnered so much attention that Aysha’s Facebook account has been reported multiple times and the platform has now locked her out for 30 days.
But neither are perturbed, Aysha and Ladeeda have both tweeted that they are contemplating legal action.
One particular post that has been widely circulated was one in which Aysha condemned the hanging of Yakub Memon and called the government ‘fascist’. Yakub Memon, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, was hanged to death in July 2015.
“I am an Indian and my Constitution guarantees me freedom of expression. When an incident happens, people can have different opinions. When Yakub Memon was executed, many activists and others had recorded their opinions and disagreements, it was not just me. As a history student, I had an opinion about it, there is nothing extremist about my opinion. My Constitution says that every person has the right to express, and that right is being questioned now,” Aysha says.
Aysha says she had expected this backlash. “It is the regular sangh tactic to unleash hate campaigns on people who question them, even celebrities have not been spared,” she says.
Ladeeda too has become a topic of intense debate across the country. “Everyone has their opinions and share their opinions. I have shared my opinion, but to portray those as extremist is a fascist tactic. When someone uses an Arabic word, the Sangh has many times been successful in creating doubts among people that this is extremist,” she says.
Ladeeda is talking about her Facebook status from December 11 in which she wrote, “Do you think we only know to talk about Sabr? Then you are mistaken, you should learn about our jihad.”
She insists that her words have been misinterpreted purposely. “Sabr means patience and jihad in its truest sense means a fight against injustice. But these people are trying to portray it as extremist viewpoint. My only demand is that I want a government that abides by the Indian Constitution and all my actions are to ensure that I question the injustice being meted out. I believe the Sangh Parivar is targeting me by misrepresenting a word I used,” she says.
Another post that has become viral is a picture Ladeeda posted in April 2017 of women in hijab. While a few are pelting stones, one woman is seen holding a gun. Many have criticised this picture as proof that Ladeeda believed in violence or ‘religious war’.
“I was a 19-year-old when I posted it. I belong to a community where women are believed to be oppressed. Those images represented strength and power, so I shared them. Don’t men share pictures of their heroes holding guns?” she asks.
Ladeeda disagrees with those saying she is a mirror image of the Sangh, looking at religious supremacy. “I am asserting my identity as a woman and as a Muslim woman. I am not forcing others to follow my identity, like the RSS does. People should stop comparing me and the Sangh. Is equating ‘black lives matter and white supremacy’ correct? Don’t discredit a movement against CAB based on a few Facebook posts,” she says.
“I don’t believe in violence or riots. Don’t make me sound like I do,” she adds.
The two young women are also supporters of the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO). A politician belonging to BJYM, a party that has aligned itself with the BJP in Kerala, tweeted that SIO was an offshoot of SIMI, a banned terrorist organisation.
Though SIMI and SIO were both founded by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), SIO was founded only after the SIMI broke away from the Jamaat. Over the years, SIO has spread itself across campuses in India and calls itself an ‘ideological organization preparing students and youth for the reconstruction of society in the divine guidance’. It has, however, been criticised for propagating Islamic principles. SIO, however, allows only male members and there is a different organisation for female members called GIO.
“SIO is an Islamic organisation but I am not an official member, my husband is. My work with SIO, for that matter any organisation from the Muslim community, is based on the position they take about issues pertaining to the plight of the Muslim community as a minority and Muslim women as 'minority within the minority,” Ladeeds says.
Aysha says she became a supporter of SIO because it allowed her to function while keeping her identity as a Muslim woman intact. “Back home, I studied in Farooq college. Then I was always confused as to which politics I should choose. I was clear that I would align with a thought of politics or organisaton that would respect my identiy as a Muslim woman.”
Even as the debate rages on about these women, they are categorical that their fight will not stop. “The hate campaign is to question our motive and to break our campaign, this was something we expected. This is not going to impact us. These people are constantly questioning our activism also because we are two women who have held on to our identity,” says Aysha.
“We are not scared at all. The scariest thing is the Citizenship Amendment Act. We have no wish to die in a police lockup and that is not our intention. We want to continue with this protest strongly,” she adds.