Trigger Warning: Mention of Islamophobia, Rape threats.
Imagine a scenario where you wake up to yourself being auctioned on the internet – without your consent, without your knowledge, and most importantly, without any dignity. That’s a reality many women woke up to earlier this week – all Muslims and mostly Indian.
“Didn’t check Twitter last night. Woke up this morning to realise my name, along with those of many other Muslim women was up on GitHub as a list of ‘Sulli Deals’. Thankfully by the time I came across it, it had been taken down. But just the screenshots sent shivers down my spine.” wrote Fatima Khan on Twitter.
Didn't check Twitter last night. Woke up this morning to realise my name, along with those of many other Muslim women was up on GitHub as a list of "Sulli Deals". Thankfully by the time I came across it, it had been taken down. But just the screenshots sent shivers down my spine. pic.twitter.com/CGXivEyjyC
— Fatima Khan (@khanthefatima) July 5, 2021
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that a group of men came together to create a database of Muslim women on an app designed on Github called ‘Sulli Deals’, intending to auction them off online. But there was no actual auction that took place; the purpose was simply to degrade and humiliate these women.
Screengrabs of the app that were circulating online show the landing page of the app with the tagline ‘Find your Sulli deal of the day’ , ‘Sulli’ being a derogatory term used to refer to Muslims in India, particularly by right-wing affiliated online trolls.
Upon clicking on ‘Find me a Sulli’, the app’s algorithm would then display a photo of a Muslim woman, most likely sourced from their social media account, with their username/link to their social media handle.
Women featured on the app range from journalists, activists, researchers and even artists – the common denominator being that they’re all unapologetic, vocal Muslim women.
Incidents like these are a deadly result of institutionalised Islamophobia and misogyny that has been normalised in India. Egged on by political polarization in the country, it hardly comes as a surprise that a group of anonymous men on the internet feel bold enough to pull off such a stunt.
The BJP, the current ruling political party of India, has time and again positioned itself as a Hindu nationalist organisation. The government’s policies and its ministers’ behaviour have repeatedly reflected its disdain towards minority communities, especially Muslims, which has undoubtedly contributed to the religious persecution of the Muslims in the country.
As a result, Muslims all over the country have had to bear the brunt of Anti-Muslim propaganda that materializes in the form of hate crimes and hate speech time and again.
In its weakest form, it manifests in the form of Islamophobic comments or behaviours in our daily lives; at its strongest, it causes large scale riots – demonstrated in the anti-CAA riots at the beginning of 2020.
Owing to the normalisation of Islamophobia and increased impunity against religious hate crimes, communal violence against Muslims by way of calls for genocide, pogrom and lynching have become a common occurrence in India. Furthermore, Hindutva subscribers and right-wing extremists have been emboldened by the governments’ inaction and willingness to look the other way.
This is only confirmed by the recent appointment of Anurag Thakur as the I&B and Sports Minister under PM Modi’s Cabinet Reshuffle earlier this week – the same Anurag Thakur who was seen last year in a viral video leading a crowd of BJP supporters into chanting “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko’”(Those who are traitors to the nation, shoot them dead) against those who resisted the CAA act, who were primarily Muslims.
Just a few days ago, the shooter who shot at a group of students protesting against the implementation of the CAA and NRC bills at Jamia Millia Islamia University last year resurfaced in an online video. In the video, he reiterates his belief that “Muslims will be killed and made to shout Ram Ram”.
The fact that People like Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur and the Jamia shooter are roaming around scot-free with no repercussions for their open calls for genocide reflects on the apathy and indifference of the ruling government when it comes to hate crimes against minority communities. The message is clear: Inciting violence against minorities will not only be tolerated, but also rewarded.
Cyberbullying, objectification and targeting of women in India’s cyberspace is limitless, but definitely disproportionate when it comes to Muslim women.
Many women I know personally, including myself, believe that being online isn’t safe; and that violence and abuse against women on online platforms flourishes, with seemingly little to no accountability. But Muslim women are subjected to the worst of the worst, owing to the politically polarised state of the country.
This belief is only backed up by the fact that ‘Sulli Deals’ isn’t the first time Muslim women’s safety on the internet has been compromised – and there seem to be no signs of this crisis abating anytime soon.
Just a few months prior, women celebrating the occasion of Eid in both India and Pakistan in May 2021 were left mortified when they discovered that photos they’d posted online were being sexualised, rated and being used in a virtual auction on YouTube.
Journalist Rana Ayyub has been subjected to horrific online abuse and slander ad nauseam due to her bold and unreserved criticism of the BJP. In fact, just a few weeks ago an FIR was filed against her for posting a video of an assault taking place on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad. The reason? She allegedly shared the video without verifying its veracity.
Upon obtaining transit anticipatory bail in the case, she shared a deluge of abusive messages she received on social media platforms due to the incident. Most of the messages were death threats or rape threats laced with Islamophobia.
In an interview with a correspondent from the BBC, she detailed how her facing jail time over a tweet is a consequence of Modi’s government relentlessly intimidating and harassing journalists. “They’re coming after me because I’m a Muslim”, she explains. “At least a thousand media houses have reported on this specific issue. For them to come after only 3 Muslim journalists and 3 other political activists who also happen to be Muslims, I think their brazenness is unmistakable.”
The people who created the app are educated, capable individuals – people who can write code well enough to create an app for their sick and twisted perversions. But the fact that this app was created solely to humiliate and degrade these women offers insights into the fact that they are morally corrupt individuals, devoid of any empathy for women.
Even though GitHub was quick to take action following complaints – there is evidence to suggest that the app was up and functioning for at least 20 days before it came to light. Incidents like this are unfriendly reminders that the internet is far from being a safe space for women, and that there might be pockets like these all over the internet, targetting and harassing unsuspecting women in the shadows.
Last week, more than 100 prominent politicians, journalists, actors and activists from across the globe came together to write an open letter urging the CEO’s of Twitter, Google, Facebook and TikTok to prioritise the safety of women on their platforms.
But in India, social media platforms and digital news outlets are fighting a different fight. They’ve been challenging the newly implemented IT laws in the country, which critics say curtail privacy and free speech, and can lead to heavy surveillance and censorship.
Nevertheless, the women who were targeted have come together and vowed to fight the case as long as it takes to get justice. An FIR has been filed against the miscreants, and The Delhi Commission for Women has issued a notice to Delhi Police, seeking a detailed action taken report on the matter within 10 days.
“I’m resolute and firm in getting these cowards to pay for what they have done” tweeted Hina Khan. “These repeat offences will not be taken sitting down.”