Bengaluru & New Delhi: The year Zeba Afrin joined law school to help people, India abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status; the Supreme Court ruled that a temple should be built on the land on which a mosque had stood; and the home minister announced in parliament that the National Register of Citizens, a communally-fraught exercise to identify and expel illegal immigrants, would be implemented across the country.
“It was a slap that you are a minority, you have no rights. I wanted to be a lawyer to help those who are deprived of their rights only to realise that I am also being deprived of my own rights,” said Afrin, among approximately 100 or so Muslim women to feature on ‘Bulli Bai’, an app on software development platform GitHub that offered these women “for sale as maids” on New Year. Now, Afrin is even more determined to offer legal help to marginalised communities, including her own.
At 22, Afrin and her classmate at Aligarh Muslim University were likely among the youngest to face this latest instance of online sexual violence against Muslim women, though there were many others in their 20s.
When she found out she had been targeted, Afrin said: “There was a rush of anxiety up and down my body, my hands started shaking and I couldn’t stop shivering. I wasn’t in my senses, I’m still processing the trauma. It’s too much to take at 22”. The oldest on the list was likely Khalida Parveen, 65, an activist in Hyderabad who recently spoke up against Hindu extremists.
The who’s who of women journalists, including three from Kashmir, featured on the list. Others included activists who were vocal during the anti-citizenship law protests of 2019; academics and students from the country’s two best known Muslim-run universities; two office bearers of the opposition Congress Party; authors, a lawyer, a historian, a baker, a radio jockey, a famous actor, and, oddly, a Pakistani Nobel laureate.
Besides the fact that they are all Muslim women, they have something else in common: their voices ring loud and clear in their work and as commentators on social media, where many of them have prominent platforms. All of them are empowered women, known for exercising their agency. And all, despite the trauma and tension they have endured, appear determined to keep speaking.
Each post on the app featured an image of a woman, uploaded without permission from assorted social media accounts, with the line, “Your Bulli Bai of the day is.” The post also contained the woman’s Twitter handle.
The online attacks against Muslim women, said experts who study hate speech, were part of a larger effort to intimidate Indian Muslims, who have in recent years been the target of lynchings, been discriminated against, singled out for police attention, made a target of fake news and Hindu extremist propaganda.
Loud And Clear
“The women who featured in the list are not just Muslims but also have a prominent voice, presence, and influence on social media,” said Sangeeta Mahapatra, a researcher, studying online radicalisation and disinformation, at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, Hamburg. “So, the perpetrators resorted to one of the oldest tactics of trying to assert their domination by trying to discredit and debase them.”
Most women recognised the attempt to cow them and, if it was intended to silence them, this latest act of sexual violence has had the opposite effect. Many used their Twitter accounts to draw public attention to the attack (see here, here, here, here, here and here).
“They target us because they know our faith is stronger, we are proud, and we will not stop speaking out against the atrocities committed against India’s Muslim community,” journalist Arshi Qureshi, who was on the ‘list’, wrote in Maktoob Media. “They can’t take away our history or our identity. They are afraid that we have the ability to shut them down. Their ears are being pierced by our voices.”
Popular radio DJ Sayema told YouTuber Akash Banerjee: “I’m on the list because I ticked all the boxes: woman, Muslim, free thinker and successful.”
“I’d say they are independent voices,” Sayema said, about the women who were ‘sold’ on the app. “Those who have spoken up for the oppressed. Those that dare to tell right from wrong.”
If award-winning journalists such as Arfa Khanum Sherwani and Rana Ayyub closely track Hindu extremism, Fatima Nafis has campaigned for five years about the disappearance of her son Najeeb Ahmed, after he had an altercation with students associated with a right-wing organisation.
Political journalist Saba Naqvi and historian Rana Safvi, both prolific authors, are known to emphasise (here and here) the syncretic traditions and histories of India in their work. Safoora Zargar is the Jamia Millia Islamia student who won hearts when she survived a stint in Tihar jail while pregnant, for her participation in the CAA protests.
In 2020, Congress worker and single mother Sadaf Jafar, who was ‘sold’ in this latest attack, found her name, address and photograph on hoardings in Lucknow, the only woman among 56, accused by chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s government of being a “rioter” who took part in the anti-CAA protests that swept India.
Ruwa Shah said she was singled out for attention because she is a “Kashmiri, Muslim, woman, journalist (a badass one). I belong to a political family who are not exactly on the best of terms with the government”. Last year, the daughter of Kashmiri separatist Altaf Ahmad Shah, who is currently in Tihar Jail, found herself on a list of journalists, activists, businesspeople and politicians being surveilled with Israel spy software Pegasus.
Khalida Parveen said her name was on the Bulli Bai list because she led a campaign against Narsinghanand Saraswati, a misogynistic (see here and here) Hindu extremist from Uttar Pradesh who has repeatedly asked people to “fight against” and “finish” Islam, and one who wields considerable power among fellow seers.
