New Delhi, India – On the night of July 4, Afreen Fatima participated in an online forum on the persecution of Muslims in India. As soon as she finished her session her phone was flooded with messages, informing the 23-year-old student activist that she had been “put up for sale” at a fake online auction.
And she was not alone. Photographs of more than 80 other Muslim women, including students, activists and journalists, had been uploaded on an app called “On the Deals” without their knowledge.
The creators of the platform have offered visitors the opportunity to claim a “Sun” – a derogatory term used by right-wing Hindu trolls for Muslim women – calling them “business of the day”.
“That night, I did not respond to the people who sent me messages. I am just disconnected from my Twitter. I do not have the energy to respond, ”Fatima told Al Jazeera from her home in Allahabad in northern Uttar Pradesh.
I don’t think I would ever shut down because of this.
She said the incident came on a day when a far-right Hindu man demanded the abduction of Muslim women at a meeting in Pataudi, about 60 km (31 miles) from New Delhi. “I was just upset; I couldn’t sleep, ”he said.
Thousands of miles away in New York, Hiba Beg, 25, has just returned from enjoying the Independence Day festivities in town. That’s when he discovered that his profile was also on virtual sale on “Online Offers”.
Even the physical distance from home in India was not enough to protect her from immediate “feelings of dehumanization and defeat,” said Beg, a policy student at Columbia University.
GitHub, which hosted the app, took it after public outrage and complaints. “We have suspended user accounts after investigating reports of such activity, which violates all of our policies,” a GitHub spokesman told Al Jazeera by email.
“GitHub has a long policy against content and behaviors that involve harassment, discrimination and incitement to violence.”
Cleaning report filed
On July 8, Delhi Police filed a police complaint (first information report) after the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and the National Commission for Women requested an investigation into the matter after days of outrage largely from Muslim women online.
PRO Police Chinhay Biswal of Delhi said an investigation has been launched. “Notices have been sent to GitHub to share relevant details,” Biswal told Al Jazeera.
One week after the discovery of the application, no arrest was made.
Renowned journalist and activist Rana Ayyub, who was in the process of receiving a vicious sexualized troll for her outspoken opinions, said this was and is being done “systematically” to target vocal Muslim women.
“The way they do it.” [Hindu far-right groups] sexualizing you is the only way to believe that they can shame and silence Muslim women online. We are supposed to be “oppressed” in their books – so they think, “How dare we speak for ourselves?” “Ayyub, who is a columnist for the Washington Post, told Al Jazeera.
– Fatima Khan (@khanthefatima) July 11, 2021
Sania Ahmad, a media professional whose profile has also appeared on the Sulli Deals app, says this type of online violence is not at all surprising. The 34-year-old, a Muslim vocalist on Twitter with nearly 34,000 followers, says the platform has been used to make sexualized and graphic online threats.
“It’s a very sad thing, but I’m used to it. Last year, there was an ongoing survey where a Hindutva account asked “Which of the Sanias should I choose for my harem?” We continued to report the poll, but it lasted 24 hours, ”Ahmad said referring to members of the Hindu far right.
“The results were published at the end and the comments below call for even more violence. There have been comments like – ‘why should we add them to the harem, just f *** them and dump them,'” another said. : “I want to cut off my head and use it to decorate my wall.”
Ahmad’s images were turned into pornographic visuals after she spoke out against a similar example of selling at the virtual auction of Muslim women the night before Eid this year. A YouTube channel run by “Liberal Doge Live,” according to a man named Ritesh Jha, ran a “Special Eid” – an “auction sale” of Muslim women from India and Pakistan.
It was so traumatic, says Ahmad, that he had to stay away from Twitter for a few days and suffered severe anxiety attacks.
“When I was trolled, my gender was never separated from my religious identity. I was not trolled as a woman, I was trolled as a vocal Muslim woman on political issues by most accounts. Hindutva, ”he said.
Ahmad sent a legal notice to Twitter last week with indications to check this level of hate speech and abuse on the platform. “I have also complained to the police in the past,” he said. “None of these complaints saw the light of day.”
Hasiba Amin, social media coordinator for the opposition Congress party and one of the women featured on the virtual auction on Eid, is also disillusioned with the legal process in these cases after she presented a FIR against perpetrators.
“Months later, I didn’t see much progress in the investigation,” he says. “I think if the police had taken sufficient action in the first place, these people would not have had the courage to do such a thing. But this inaction is what gives them impunity. ”
Anas Tanwir, a lawyer based in the capital New Delhi, believes that online platforms hosting apps like “Offers On” need more responsibility in terms of hate speech and abuse.
“Every platform or website – open source or otherwise – has an ethical and legal responsibility to not allow such activities. This is basically equivalent to inciting and promoting the illegal trafficking of women. It is exactly that in a virtual world,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We won’t shut up”
Activists fear that online space in India has become increasingly toxic for women in general, and Muslim women in particular.
Last January, Amnesty International India said in a report that almost 100 Indian women politicians on Twitter have been subjected to unprecedented levels of online abuse. Women were targeted not only for their views expressed online, but also for elements of their identity such as gender, religion, caste and marital status, the report said.
“Thus, Muslim women politicians have been targeted more than their Hindu counterparts,” says Delhi lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, who specializes in privacy and digital rights.
“It is important to frame these offenses in terms of hate speech, because we need to recognize the common angle of the offense, the contemptuous use of‘ Sulli ’and how it is used to target Muslim women,” she said. Bhandari.
It is in these contexts that the harassment of Muslim women both online and offline takes on more graphic and sexualized nuances.
“In general, the majority view is not only objective and victimizing but also opportunistic,” said Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Law and Governance of Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Even in global Islamophobic narratives, the stated intention to save Muslim women is never pure or the true intention. It’s almost always a simple façade for any anti-Muslim project. ”
Revolting. This is a cybercrime u @DelhiPolice should investigate and abuse social media to threaten women (which is directly on the agenda of Parliament’s IT Committee.) will bring more. https://t.co/zd9uGMQZdn
– Shashi Tharoor (hasShashiTharoor) July 7, 2021
“In India in particular, this trend has been combined with widespread impunity especially to overt violence against Muslims, women and Dalits. In my reading, this virtual ‘auction’ is an escalation of trolling. It is reminiscent of the slave traffic / trafficking in a party and a lynx in it [a] public place from the other, ”Jamil, also the author of the book Muslim Women Speak: Of Dreams and Shackles, told Al Jazeera.
Fatima, the student activist, is also concerned about the more direct consequences of this attack.
“What if someone comes alone and claims their day’s business?” he asked. “I don’t see anything stopping them from doing that.”
“At the same time, I don’t think I’ll ever be fired because of it. We will continue to occupy every public space there is, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – online, offline, anywhere. ”
Hana Mohsin Khan, who also featured on “On Deals,” created a WhatsApp group titled “Solidarity,” which includes more than 20 of the targeted women.
Khan, a pilot with a national airline, filed a police complaint. She says the support of all these women keeps her going.
“We are all supporting each other,” he told Al Jazeera. “We all work together; we don’t sleep at all. We will not shut up and we will not let go. ”