Indian Muslim Women as Cultural Jammers: Challenging the Dominant Socio-Political Discourses

By Sara Kulsoom

“The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.”

Don Joyce, Negativeland


Reaching its end, the year 2019 witnessed India awash with protests sparked by the highly contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), rolled out by the Indian government. CAA is a dangerous law,[1] an affront to India, and will “mark the end of India’s secular and democratic constitution,”[2] which guarantees different religions equal treatment.[3] From December onwards, people from different faiths, resolute in their solidarity and religious harmony, have flooded the entirety of India. But what makes this protest unique is the role played by Indian Muslim women (educated and uneducated alike), as they provide counter-hegemonic claims to the otherwise dominant socio-political discourses about them.


With the use of stage protests and culture of art resistance, Muslim women have been challenging and jamming the dominant narrative that has portrayed them as socio-politically backward and weak in Indian society. Their participation did not only demonstrate their ability to “talk back” about themselves but also indicated a re-assertion of their identity as well as a motivation for a redistribution of power within socio-political and gendered spaces. Young Muslim women from universities and schools use street art, street theatre and graffiti as their modus operandi; however elderly Muslim women are actively endorsing the culture of stage protest. Such active roles played by Indian Muslim women of all ages can be seen as jamming the dominant socio-political discourses about them. And also provide alternative portrayals of their identity beyond the longstanding parochial and downtrodden descriptions.

Women at Shaheen Bagh protest (Source: Syeda Hamida in The Wire, 23 December 2019)

The notion of “culture jamming” though is thought to have been formally introduced by an American musician – Don Joyce in 1984, but some scholars trace its origin back to medieval carnivals. Gramsci,[4] views culture jamming as a “new way of conceiving the world” and “modifying popular thought and mummified popular culture.” It is a strategy/tactic comprising humor, satire, and parody to counter or subvert the hegemonic discourses existing in a society, or the world at large.[5] The strategy intends to heckle the unconscious and often oblivious thought processes steered by popular discourse, and infuse counter-hegemonic discourses. Additionally, these counter-hegemonic discourses of culture jamming target a wider public spectrum transcending from intellectual strata to even the uneducated masses.[6] It comprises criticizing and subverting political and advertising messages through billboards and memes, and more recently, street parties, plays, and protests have also come under its gamut.

Who are cultural jammers?

Cultural jammers are the ‘sphericules’ distinctive from the targeted audience,[7] but their distinction is not to the detriment of democracy,[8] though it demonstrates “agonistic plurality”[9] and “complexity of the power structure.”[10] Cultural jammers are the self-motivated individuals who resist the dominant culture, propagated by the state or non-state agencies. Their contention about the dominant narrative is decisive to the idea of political mobilization and participation,[11] which needs to be mobilized rather than obliterated.

Muslim women as cultural jammers?

Considering the case of protests against India’s Muslim discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the country witnessed the massive uprising of Muslim women who remarkably worked as cultural jammers. Muslim women were the ‘sphericules,’ practicing their democratic right and demonstrating ‘agonistic plurality’ in the country, but not to the detriment of democracy. It was since early December that people (Muslims, non-Muslims, male, female, students, teachers, activists, locals, etc.) swarmed streets to protest, which was further triggered in the aftermath of police carnage of two minority institutions – Jamia Millia Islamia University, and Aligarh Muslim University on 15th of December 2019.

‘The studio for the cultural jammers is the world at large’

Soon after this crackdown, the New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area became the epicentre for opposition to the CAA, where even grandmothers, housewives, school teachers and students, daily wagers joined in, and the protestors together exhibited a wider public spectrum transcending from intellectual strata to even the uneducated masses. These women have camped on streets of Shaheen Bagh, braving not just the bone-chilling December winter,[12] but also the criticism from various hard-line Hindu groups who view ‘Burqa’ clad Muslim women as “veiled threats” to the country. The site also had a vibrant display of posters hanging from the metro bridge, accompanied by a 35-foot model of India, and 100 meter graffiti on road.
35-foot India, 100-metre graffiti, and poetry:

Art at the Shaheen (Source: CNBC TV18)
35-foot India, 100-metre graffiti, and poetry: Art at the Shaheen (Source: CNBC TV18)

Apart from Shaheen Bagh, Jamia Millia Islamia was yet another center for opposition to the CAA and had students, teachers, activists, coming together in defiance of anti-Muslim policies, with solidarity marches, street plays and vibrant street art/graffiti on roads and walls of the campus.

