Collective Willfulness: Refashioning Empowered Girlhood

By Karishma Desai  

Young women protestors in front of Jamia Milia Islamia University. Photo by author.

The celebration of empowered girls is near ubiquitous across international development and humanitarian regimes. Marking girls as premier sites of human capital investment, these regimes circulate images of young girls as embodying risk and promise (Murphy 2017).This gendered neoliberal logic proceeds as follows: investing in the education and empowerment of girls will lead to poverty reduction, economic growth, and moral uplift due to their inherent disposition towards self-responsibilization, which will inevitably result in community development. Neoliberal feminist articulations of empowerment for young women are configured around the potential of entrepreneurial individualism. In contrast to this dominant understanding of empowerment, young female protestors from Jamia Milia Islamia University have been at the forefront of the #NoCAA protests. In doing so, they fashion a different articulation of empowered girlhood, centered on a feminist ethos of collective willfulness. Their unrelenting presence as young Muslim women also counters western interventionist and Hindutva discourses that cast Muslim women and girls as victims who require saving, oppressed by violent Muslim masculinities (Abu Lughod 2002; Khoja-Moolji 2016). In an India that increasingly questions their belonging, these student protestors make claims to the university, public space, and by extension, the nation, as home.

On the evening of December 15, 2019, students Ladeeda Farzana and Aysha Renna protected their male friend from police violence outside of Jamia Milia Islamia University when police barged into university premises. A viral video of their actions gained affective traction as it circulated on WhatsApp groups, Twitter, and Facebook. The fierce image of Aysha pointing a finger at police officers while other young women formed a tight collective shield around him has become a defining image of anti-CAA activism. Their actions were dramatized in the form of cartoons, posters, and memes. Supporters around the world adopted the image as their own Twitter and Facebook profile as markers of solidarity. The circulating image consolidated rage against Hindutva violence, made assertions of belonging, and generated an ardent sense of hope attached to the form of young Muslim womanhood.

Ladeeda and Aysha are two of many young women who have been on the frontlines of Jamia University’s anti-CAA protests. On any given day in mid-December, I would hear Afreen’s distinctly razor-sharp voice leading those around her in chanting, sounds that would inevitably expand the circle, and draw in more young women, including a group of secondary school students from a nearby government school. Sana, Nazneen, and Afreen, second and third-year students at Jamia, had maintained a regular presence in front of the university since December 15, 2019 when police violently barged into their campus.

Sitting on the stairs of the social sciences building, Sana, Nazneen, and Afreen explained their unrelenting presence at the protests. “Jamia is our home and we’re not safe expressing ourselves in our own home,” the young women proclaimed, as they described collective sentiments of fear, alarm and rage that had emerged in response to the legalization of an increasingly anti-Muslim public atmosphere, and, specifically, the police intrusion into their university. The graffiti art mapped onto the university walls by students, including Sana, made spatial claims to the institution and underscored that the Indian nation is their home. They emphasized that while the Hindu right-wing government repeatedly worked to question their sense of belonging through legal measures and everyday violence, their steadfast, insistent resistance and expanding collective movement asserted otherwise. Speaking about neighboring Shaheen Bagh where several students resided, Nazneen insisted on maintaining a resolute presence and embodied claim to space, “Our mothers and aunties, Shaheen Bagh’s women, aren’t moving. We aren’t moving.”

Reflecting upon why it was impossible for them to leave the protest site even for a day, Sana asserted, “We have to be here. Sure, our families have their documents, but what kind of life is it to think about ourselves. If my life isn’t for others, what’s even the point? I can’t just live for myself. We all know that.” This sense of collective personhood also informed the critique that Nazneen, an aspiring journalist, made of Indian journalists, whom she claimed were self-interested and lacked courage. This collective orientation infused the logic that Nazneen and her sister Sana drew upon to negotiate new constraints emerging from their family’s fears and desires for their safety. Sana passionately recounted, “When my elder brother insisted that we stay home, I was enraged. I told him that if they’re so worried about my life being in danger, he should just kill me now, at home. This is everyone’s life that is at risk and I’m with everyone. It wasn’t an option for me not to go; my feelings about being here are so strong.”

Sara Ahmed (2014) describes willfulness as a style of politics cultivated through engagement in struggles to exist, and desires to transform certain kinds of existence. The kind of empowered young womanhood that Sana, Naazneen and Afreen take up is informed by a sense of willfulness, defined as a defiance of the will, or a refusal to subject one’s will (Ahmed 2014). The collective willfulness that Sana, Naazneen, and Afreen perform in their persistent presence is derived from and enacts an “embodied and shared vitality” (p.142). This collective willfulness refuses state directives, is derived from simultaneous fear and rage, and asserts a collective personhood that counters liberal and neoliberal notions of humanness (Wynter & McKittrick 2015). In contrast to neoliberal self-individualization rationalities that undergird empowerment interventions centering young women, a powerful feminist ethic of collective willfulness directs Sana, Naazneen, and Afreen’s sense of righteous empowerment.

Karishma Desai is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. Engaging transnational feminist and anthropological lenses, her research examines gender, childhood, and education predominantly in South Asia.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Khoja-Moolji, S. (2015). “Reading Malala (de)(re)Territorialization of Muslim Collectivities.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East35(3), 539-556.

Murphy, M. (2017). The economization of Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wynter, S. & McKittrick, K. (2015). “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, To Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations”. In K. McKittrick (Ed.), Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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