Indian women activists set trailblazing paths through dominant narratives this year, daring to be outspoken despite consequences they knew would follow suit. Their moments of dissent were seen as acts of courage by some and acts of radicalism by others, but it became wholly impossible to deny at the same time that these activists – no matter their views – are courageous enough to raise questions and make themselves heard in a society that traditionally sidelines women’s voices.
All these women faced police action in a year that was marked by women leading various protests from the front, most prominently the one that sustained year-long around the national capital. Women at the farmers’ protest were not silent players by any measure and were essential in boosting the agitation against the farm laws, which were ultimately repealed.
Activists who made headlines in 2021 were spread out across ages, from the very young Disha Ravi to senior leader Sudha Bharadwaj. Here are some women you should know about.
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Indian Women Activists Who Made Headlines In 2021:
1. Sudha Bharadwaj
Senior activist Sudha Bharadwaj flashed a dazzling smile as she was released from imprisonment after three years in December this year, after being granted bail by the Bombay High Court. Her viral photo sparked cheer on social media, with netizens hailing it as an example of standing for truth despite harsh consequences.
She was one among many senior speakers and thinkers who faced police action in 2018 following the Bhima-Koregaon violence, which authorities said was incited by speeches these leaders delivered. Stan Swamy, who was also charged with the severe Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) alongside Bharadwaj in the same case, died in prison this year.
2. Natasha Narwal
One of the Pinjra Tod activist pair (the other being Devangana Kalita) to be arrested against the backdrop of the February 2020 Delhi Riots case, Natasha Narwal, was held up as a symbol of resistance for the journey she traced this year. The student activist was arrested in May last year under multiple charges of UAPA.
For a year, she remained in jail, getting a brief interim release in May 2021 following the death of her father, senior Communist leader Mahavir Narwal. In a viral photo from the last rites, Narwal was seen giving her father a final farewell, clad in a PPE kit. She, along with Kalita and a third activist Asif Iqbal Tanha, was granted bail by the Delhi High Court in June.
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3. Masrat Zahra
Photojournalist Masrat Zahra is one of Kashmir’s best-known figures in her field of work, notable for highlighting the daily lived realities of people in the valley, for which she has also consistently won awards. Last year, she won the prestigious Anja Niedringhaus Courage and Peter Mackler Awards that recognise ethical journalism.
In 2021, she made shocking claims of assault against both her parents by the police in Jammu and Kashmir. She added pictures that purportedly showed her father with bruises sustained during the alleged beating. Zahra, a strong critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its military policies in Kashmir, called the alleged assault “tactics to pressurise and silence her.” Read here.
4. Disha Ravi
The country’s most famous youth activist this year, Disha Ravi is a climate change crusader from Bengaluru and was among the group that founded the India chapter of advocacy group Fridays For Future. At 22, she became the face of youth resilience when she was arrested during the farmers’ protest in February.
Ravi was accused of being involved in the distribution of an alleged “toolkit” related to the agrarian agitation around the national capital. The said document was also shared by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and sparked a furore for its allegedly inflammatory content accused of misleading farmers. Ravi’s arrest was condemned internationally and she was released after a few days in custody.
5. Sabbah Haji
A renowned educator in Jammu and Kashmir, Sabbah Haji is the director of a public school in Haji that her family founded and has been running for over a decade. Her efforts towards strengthening student welfare in the conflict area of Kashmir have won recognition both locally and nationally.
Recently, reports surfaced claiming that Haji was facing legal action for allegedly referring to General Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Defence Staff who perished in a deadly chopper crash earlier this month, as a “war criminal” by resharing a social media post. She was granted bail and her family school, in a statement, distanced themselves from her remarks. Read here.