"Nation at repair, Women at work" - Black letters on a white poster stood out in Chennai's Old Washermanpet neighbourhood, as these words were being brought to life by thousands of women trickling into the sit-in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the city.
Across India, many all-women protests against the CAA-NRC have been cropping up, similar to the one at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh which has been going on since December 15. In Chennai, the female agitation started on Friday night, due to an arbitrary and violent clampdown by the Chennai police against the female protesters at Old Washermanpet. At 7: 30 pm on February 14, 500 odd police personnel arrived at the protest site in Old Washermanpet and used lathis and glass pieces to clear out 50 women who had gathered in the streets to peacefully agitate.
Over four days since the police clampdown, women from across Chennai have been rushing to Old Washermanpet, in a steely display of dissent and unswerving solidarity with their sisters. Over 3000 people have now gathered at the Chennai's Shaheen Bagh protest over the last four days.
'Protest is priority'
TNM visited the narrow residential gullies along the Thiruvottiyur High Road which have been converted to a protest ground by the women residents. Most of these women, predominantly Muslim, have been protesting all day and night since February 14, suspending domestic and familial duties and coming together to build a thriving community of protesters. Over 120 hours, these women have managed to serve meals and drinks to beat the heat. They have even set up toilets, resting rooms, namaaz rooms and other facilities for gathering protesters.
"I have a husband and a 23-year-old son back home. To be honest, I don't even know what they are upto. I am not sure if they have eaten or left to work. But right now, their needs are not a priority for me. The protest is. They will manage," 45-year-old Khadeerunisa says with a laugh.
Even as Khadeerunisa chats about her domestic routine, the 45-year-old feeds milk to her 2-year-old grandchild lying on her lap. The child has been accompanying her grandmother to the protests every single day since Friday. Like Kahdeerunisa, several new mothers and grandmothers are in protest, their bags in one hand and babies in the other.
Recalling the events which occurred on Valentine's Day evening, 26-year-old Jannath who was among the 16 women detained by the police alleged, "The police forces (mostly male) broke through the barricades around the protest site. They shoved us, pulled at our sarees and burqas, yanked our hair and dragged us into the van. I was the first woman to be pushed into the vehicle and they abused me and threatened to jail our men indefinitely."
Twenty-eight-year-old Almas, a protester and mother to a 9-month old Arfa cradles her child as she sits in the middle of the crowd and raises anti-CAA slogans. "You see these?" she asks, pointing at the angry red marks on Arfa's face and legs, "These are mosquito bites but I have no choice but to bring her here," Almas says.
Life has not been easy for Almas. The 28-year-old mother of two stays till 5am at the protests. She then leaves to her house to wash clothes, cook breakfast, pack tiffin for her 4-year-old son and send him off to school. She spends four hours at home doing chores before returning to the protest venue at 9am the same day.
"In between the day, I go home only two times - to pick up my son from school at 3 pm and then in the night to put Arfa to bed," she tells TNM.
When asked if the exercise wasn't too much effort Almas brushes aside the question.
"We do not have the means to procure any documents if the government asks. Although five generations of my family have been living here, today we are getting out to protest because tomorrow this could happen to you," she adds.
'Protesters across age groups'
Sixty-five-year-old Mumtaz has stretched her legs to prevent aches from sitting for long, she has resolved to agitate despite her hearing issues and numerous physical ailments.
"'My voice has gone weak after shouting for four days. But I am not going to stop, until CAA-NRC and NPR is repealed," she says. After hearing about Friday's police action, Mumtaz has travelled with her daughter from Thangal, 16 kilometres away, to join the protest.
"We have not gone home back once. We make some space and sleep on the street. We eat and freshen up here and get back to protesting," she adds.
Though the protest comprised of mostly Muslim women, several others from different religions were actively helping deliver food and drinks to the crowd. E Selvi, 50, poured buttermilk from a giant steel utensil into tiny plastic cups to be handed over to the gathered protesters.
"This is not just a problem for Muslims. It affects everyone. Here we don't see differences between Hindus and Muslims. If we celebrate Ramzan, they celebrate Pongal. And, if anybody tries to divide us, even if it is the government, we will fight back," says E Selvi.
With Friday's police crackdown at Old Washermanpet, spontaneous protests broke out in several parts of Tamil Nadu. Anti-CAA agitations at Coimbatore, Erode and Thiruvannamalai districts in addition to another demonstration in Chennai at Anna Salai were reported post Friday. But for the women at Chennai's Shaheen Bagh, one line puts all of these events into perspective.
"You divide, we multiply," they say.