TW: sexual and communal violence; mention of rape
“I was numb when I saw the screenshots. I could not bear opening the link to see pictures of me being sold,” says Tabinda, a 22-year-old MBA student and activist.
In July this year, an app named ‘Sulli Deals‘ was auctioning photos of Muslim women, terming this auction as ‘Deal of the Day. Set up on the hosting platform Github, it was a way to attack and humiliate Muslim women in India, especially targeting outspoken women activists, researchers, artists and journalists. According to Hana Khan, a survivor of this incident, “People were bidding five rupees and 10 rupees, they were rating women based on their body parts and describing sexual acts and threatening rape.”
Over two months and multiple FIRs later, the perpetrators behind this online sexual violence remain unidentified and free of consequences. Let us call this what it is: a hate crime. It fulfils the dual aim of harassing a minority community in India and using women’s bodies to do so.
At first glance, this incident may seem like a vile, isolated attempt at belittling women and insulting them. But in reality, it is a symptom of a much larger issue: conflict.
In many situations of conflict between communities, women’s bodies are often used as weapons to bring down the ‘honour’ of the community as a whole. Because women’s virginity is perceived to be so intrinsically tied to the community’s honour, attacking their “modesty” seems an apt way to attack the respect the entire community holds. As the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner says,
Conflicts and situations of instability exacerbate pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls, exposing them to heightened risks of violations of their human rights. It can result in higher levels of gender-based violence against women and girls, including arbitrary killings, torture, sexual violence and forced marriage. Women and girls are primarily and increasingly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war.
You may have also heard that rape is more about power than it is about the act of sex. Similar patterns can show up in various other incidents: privileged castes assaulting women from marginalised communities, rape as a horrific tactic for ethnic cleansing, and more.
This logic applies to cases of online abuse too. The whole ordeal of the “Sulli Deals” app on GitHub is a symptom of a more significant conflict: the brewing divide between the majority Hindu community and the minority Muslim community in India. By demeaning Muslim women and portraying them as objects to be “auctioned”, the perpetrators attempt to exert their power over the Muslim community. There is an urgent need for this incident to be formally recognised as a hate crime with two malicious intentions.
If this incident has taught us anything, it is that virtual spaces are not exempt from the systemic discrimination present in the real world. The prejudices we as a society grow up learning can even exacerbate as perpetrators hide behind anonymity while harassing the targeted people. The ‘Sulli Deals’ app is not the only recent case of online abuse – there are multiple cases of harassment even in educational institutes as students continued online classes and examinations during COVID. As the world becomes increasingly digital, it is vital to ensure that the digital sphere is a welcoming, discrimination-free space.
We will not tolerate this act of hatred. We encourage you to take a stand against the perpetrators behind the ‘Sulli Deals’ case, ask relevant authorities to fast-track its investigation and officially recognise it as a hate crime.
Jhatkaa.org is running a campaign asking the Ministry of Women & Child Development and the National Commission for Women to take immediate action. A fitting response to this crime has already been significantly delayed – sign the petition now and demand justice!