The Shaheen Bagh Impact
“Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh, who left their home to sit on a dharna for months together, showed the country that Muslim women are a force to be reckoned with,” Parveen told The Quint, en route to file a police complaint in Hyderabad. “For the right wing, such women are threats, be it online or on ground.”
The impact of the Shaheen Bagh-led protests forever changed the way Indians perceived Muslim women.
“No one in Shaheen Bagh would have dreamt that they would become the architects of one of the most significant civil rights movements in the history of independent India. Or that the prime minister and home minister, the two most powerful men in the country, would evoke the name of their humble neighbourhood to win votes during an election,” journalist Seemi Pasha wrote in an essay in the book Shaheen Bagh And The Idea of India.
Indeed, the harassment of Muslim women, increasingly perceived to be a threat after they successfully resisted the implementation of the CAA through nationwide protests that began in Shaheen Bagh, has steadily increased in recent years.
“These attacks stem from two things,” Ziya Us Salam, author of Shaheen Bagh: From A Protest To A Movement, told Article 14. “One is a patriarchal thing where women are supposed to be at the beck and call of men and have no identity of their own. So when these women spoke on a public platform like Shaheen Bagh these men could not take it.”
“Secondly, which makes it more insidious is the element of communalism,” said Salam. “They think how can Muslim women stand up to be counted from a public platform. This is an attempt to silence the voice of Muslim women and also to humiliate them.”
Equally importantly, Bulli Bai was yet another instance of the clear sexualisation of hate. The day after the news of the online crime broke, Narsinghanand discussed in an interview what he termed “Islamic garbage”. “For lobbying they send Musalmanis (a slur for Muslim women) to sleep with influential politicians, journalists and officials."
“I think this is dehumanisation of Muslim women as an excuse for rape,” said Ghazala Wahab, author of the critically-acclaimed Born A Muslim. “This is the kind of conversation military/paramilitary officers/men used to have when talking about women of the Northeast, and even Kashmir.”
“This gave an alibi for excusing or whitewashing sexual violence,” Wahab said, recalling what an army officer had told her after the Manorama Devi incident in Manipur. “He said to me off the record that these women are not like you or women on the mainland. For them sex is not a big deal. They sleep with everyone. Years later, an officer said roughly the same thing about Kashmiri women. That they offer themselves to militants to produce jihadis.”
What The Police Are Doing
Three police complaints by victims in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad have led to cases against unknown people under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and the Information Technology (IT ) Act, 2000.
On 1 January 2022, in New Delhi, journalist Ismat Ara filed a complaint to the cyber wing of the Delhi Police under IPC sections 153A (promoting enmities between groups) 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), 354A (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman). The complaint also invoked section 66 (dishonest or fraudulent act) and 67 (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the IT Act.
Ara said in the complaint that she was often the target of trolls and the “auctioning” on GitHub “seems to be the next step in such harassment”.
She said she was disappointed to see the “impunity with which such hate mongers continue to target Muslim women, without fear of any sanction whatsoever”. She called the ‘auctioning’ an act of “conspiracy aimed at intimidating and insulting Muslim women”.
The Delhi Police registered an FIR on 2 January 2022 under IPC sections 153A, 153B, 354A and 509. The FIR however did not use sections of the IT Act.
The Mumbai police filed a case after a complaint by Sidrah, who was targeted by the Bulli Bai app, under IPC sections 153(A), 153(B), 295(A) (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings), 354D (stalking), 509, 500 (punishment for defamation). The FIR also invoked section 67 of the IT Act, 2000.
The procedure followed by Delhi Police and Mumbai Police in filing the cases was the same. What was different was the overt political intervention in Mumbai by the Maharashtra government, where at least three leaders of the ruling Shiv Sena-Congress and Nationalist Congress party coalition (see here, here and here) made commitments to take a decisive action.
In Delhi, where the police come under the union home ministry, except for a tweet from union IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, claiming that the auction link had been pulled down, no ministers made statements.
Within 36 hours of the FIR, Satej D Patil, Maharashtra’s minister of state for home claimed a breakthrough on 3 January, with the detention in Bengaluru of a 21-year-old engineer by the Mumbai Police. The next day they said the suspect had been identified as Vishal Kumar Jha, and that the main accused in the case was a 21-year-old woman detained from Uttarakhand. “There is a gang operation behind this,” Patil told news website The News Minute.
Meanwhile, on 3 January, in Hyderabad, Parveen filed a police complaint in which she alleged that the act “seeks not only dehumanise women like me, but appear to have a nefarious design of creating wedge between communities”.
She demanded action against GitHub for hosting “such dangerous, misogynistic, inflammatory and communal content”. She urged the police to investigate the “larger conspiracy against Muslim women by the people behind this action”.
