New Delhi, India – On the night of July 4, Afreen Fatima participated in an online forum about the persecution of Muslims in India. No sooner had she wrapped up her session than her mobile phone was flooded with messages, informing the 23-year-old student activist that she had been ‘put up for sale’ on a fake online auction.
And she was not alone. Photographs of more than 80 other Muslim women, including students, activists and journalists, had been uploaded on an app called “Sulli deals” without their knowledge.
The creators of the platform offered visitors a chance to claim a “Sulli” – a derogatory term used by right-wing Hindu trolls for Muslim women – calling them “deals of the day”.
“That night, I didn’t reply to the people who messaged me. I just logged out of my Twitter. I didn’t have the energy to respond,” Fatima told Al Jazeera from her home in Allahabad in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
I don’t think I would ever shut up because of this.
She said that the incident came on a day a Hindu far-right man called for the abduction of Muslim women at a gathering in Pataudi, about 60km (31 miles) from New Delhi. “I was just so disturbed; I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
Thousands of miles away in New York, 25-year-old Hiba Beg had just returned from enjoying Independence Day celebrations in the city. That’s when she discovered her profile was also up for virtual auction on “Sulli deals”.
Even the physical distance from home in India was not enough to protect her from the immediate “feelings of dehumanisation and defeat”, said Beg, a student of policy at Columbia University.
GitHub, which hosted the app, took it down after public outrage and complaints. “We suspended user accounts following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies,” a GitHub spokesperson told Al Jazeera via email.
“GitHub has longstanding policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination, and inciting violence.”
Police complaint filed
On July 8, the Delhi Police registered a police complaint (first information report) after the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and the National Commission for Women called for an investigation into the matter following days of outrage largely by Muslim women online.
Delhi Police PRO Chinmay Biswal said an investigation has been launched. “Notices have been sent to GitHub to share the relevant details,” Biswal told Al Jazeera.
A week after the app was discovered, no arrest has been made.
Prominent journalist and activist Rana Ayyub, who has been at the receiving end of vicious sexualised trolling for her outspoken views, said that this was and is done “systemically” to target vocal Muslim women.
“The way they [Hindu far-right groups] sexualise you is the only way they believe they can shame and silence Muslim women online. We are supposed to be ‘oppressed’ in their books – so they think, ‘How dare we speak out for ourselves?’” Ayyub, who is a columnist for the Washington Post, told Al Jazeera.
— Fatima Khan (@khanthefatima) July 11, 2021
Media professional Sania Ahmad, whose profile also appeared on the Sulli Deals app, says this sort of violence online is hardly surprising. The 34-year-old, a vocal Muslim voice on Twitter with nearly 34,000 followers, says the platform has been used to make sexualised and graphic online threats.
“It’s a very sad thing, but I’ve gotten used to this. Last year, there was a poll running where a Hindutva account asked ‘Which of the Sanias should I choose for my harem?’ We kept reporting the poll, but it ran for 24 hours,” Ahmad, said referring to members of Hindu far right.
“The results were eventually published and the comments below called for even more violence. There were comments like – ‘why should we add them to the harem, just f*** them and dump them’. Another one said, ‘I want to chop off their heads and use them to decorate my wall.’”
Ahmad’s images were morphed on pornographic visuals after she spoke out against a similar instance of virtual auctioning of Muslim women on the night before Eid this year. A YouTube channel run by “Liberal Doge Live”, reportedly a man by the name of Ritesh Jha, ran an “Eid Special” – a “live auction” of Muslim women from India and Pakistan.
It was so traumatising, Ahmad says, that she had to step back from Twitter for a few days and suffered severe anxiety attacks.
“When I get trolled, my gender is never separated from my religious identity. I’m not being trolled as a woman, I’m being trolled as a Muslim woman vocal on political issues by mostly Hindutva accounts,” she said.
Ahmad sent a legal notice to Twitter last week with directions to check this level of hate speech and abuse on the platform. “I have even complained to the police in the past,” she said. “None of these complaints saw the light of day.”
Hasiba Amin, social media coordinator for the opposition Congress party and one of the women featured on the virtual auction on Eid, is similarly disillusioned with the legal process in such cases after she filed an FIR against the perpetrators.
“Months later, I have not seen much progress on the investigation,” she says. “I believe that had the police taken sufficient action in the first place, these people wouldn’t have the courage to do something like this again. But this inaction is what gives them impunity.”
Anas Tanwir, a lawyer based in the capital New Delhi, believes online platforms hosting apps like “Sulli Deals” need to have more accountability regarding hate speech and abuse.
“Any platform or website – open source or otherwise – has ethical and legal responsibility not to allow such activities. This basically tantamounts to abetting and promoting illegal trafficking in women. This is exactly that in a virtual world,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘We will not shut up’
Activists fear online space in India has been becoming increasingly toxic for women in general, and Muslim women in particular.
Last January, Amnesty International India said in a report that nearly 100 female Indian politicians on Twitter were subjected to unprecedented levels of online abuse. The women were targeted not only for their views expressed online, but also for elements of their identities such as gender, religion, caste and marital status, said the report.
“Thus, Muslim women politicians were targeted more than their Hindu counterparts,” says Delhi-based lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, who specialises in privacy and digital rights.
“It is important to frame these offences in terms of hate speech, because we need to recognise the communal angle of the offence, the derogatory use of ‘Sulli’ and how it is used to target Muslim women,” Bhandari said.
It is in these contexts that harassment of Muslim women both online and offline takes more graphic and sexualised overtones.
“In general, the majoritarian gaze not only objectifies and victimises but is also opportunistic,” said Ghazala Jamil, an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Even in global Islamophobic narratives, the stated intent to save Muslim women is never pure or the actual intent. It is almost always a mere facade for some anti-Muslim project.”
Revolting. This is a cyber crime the @DelhiPolice should investigate & a misuse of social media to threaten women (which falls squarely into the agenda of Parliament’s IT Committee.) Will pursue further. https://t.co/zd9uGMQZdn
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 7, 2021
“In India particularly, this tendency has combined with widespread impunity especially to overt violence against Muslims, women and Dalits. In my reading, this virtual ‘auction’ is an escalation of trolling. It is reminiscent of slave trade/trafficking on the one hand and a lynching in [a] public place on the other,” Jamil, also the author of the book Muslim Women Speak: Of Dreams and Shackles, told Al Jazeera.
Fatima, the student activist, is also concerned about the more direct consequences of this attack.
“What if someone just comes and claims their deal of the day?” she asked. “I don’t see anything stopping them from doing that.”
“At the same time, I don’t think I would ever shut up because of this. We will continue to occupy every single public space there is, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – online, offline, everywhere.”
Hana Mohsin Khan, who also featured on “Sulli Deals”, created a WhatsApp group titled “Solidarity”, which includes over 20 of the targeted women.
Khan, a pilot with a domestic airline, has filed a police complaint. She says the support of all these women will keep her going.
“We are all supporting each other,” she told Al Jazeera. “We are all working together; we hardly sleep. We will not shut up and we will not let this go.”