“I was angry when I saw myself on this particular application. I was disgusted with the vicious insinuations of the word ‘Sulli’,” says Hana Mohsin Khan, a commercial pilot by profession, adding, “Why me? Of course, because I am a Muslim woman and I do not fit into their imagined idea of what a Muslim woman should look like. So, they (the trolls) want to silence us (Muslim women). They are nothing short of rioters.”
In yet another brazen case of online sexual violence informed by Islamophobia, photos of hundreds of Muslim women were uploaded by an unidentified group via an auctioning app named ‘Sulli Deals’. The app was created on hosting site GitHub, a software development platform. ‘Sulli’ is a derogatory term used to refer to Muslim women. The misogynist app first came to light when Twitter users started sharing their ‘Sulli deal of the day’ last Sunday, as reported in various news publications. The app has since been removed by GitHub, while the Delhi Police has registered the case under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 354A (punishment for sexual harassment) on a complaint received through National Cybercrime Reporting Portal.
“It wasn't the first time I was mortified like that (the ‘Sulli Deal’ incident); I remember when I was attacked over an opinion of mine. Some Hindutva men added me to an unsolicited group called ‘Afreen Sulli Sale’, where they took to bidding on me. Later, I received rape threats online, but for me processing the ‘Sulli Deal’ website incident is still triggering; it sends a chill down my spine. Seeing myself being almost sold to someone and as a ‘Sulli deal of the day’ was traumatizing and humiliating,” 22-year-old Afreen Ali, a graduate in Business Administration who raises funds for underprivileged communities through her social media, told MAKERS India. “I don't know if I'll ever gain the courage to put a picture of mine on Twitter again,” adds Ali.
The app displayed a photo stolen from a Muslim woman’s account as the ‘deal’ of the day. When Khan’s photo was thus shared by a stranger and she was tagged on Twitter, she was naturally shocked. “However, my morphed pictures don’t define me; my identity and dignity are not in their hands. Right from childhood, women are sexualized, molested, moral policed and warned to not wear certain types of clothes or prohibited to stay out beyond the curfew timings. Now comes this new battle with the Right-wing or the troll army. This is a violation of my right to safety and privacy, but it doesn’t have the capacity to hurt or upset me anymore,” says Khan.
Objectification of women
According to several news reports, earlier in May, an India-based YouTube channel ‘Liberal Doge’, streamed a live video featuring sexualized Eid ul-Fitr photos of Pakistani women. The photographs were accompanied by a slew of hate comments. As men took to ‘rating’ women’s ‘looks’, Indian Muslim women too were not left behind in the ‘bidding’ malaise unleashed on Twitter. A video description in Hindi translated to “Today, we will stalk women with our eyes filled with lust,” was released by the channel.
The objective of such a stalk fest is to objectify women, and the implication is to portray them as sexual objects available for virtual consumption. It is a direct violation of a woman’s right to safety, privacy and dignity. It amounts to cyber harassment, online sexual violence, cyberbullying and virtual trafficking of women as users ‘bid’ on women’s bodies. Today, when more and more women are amplifying their own and other women’s voices on social media, there exists a parallel digital misogynist ecosystem aiming to silence women who do not fit into the image of an ideal woman.
Islamophobia and online shaming as state control
The pattern of trolls targeting women from the minority Muslim community time and again is hard to miss here. Targeted women are primarily opinionated Muslim women and the list includes journalists, students, activists and social workers among others but is not necessarily limited to them. What is common among these women is the fact that they are perceived to be threats to the ruling regime that has shown little tolerance to those who have critiqued its policies and programs.
In 2020, the women of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia (Delhi) student Safoora Zargar who protested against the proposed CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) were targeted by the ruling regime. Kashmir-based photojournalist Masrat Zahra who told the media that “I don’t have any political agenda and as a journalist, our work is to bring out authentic and verified stories without any bias”, was also targeted by the present Indian government. Hand in glove, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) IT cell fosters a parallel online monitoring mechanism modeled on the ideals of Hindu nationalism and the Hindu-married-mother woman.
Last year, on May 4, as the character-assassinating #SafooraZargar campaign started trending on Twitter, the idea was to ‘slut-shame’, to use a derogatory term, the young student activist. In reality, it is online sexual violence. The Hindutva IT Cell members used condemnable derogatory language without any fear of impunity. Some memes linked the last day at Shaheen Bagh as Zargar’s "honeymoon without a condom", while others commented on how the “Shaheen Bagh ki sherni” came back as a “gavin” (pregnant cow) accompanied with a dehumanizing cartoon of a woman. Zargar who was booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was incidentally pregnant at that time, she also happens to be married, and questions were raised on the legitimacy of the unborn child. One must remember that such questions had absolutely no bearing on her arrest and the charges levelled against her.
Auctioning women’s autonomy
In India, a rising misogynist troll army is increasingly being used to shut women, or individuals with intersectional minority identities like a woman and a Muslim as in the ‘Sulli Deal’ incident, or those belonging to any other marginalized identity/identities. “They targeted us because of our Muslim Identity, for being vocal and standing strong against their ideology. I won't call the whole incident ‘slut-shaming’ because they didn't only shame us but auctioned ‘us’, our bodies, online; it was a criminal attempt to harm our dignity. Being a vocal Muslim woman, I know I have the support of many but what about those Muslim women who aren't on the Internet, not privileged enough to be able to speak like us, what is even left for them?”, asks Ali.
Khan doesn’t mince her words on patriarchy in her own community as she says some members were quick to mansplain to her that they were right in warning her to not post her personal pictures on social media. “It is victim blaming. It is akin to saying girls eating chow mein or wearing jeans lead to them getting raped as ‘boys will be boys’. It stems from patriarchy,” she told MAKERS India.
A coercive culture enabling ‘digital vigilantes’ to auction Muslim women’s bodies and agency has rendered the online world as unsafe and vitriolic space that is a disservice to free speech.
(Edited by Poorvi Gupta)