Prarthna Singh’s photographs show Muslim women in a moment of strength

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On a freezing December evening in Delhi, I followed my friends towards the Shaheen Bagh district, not really knowing what I was getting into. A sit-down protest in the area had been going on for 10 days. We were descending the steps of the Jasola bridge, exchanging remarks on the troubled Yamuna channel, when I saw a large blue tent flapping in the wind below.

As we got closer, I saw hundreds of women under the tarps: young mothers holding babies wrapped in dupattas (shawls), sitting cross-legged on the floor; frail grandmothers under heaps of colorful duvets. Other women handed out cups of hot chai and made room for new arrivals. The men, presumably husbands and sons, stood on the periphery, creating a barricade with their bodies. As I sat, snuggled between women I had never met before, I felt engulfed in a warmth that not even the winter cold could penetrate.

The protest in South Delhi began on December 15, 2019 after parliament passed two bills, introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata, which critics said would have a disproportionate negative impact on the Indian Muslim population.

‘Read and Resist’, a painting by artist Sameer Kulavoor depicting the Shaheen Bagh protest site and children at the nursery

The Citizenship Amendment Act offers Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities in neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but Islam is excluded from its list of recognized religions. At the same time, the government presented plans for a national register of citizens to weed out illegal immigrants. Many Indian Muslims fear that such a registry could deprive them of their citizenship if they do not have the necessary documents.

Both bills, especially when working in tandem, were seen by critics as part of the state’s larger mission to create an ethnically Hindu India, and were rejected by Muslim communities and their allies. Protests have erupted across the country, from Mumbai to Lucknow, with some, such as at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, turning violent. Two and a half years later, no law has yet been implemented, but a climate of fear and uncertainty persists.

A series of Polaroid portraits that Singh took on location and shared with the women and children during the protest

A series of Polaroid portraits that Prarthna Singh made on location and shared with the women © Prarthna Singh

A portrait of one of the women at the protest, superimposed on an image of another protester's shawl

A portrait of one of the protesters, superimposed on an image of another protester’s shawl © Prarthna Singh

What makes Shaheen Bagh unique is that it was organized by working-class Muslim women, one of the most disenfranchised demographic groups in India. In the face of persecution and violence, they sat peacefully for 100 days, protesting through drama, poetry and prayer. At its peak, the first week of February, there were 100,000 protesters at the site. I witnessed an extraordinary atmosphere, one defined by the tenderness and generosity of a movement led by women.

This spirit caught the eye of Indian photographer Prarthna Singh. When she first arrived in Shaheen Bagh on January 6, she knew “something magical” was happening there. A few days later, she moved into her grandmother’s house in nearby Sarita Vihar and began making the daily pilgrimage through police barricades to the site of the protest. Over the course of three months, she developed strong bonds with the women and girls there.

The portraits she made between January and March, mostly in a makeshift photo studio set up by local residents, reflect the mixed emotions of the demonstrators, fear and anxiety of course, but also pride and hope. The project grew as the girls brought their mothers, aunts and grandmothers to see the jadoo kakagaz (magic paper) Polaroid photos of Singh for themselves. Such interactions cemented the photographer’s sense of belonging to Shaheen Bagh. “I started to feel like the space had become an extension of my own home,” says Singh, 39. More than just documenting her surroundings, she hoped to communicate the friendship, love, and joy she felt in her photos.

Hand-drawn map by Prarthna Singh of the protest site, distributed to friends and family © Prarthna Singh

Barricades erected by Delhi Police were adorned with graffiti and flags by protesters © Prarthna Singh

At the end of April 2022, Singh published his photographs in book form. Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh, which means “every night belongs to Shaheen Bagh”, is Singh’s attempt to capture a moment in history and reveal, and make permanent, the determination and bravery of these women. The photographer, whose work has appeared in this magazine, the New York Times and the Guardian, knew she didn’t want to bring outside elements into a space that seemed sacred.

Shaheen Bagh was a community where protesters were fed by volunteers who set up kitchens and chai stalls, kept warm with donated winter clothes and entertained their children in volunteer-run crèches and drawing centers. Their solidarity was manifested not only by chants of “Azadi!(“freedom”) but also through small gestures of love. In some of her images, Singh superimposes the portraits of women over images she made of their colorful shawls and quilts, objects protesters gave each other for warmth and comfort.

The peaceful Shaheen Bagh sit-in, which resisted numerous police attempts to disperse it for its 100 days, came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Covid-19. On March 24, 2020, the site was closed when the emergency closures went into effect.

The Shaheen Bagh walkway was covered in posters, poems and artwork during the protest

The Shaheen Bagh walkway was covered in posters, poems and artwork during the protest © Prarthna Singh

Prarthna Singh's Bridge of Return at Shaheen Bagh in October 2020, when all evidence of the protest had been removed

The bridge, removed from protest material, when Singh returned in October 2020 © Prarthna Singh

When she returned to the protest site in October of that year, Singh found no evidence of what had happened there. “It was so strange. All the signs had been removed, harshly painted with black strokes, cars were passing by and it looked like a normal weekday in Delhi,” she says. All remnants of the protest were gone. The tarp had been dismantled and the posters and children’s drawings removed, graffiti painted in their place.

The months spent at Shaheen Bagh were almost like a dream. During Modi’s eight years in office, there has been a drastic increase in communal violence in India, from street lynchings to the destruction of historic mosques. The government made Muslim communities feel unsafe and unwelcome at home.

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh, is therefore both a photo book and an act of resistance against the erasure of a political moment. It’s a compilation of everything that happened in this space, with a hand-drawn map, transcripts of speeches and poems, and letters from mothers who cared for the future of their children.

In a country where Muslim women must constantly negotiate how to occupy space, Singh portrays them in moments of strength and individuality. His photographs celebrate the sense of brotherhood that survived the protest itself. In this direction, Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh is both an object of love and an offer of friendship.

“Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh” is available on www.hardaamshaheenbagh.com

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