By Amit Sengupta and Majid Maqbool
Right wing groups in India are stirring nationwide outrage and international condemnation over the online harassment of Muslim women including prominent journalists, actors, politicians, and industry and civil society figures. The women have been targeted by extremist Hindu groups using two apps to secretly “auction” them online, collecting their photos from social media accounts and displaying them on the sites to humiliate them with lewd comments.
The affair has attracted widespread worldwide criticism from journalistic and human rights organizations. It goes beyond that, however, to a widespread harassment that women say is becoming not only humiliating but dangerous. Mumbai-based Washington Post columnist and freelance journalist Rana Ayyub, on January 27 said she has received more than 26,000 tweets in response to her criticism of the Saudi Arabian government’s role in the ongoing Yemen crisis. Ayyub held a press conference to say she has long been a victim of online trolling and threats including many rape and death social media users who posted in support of the Saudi government and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which she has criticized in recent columns in The Washington Post.
“No journalist should have to suffer the intense online harassment and threats repeatedly directed against Rana Ayyub,” said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in Washington, D.C. “Indian authorities must take action against anyone who has threatened violence against Ayyub and ensure her safety.”
Separately, the “auction” development, using the apps Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals, began in mid-2021 although authorities took no action, women say. It resumed in November, however, with police ultimately arresting five persons. Niraj Bishnoi, the 21-year-old creator of the Bulli Bai app, was arrested on January 6 by New Delhi police, who said the investigation is at a "very nascent stage."
“Bulli Bai” is a derogatory term used for Muslim women by India's right wing, the critics say. Police said Bishnoi disclosed during questioning that the app was developed in November 2021, and later updated in December. He had also created another Twitter account to talk about the app, according to the police. What is more ominous is that the practice is far more widespread and it reflects spreading concern over possible violence against Muslims. In December, hundreds of right-wing Hindu activists and monks at a conference outside Delhi were widely reported as taking an oath to turn India into a Hindu nation by killing as many Muslims as possible. The conference reportedly included influential members of Narendra Modi’s ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. More than 200 million Muslims remain in India after millions fled at partition in a bloodbath that took hundreds of thousands of lives.
The educated and technologically astute youngsters, including a woman, who were subsequently caught by the police, are from various flourishing but small towns. According to researchers, they call themselves Trads – Traditionalists. Those who have studied the situation say their divine text is the ‘Manusmriti’ –an anti-woman, feudal, upper-caste text which is male-centric, violent and patriarchal. Their extremist viewpoint is often in contradiction even with the mainstream right-wing nationalist groups in India currently ruling in New Delhi. They are said to even hate the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, as they consider it hypocritical.
Critics say the groups deploy hate as ‘humor,’ a tacit incitement to mass rapes and genocide. One of the youngsters behind both the apps had created fake and multiple twitter handles to pass lewd remarks on Muslim women, the police found during investigations. Three other youngsters from distant towns were said to be using Sikh community names as twitter handles with the aim of creating a rift between the Sikh and Muslim communities, according to the police.
A young Mumbai-based Muslim woman journalist who declined to be named said she has unknowingly been auctioned multiple times, adding that she was repulsed with what she called the “extremely vicious and humiliating online character assassination.”
“I wasn't able to speak to everyone about this at home but I tried to speak about it through my writing because it was important,” said Quratulain Rehbar, an independent journalist based in Kashmir who was similarly shocked to find her picture was also being auctioned online. She said that it made her feel that she is now more vulnerable as her journalistic work in Kashmir already makes her vulnerable. The subsequent media focus also made her uncomfortable. She said she felt “unsafe and had concurrent negative thoughts.”
Another young woman whose photo was used by Bulli Bai is Ismat Ara, a New Delhi based journalist. Her tweet calling attention to the practice and objecting to it went viral. “Having written stories critical of the government for the last two years—dealing with attacks on members of the Dalit caste, crimes against women, COVID-19 mismanagement, and hate crimes against Muslims—I was no stranger to trolling,” she wrote. “In fact, I am one of the 20 most abused women journalists in India. But being auctioned?”
“That an app auctioning women came up a second time after it was done last year clearly indicates that these men know that they have protection,” said Saimi Sattar, editor with the New Delhi-based magazine of The Pioneer. With the perpetrators of last year going unpunished, she said, it was bound to happen. “Then there is the radio silence from the government – the implication being that this has not been tacit but an action-replay of complete support,” she added. “And not just them, a lot of people around me refuse to speak or take a stand. Subconsciously they believe that their privilege as upper caste Hindu men/women keeps them safe.”
Sattar says such perversion, reflected by these coordinated online actions to silence and shame Muslim women, won’t stop in the current communal atmosphere prevailing in India. “So should we step back and stop speaking? It was not us who committed a crime. So why should we not speak up and fight back?”
“What has happened is a vicious mix of objectification of women combined with the desire to silence Muslim voices,” said Saba Naqvi, a journalist and television commentator based in New Delhi. Hana Khan, a commercial pilot from Uttar Pradesh, also a victim, told the BBC that her photo was taken from Twitter and it had her username. “This app was running for 20 days and we didn't even know about it. It sent chills down my spine,” she said. “People were bidding five rupees (67 cents; 48 pence) and 10 rupees, assessing women and their body parts, describing sexual acts and threatening rape.”
Hasiba Amin, a social media spokesperson for the Congress party, said several such accounts routinely attacked Muslim women in an attempt to degrade and humiliate them. On May 13 last year, as Muslims celebrated the festival of Eid, she said a YouTube channel ran an "Eid Special" – a live "auction" of Muslim women from India and Pakistan.
Sanjay Kapoor, General Secretary of the Editors Guild of India said the idea of auctioning of articulate Muslim women on the internet is reprehensible and distressing, suggesting a collapse of the rule of law in the society. “The first time the issue came up, the police and judiciary didn’t take immediate action against the criminals, encouraging other round of symbolic internet auction of high-achieving and successful Muslim women,” said Kapoor. “Quite evidently, they got support from the ideology that has built this ecosystem that sustains and legitimizes violence against the minorities.”
Sayema Rehman, a New Delhi based popular radio presenter for more than a decade, was also targeted. She is one of the vocal, liberal, progressive voices on social media, especially on Twitter. “I was one of the targets of Bulli Deals, the second version of the Sulli Deals,” said Sayema. “When the Bulli Deals happened, all of us raised our voices and made a lot of noise, so the Delhi Police were forced to register an FIR.”
But in the first instance they never reacted or acted, she said. But “when the Bulli Deals happened (again), there was no choice left for us and there was no point in keeping quiet anymore. With the kind of communal frenzy all around, with genocidal conferences happening, and people coming out and brazenly talking about the economic boycott of Muslims, silence was no longer the option,” she emphasizes.
“We will continue to speak out. We wanted to explore all legal ways of dealing with this – from lodging police complaints, to raising our voice on social media, letting the world know what is happening to us,” she says. “The intention was to scare us. We have decided to respond in just the opposite way. Mumbai Police has set a very good precedent by nabbing the culprits and making arrests. There is a message that is going out and hopefully it is being received by the youth of the country,” she adds.
“This is outright communal bigotry and misogynistic. There is no choice but to fight back. And we will.”
(First published in Asia Sentinel: https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/professional-muslim-women-india-face-threats)