(Source: Twitter/@Jamia_JCC)

Banksy as her ideal, a Fine Arts student of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Simeen Anjum made her efforts to denounce police atrocities inside the campus on 13 and 15 December 2019. “There is nothing like graffitis that conveys the message clearly to even those who cannot read,” Simeen had said. People from other parts of the country also joined, Anirban Ghosh, from Bengaluru, also assisted protestors with graffitis. “We are here to protect our constitution. As artists, we can make our statement with colors and that is our kind of protest,” said Kauser Jahan. “All of us have an equal right to dissent. Our artworks ask the government to recognize the right to differ,” said Mohd Ifran, student of JMI. [13] Even Mohd Nazruddin, who is a van-puller by profession, participated next to students, saying “we must come out to save our ‘loktantra’ (democracy).[14]

A Fine Arts student paints graffiti outside the Jamia Millia (Source: SOPA Images Limited)

Changing Narrative, Culture Jamming, and Hope for other Muslim women

On my few visits to the Shaheen Bagh’s protest area, what became apparent was that these women were not “activists,” rather most of them were homemakers, having a first time experience of what it feels to be at the centre of a national debate and directly opposing government policies. There was anarchy, and no single leadership, different groups collaborated to stand up to the government. Surprisingly, the older women played a more intense role, especially the three elderly women named Asma Khatun (90), Bilkis (82), Sarwari (75), who became the face of the Shaheen Bagh protest. These women spearheaded most of the events with numerous other Muslim and also non-Muslim women of different age groups. These three women took no part in politics ever before, but now, they are fearlessly vocal as the policy threatens their ‘survival.’ Their fearlessness and courage pushed Muslim women in other areas and shortly massive sit-in protests came into effect, adjoining people from other faiths as well, especially the Sikh community. Since then protestors have jolted the country with protests, flooding streets and highways with solidarity marches, projecting religious harmony.

Moreover, such stalwartness by Muslim women comes even when the issue (CAA) is (presumably) not just discriminatory towards them, rather, against lower caste Hindus, and other minorities as well. Therefore, the recent political awakening in India seems as elatedly exemplified by the Muslim women who prompted people to stand against fascism and discrimination and received substantial support from various world leaders, intellectuals, activists, etc. This proactive political role of Muslim women has subverted and jammed the otherwise dominant narratives and popular culture about them as being downtrodden, oppressed and socio-politically weak in Indian society.


Their participation did not only demonstrate their ability to “talk back” about themselves but also indicated a re-assertion of their identity as well as a motivation for a redistribution of power within socio-political and gendered spaces.


The general perception about Muslim women in the Indian society has been of an oppressed group, with zero participatory roles in household decision-making, especially the ones observing hijab or veil. Muslim women in veil/hijab have long remained a topic of discussion, and are correlated to backwardness, moreover, pathetically to a – ‘trishul,’[15] and ‘veiled threats.’ On the other hand, Muslim men are solely viewed as dominant, oppressive and conservative towards their women. Giving a jolt to the majority mind-set or the dominant narrative in India, Muslim women, by leading the CAA protest, have trampled the so-called longstanding downtrodden descriptions about them. However, this would not have been possible without the support of their male counterparts. A friend told me excitedly how her father picks them up after classes, and later the entire family would mark their presence in the protest. Muslim men have facilitated way for their women to rise in political spheres, even by sharing household chores in many cases.


It was a first time experience for Muslim women in India, unlike, the case in Kashmir, where women play a substantial role in shaping the political structure. Kashmiri women exhibit a history of struggle and are symbolic of resistance, while Indian Muslim women have just entered the political forefront to resist oppression and protect their rights. They have made their voices heard by the entire world, and changed several narratives, that portray them as politically passive, inapt to make social changes, and weak enough to bring about a revolution.


However, with all the right reasons, the protest was called off due to national lockdown that aims to prevent the spread of the pandemic COVID-19, in the country. Soon after the lockdown, television started buzzing with the news of police destroying the tents, posters, models, and billboards with the bulldozers. Since the Shaheen Bagh protest site had already become a thorn in views of various politicians, who long wanted its obliteration,[16] the authorities left no reminiscence of the protest. The same was applied to JMI protest site, the image below shows the JMI campus wall filled with graffiti and resistance art, gets painted white by the workers at the behest of state authorities. ‘Studios’ of the cultural jammers were destroyed, and reduced to memories!

(Photo: Twitter/@Jamia_JCC)

Possible consequences of the protest


As the number of COVID-19 cases in the country increase, the public is required to stay indoors for a long time, even without a lockdown. Gathering together for protest seems a highly dangerous and irrational step. People, therefore, now are helplessly left with prayers, hopes, and beyond all – questions! Protestors still hope to gain from their opposition to the discriminatory act, but with apprehensions looming, nonetheless. With their billboards, posters, models reduced to trash, and graffiti walls spattered white, they ponder are paintings also violating the lockdown? If not, then what explanations could be provided for such a step?


The fear of survival drives the potential of these protestors, especially women, who are adamant to rise again, once the country is saved from the pandemic. But concomitantly worry what will it take people to revive the protest culture, whose tools were crushed by the authorities in its infancy? The rising anti-Muslim sentiments and February 2020 Delhi pogrom,[17] has left these women engulfed with anxieties. My maid who managed to come in the first few days of lockdown asked my mother “baaji log kya karenge ab, dharna toh khatam hogaya?,” (sister, what will people do now, protest is over?). She continued “hum kya detention jaenge ab? Ya humko bhi maar denge? (will we go to the detention centre now? Or will they kill us too?).