As for Narsinghanand, National Commission of Women chairperson Rekha Sharma, tagged the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police and the director general of the UP Police on Twitter with a demand and a question: “This man should be arrested immediately. @Uppolice you did 3 FIRs against him on @NCWIndia's complaint. What happened to them? He is not fit to be part of civilized society. @dgpup.”
Just the Tip Of Misogyny
"Bulli Bai is just the disgusting tip of the hate-filled iceberg of misogyny and Islamophobia that women live with daily online. Especially women who are vocal, speak out, and challenge patriarchy which still believes that women should be seen, not heard,” said Bishakha Datta, co-founder and program lead at non-profit Point of View that amplifies women’s voices.
“I'm glad some action is being taken,” said Datta. “But how are we going to deal with the daily hate and abuse women face online? Dealing with Bulli Bai is a start, but it's not enough.”
Bulli Bai is only the latest example of the targeting and harrasing of Muslim women. Many of the women targeted on 1 January are veterans of such attacks. Many featured in another similar attack that took the form of an online ‘Sulli Deals’ auction in July 2021. (Sulli and Bulli are colloquial derogatory terms for Muslim women used by several abusive rightwing social media handles).
On 13 May 2021, on the day of Eid, a number of Musim women including from Pakistan were subjected to an ‘auction’ by a YouTube channel called ‘Liberal Doge’, as Article 14 reported in May. The YouTuber announced the auction to his audience (87,000 subscribers at the time) as he live streamed photos of women without their consent. The act was laced with sexually charged and Islamophobic commentary.
That’s when Hasiba Amin, a national coordinator for the Congress party and Sania Ahmad, a journalist, who was “sold” in the online “auction” filed an FIR with the Delhi police. “Nothing came of it,” Amin told Article 14. “When I had gone to file it, they asked me to come back with printouts and screen shots. I did that and that was the last I heard of it.” Ahmad and Amin were on the latest list too.
Then on 4 July 2021, scores of prominent Muslim women were put on “auction” on the ‘Sulli Deals’ app hosted by GitHub. When commercial pilot Hana Mohsin Khan found she was part of the auction, she experienced shock and anger.
“I don’t even write anything openly political on Twitter because I can’t,” Khan told Article 14. “I was one among 12-13 women to file an FIR after Sulli Deals. I remember women filed FIRs in Noida, Delhi, Kolkata, Kerala, Dubai and Mumbai. Nothing happened.”
Next, on 28 November, a video recording of a Clubhouse session surfaced on Twitter showing a group of men discussing
‘auctioning’ women for Rs 1 to Rs 5. The victims, who included
non-Muslim women, complained about the lack of response from Clubhouse
even as one lodged an FIR with the cyber crime unit of the Pune police.
Khan knows that Hindu extremists target vocal Muslim women because “we don’t fit the narrative they are trying to build about meek, oppressed, purdahwallis who stay at home”. She had to set aside worries about what potential future employers might find when they Googled her and family advice to not react, before she filed an FIR.
Us Salam agreed: “For ages these Hindutva people have grown up with the misconception of helpless, voiceless Muslim women living under the fear of triple talaq and suddenly they saw these women speaking up for themselves and for the constitution of India and they feel this is the best way to silence them.”
She is only 23 but Afreen Fatima Ali’s name appeared on both Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai. “It wasn’t shocking,” she told Article 14. “I have been targeted before.”
When she quote tweeted Twitter harassment in 2020, in the months running-up to the Sulli Deals auction, saying this is what women get for speaking up, one handle, in turn, quoted tweeted her tweet with an image of the body of Gulnaz Khatoon, who was burnt alive by a man who had been harassing her, with a morphed tombstone that read,
“It was Diwali. Our Hindu brother thought she was a firecracker and burned her.” He echoed Ali’s tweet, “This is what a woman gets in return for speaking up in India :)”
“After Sulli Deals I was very angry. I was crying all day and all night and that was very, very bad,” Ali said. “This time I feel nothing. I was watching the news with them where [journalist] Ismat Ara spoke about it, but I haven't told my family yet.”
When she was some years younger, Ali, who has four rescued cats (she rescued a kitten the day she spoke to us) wanted to be a singer. “I used to sing in my school and college, all kinds of songs, Bollywood, I love Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus,” she said.
But as atrocities against Muslims began rising in India, she decided she would become a social worker, and started her own charitable trust named after her mother. “In these times, I wanted to do something for my community because nobody is coming to help,” said Ali. “Everyone is a keyboard warrior. Nobody is actually helping.”
Mahapatra said the lack of credible state action against perpetrators of such crimes, as well as “social cues and signals from the top, demonstrate political opportunity and low risks” for such crimes. “They think anonymity gives them cover but if a state is serious about punishing the perpetrators, they can easily find their identities because of digital trace evidence,” she added.
(Priya Ramani is on the editorial board of Article 14. Zafar Aafaq is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)