Women and the shift in contemporary protest consciousness

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Women's Strike for Peace-And Equality, Women's Strike for Equality, Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, August 26, 1970. (Photo by Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)


“Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?” —Lee Maracle, Ravensong

As an anchor of knowledge and action, the human body has been the “vehicle of all social protests” since ages unknown and the close analysis of the role of “acting body” becomes instrumental in accessing the consequences of these movements. In the past few decades, there has been a “paradigmatic shift” in the way that both the theories and practices of social movements and protest culture have assumed a gendered consciousness. Right from the July 1848’s Seneca Falls Convention which marked the beginning of Women’s Rights movement to present day’s women-led protests against CAA-NRC in Shabeen Bagh, New Delhi, the course of history has enough examples to signify how women have challenged theories of social movements which often neglect the importance of gender in leadership and mobilization in times of protests.

The social theory, in the past, was fraught with the Western mind-body dualism that has led to the general tendency of focusing on cognitive factors in social activists rather than giving the slightest importance to emotions and body. This knowledge-body distinction identifies knowledge, culture, and reason with masculinity and identifies body, nature, and emotion with femininity which forms the basis of past practices like the execution of female protesters by accusing them of witchcraft or practicing dark magic. However, with the conceptualization of Feminist scholarship on gender and society, contemporary social thinkers have expanded their studies to the body as a subject that creates meaning and performs social action. This “repositioning” of the body further lays down the foundation of a gendered understanding of socio-political order and movements related to them (Sasson-Levy and Rapoport, 2003).

Women protesting against the CAA-NRC in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India | Source : U.S. News

Another important shift in the global protest culture involving women showcases the exemplary reflection of how women-led protests encompass so much more than just issues of reproductive rights and violence against women. (Women’s Studies Quarterly, 2018) The active participation of women in protests on diverse issues such as ceaseless anti-occupation protests in Kashmir and Palestine, the Black Lives Matter movement, Idle No More, the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States and Canada, and student-led movements against JNU fee hike highlights the constant claim of protest spaces by women on a wide range of issues other than explicit “women’s issues”. For India, history celebrates countless such examples of women being the torchbearers in times of protests. In 1973, it was a group of peasant groups who gave the world a unique example of organized resistance in the form of the Chipko Movement which later on spread throughout India as a protest against mass afforestation. Another movement, launched in 1985 by social activist Medha Patkar called Narmada Bachao Aandolan (Save Narmada Movement) against a series of large dam projects across the Narmada River is perhaps the longest non-violent movement in the history of the world driven primarily by women.

Tracing the lines of media revolution with the advent and popularisation of the internet, social media, print, mobile phone, etc., the landscape of protest culture has also witnessed a drastic revolution, especially when we analyze the ways in which women are using these avenues as a means to organize, express outrage and draw awareness to taboo or previously silenced topics. The virtual ‘hashtag’ form of protests such as the #MeToo movement is marking the rise of digital activism which, in spite of the prevalent sexism in media, challenges these very stereotypes through online campaigns and viral advertisements. Similarly, art has also emerged as another tool of dissent. “Art helps you resist and persist,” says Tanzeela, the artist behind the now-iconic image of the woman in the tricolor hijab which has become a new narrative of resistance in Shaheen Bagh protests. Several other artists like her are taking up diverse mediums such as songs, theatre, writings, illustrations, etc. to uphold their voices of dissent and to open ways to rethink the relations and boundaries between the future, the past, collective action, the law, and violence within gendered frames.

Thus, the story of women paving their way from the confined walls of home to bet themselves at the altar of restive streets of activism highlights a story of “protest against, protest for, protest within.” It is not only actively changing the landscape of socio-political environment of a country but also shatters the hierarchical and gendered notions attached to their physical and psychological identity as women. The substantive increase in the literacy rate among women in past few decades has allowed the emergence of a generation which has increased self ownership, access to information and for whom retreating to a state of lack of agency is not an option anymore.


Sasson-Levy, Orna and Rapoport, Tamar (2003). Body, Gender, and Knowledge in Protest Movements: The Israeli Case. Sage Publications, Inc. Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3 & 4 (2018). The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Singh, Gayeti (2020). Aljazeera [Online]. Available at : https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/meet-artists-resisting-india-citizenship-law-200128065459553.htmlBhowmick, Nilanjana (2020). Time [Online]. Available at : https://time.com/5765702/india-protests-women/UN Women [Online]. Available at : https://interactive.unwomen.org/multimedia/timeline/womenunite/en/index.html#/2000

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