The demolition of protest sites might seem to have gutted out the protestors’ motivation. And as of now, the government has only delayed the process of CAA, with no signs of revoking it.[18] Moreover, Islamophobia and anti-Muslims sentiments are spiraling like never before, leaving one to ponder, “if the efforts and energies invested by Muslims and non-Muslim friends alike went in vain?” The current scenario provides no concrete result of Muslim women’s efforts to fight injustice, but to see it a total failure of time and energies will be a sheer underestimation. At the least, this protest has prompted the society to shed off its longstanding dominant narratives about Muslim women, who have ascended to assert their voices in India’s socio-political spheres. They have boldly stood up for their rights without an iota of fear, and jammed the dominant narratives that have long portrayed them as passive participants, incapable of defending their rights, and dependent on others to articulate their needs. Challenging all the longstanding parochial descriptions, Muslim women aim to safeguard their rights as equal and responsible citizens of India, and reveal their potential of standing against hatred and injustice.


[1] Elizabeth Puranam (25 December 2019). Arundhati Roy: Protests over India’s citizenship law give me hope https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/arundhati-roy-protests-india-citizenship-law-give-hope-191225131227378.html
[2] Ashlin Mathew (22 December 2019). Harsh Mander: CAA will mark the end of our secular, democratic Constitution. National Herald. https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/interview/harsh-mander-caa-will-mark-the-end-of-our-secular-democratic-constitution
[3] Sanya Mansoor and Billy Perrigo. (19 December 2019). This Is Not Just a Muslim Fight.’ Inside the Anti-Citizenship Act Protests Rocking India. TIME Magazine. https://time.com/5752186/india-protests-citizenship-act/
[4] Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (p. 417).
[5] L. Hutcheon (1994) Irony’s Edge—the Theory and Politics of Irony; Dentith (2000) Parod.
[6] Cammaerts (2007) Jamming the Political: Beyond Counter Hegemonic Practices (p.72)
[7] Gitlin (1998) ‘Public sphere or public sphericules?; and Cammaerts (2007, p.73)
[8] Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community; and Galston (2003) ‘If political fragmentation is the problem, is the Internet the solution?
[9] According to Chantal Mouffe, “agonistic pluralism” is best defined as a unique intersection of John Rawls idea of “reasonable pluralism” (that says any liberal polity must respect the fact that citizens will differ as to their conceptions of the good) and Carl Schmitt’s “antagonism” (friend-enemy identification and struggle for destruction), but simultaneously stands in contrast to them. According to Mouffe the two adversaries existing in any society “may disagree but who ultimately respect one another’s right to exist.” This kind of respectful conflict, according to Mouffe is “agonistic pluralism.” It accepts Rawls’s explanation that differences in the pluralistic society arise due to the different conceptions of the good in each group, but rejects the rest. Likewise, it accepts the Schmitt’s argument that conflict is vital but contended that conflict need not involve the identification of an enemy that is required to be destroyed. See “Agonism” in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[10] Mouffe (1999) ‘Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism? (p. 757)
[11] Cammaerts (2007, p.73).
[12] Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman (21 January 2020). ‘Modi is Afraid’: Women Take lead in India’s citizenship protest. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/21/modi-is-afraid-women-take-lead-in-indias-citizenship-protests
[13] Prajanma Das (17 January 2020) Inspired by Banksy, these Jamia students are protesting with their graffiti on university walls. The New Indian express. Edex Live. https://www.edexlive.com/news/2020/jan/17/inspired-by-banksy-these-jamia-students-are-protesting-with-their-graffiti-on-university-walls-9922.html
[14] Abhik Bhattacharya (3 January 2020). Artists in Jamia Gather to Disturb the ‘Comfortable’, Paint the Streets With Colour. Live Wire. https://livewire.thewire.in/campus/artists-jamia-protest-dystopia/
[15] Ramachandra Guha. (24 Mar 2018). Liberals, Sadly. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/liberals-sadly-indias-liberals-must-take-on-both-hindu-and-muslim-communalists-5103729/
[16] Sanjeev Miglani (24 March 2020). Indian police clear out anti-government protest citing coronavirus. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-southasia-protest/indian-police-clear-out-anti-government-protest-citing-coronavirus-idUSKBN21B0FW

[17] Adam Withnall (7 March 2020). Delhi riots: Violence that killed 53 in Indian Capital ‘was anti-Muslim pogrom,’ says top expert. Independent Premium UK. https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/world/delhi-riots-pogrom-violence-deaths-modi-bjp-india-police-a9384891.html
[18] Sanya Mansoor and Billy Perrigo. (19 December 2019). ‘This Is Not Just a Muslim Fight.’ Inside the Anti-Citizenship Act Protests Rocking India. TIME Magazine. https://time.com/5752186/india-protests-citizenship-act/ ‘This Is Not Just a Muslim Fight.’ Inside the Anti-Citizenship Act Protests Rocking India.