By Sania Farooqui
Ongoing online sexual harassment of Muslim women through ‘Sulli Deals’, an auctioning app hosted by GitHub, has been reported to the authorities – but not before it called untold trauma to the targeted women.
Cyber Cell registered the case in Delhi, India, despite GitHub having shut the open-source app Sulli Deals down. Sulli is a derogatory term that often used by abusive right-wing trolls for Muslim women in India.
Previously similar profiles and handles were found on Twitter and YouTube. These platforms were used to harass Muslim women using a similar ‘Sulli Deals’ modus operandi to auction pictures of the women.
Sania Ahmed, a media professional, realised her pictures were being auctioned and morphed online through ‘Sulli Deals’ on Twitter almost a year ago. Sania says she complained to Twitter about these handles, even tried to reach out to the police, but her complaints were ignored.
“When I first found it online, a handle on Twitter was bidding Pakistani Muslim women. When I called it out, that handle blocked me, but that incident was followed by horrible trolling, very graphic abuse, and posts. I knew about this ecosystem of trolls, and I had been complaining to Twitter, but it had not taken any action,” Ahmed told IPS in an exclusive interview.
“It was recently when a right-wing handle tagged me on Twitter that I realised that they had gone ahead and created an entire app, and they were bidding on Muslim women through it.
“I have received rape threats, acid attack threats and death threats. This was different because it wasn’t just about me anymore; there were so many other women involved. The fact that these men had downloaded all our pictures, imagine the kind of effort they were putting in,” Ahmed said.
Farah Mizra (name changed due to safety concerns), is another woman who found her pictures on the ‘Sulli Deal’ app, said in an interview with IPS. She was “in an absolute state of shock” for days when her friend told her the pictures were being used as ‘Sulli Deal of the Day’.
“I also found my friends’ pictures on that app, and my first reaction was to immediately report it to GitHub. There were twitter handles sharing screenshots from this app and tagging us, and I just spent that night incessantly reporting all those handles that were auctioning us.”
Online harassment creates anxiety about general safety.
“Online sexual harassment doesn’t take much time to reach women offline. They have my pictures. They have my name. They can easily get more information and details about me. I feel safe, neither online nor offline.
“These attacks are not random. The women are carefully chosen. We are all Muslim women. We have a voice and have been vocal towards many policies of the BJP government,” Mizra said.
According to this report by Plan International, “Free to be Online”, 58 percent of young women face online harassment and abuse on different social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and TikTok.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, in this piece, said: “In high and low-income countries alike, the report found that girls are routinely subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of harassment and abuse. Attacks are most common on Facebook, where 39 percent have suffered harassment, followed by Instagram (23 percent), WhatsApp (14 percent) and Twitter (9 percent).”
Geeta Seshu, a journalist specialising in freedom of expression, working conditions of journalists, gender and civil liberties, in an interview with IPS, said women face a range of online harassment which range from abuse to stalking to doxing and hosting platforms need to take responsibility.
“The ‘Sulli Deal’ auction is the latest manifestation of the extreme misogyny and fear of who speaks out. It is revolting and Islamophobic, and an attempt to intimidate and insult the dignity of women,” Seshu says.
“Organised groups use the internet to incite hatred and abuse. The delay in spotting and taking down objectionable content is inexcusable. If this app was hosted on GitHub, it needs to state clearly what its hosting guidelines are. I feel that the tech companies are aware of the problematic content. They do allow its circulation while they pretend ignorance or helplessness. For them, the more the clicks and eyeballs, the more the possibility of monetisation.”
Following these attacks on Muslim women, a group of more than 800 women’s rights organisations and concerned individuals issued a statement condemning the harassment and abuse.
“This is a conspiracy to target women by creating a database of those Muslim women journalists, professionals and students who were actively raising a voice on social media against right-wing Hindutva majoritarianism. The intention is to silence their political participation.
“This attempt to de-humanise and sexualise Muslim women is a systemic act of intimidation and harm. This is not the first time this has happened,” the statement says.
The National Commission of Women (NCW) took suo motu cognisance of the case and has written to the Delhi commissioner of police seeking a detailed action-taken report on the matter.
Hana Mohsin Khan, a commercial pilot, says she was targeted because of her religion.
“I’m a Muslim woman. Even though I am not political, I am active on Twitter. All I did was support and Tweet against those ‘Sulli Deal’ Twitter handles earlier, and I guess they decided to go after me as well,” Khan said.
“I am not scared, this is not going to stop me from doing what I am doing, but the fact is they took my photo from Twitter, my username, and this app was running for almost over 20 days without our knowledge and that just makes me angry.”
Khan was among the women who went ahead and filed an FIR with the police, she tweeted, sharing a copy of her FIR and said, “I am resolute and firm in getting these cowards to pay for what they have done. These repeated offences will not be taken sitting down. Do you worse, I will do mine. I am a non-political account targeted because of my religion and gender.”
In a statement, Human Rights Watch flagged its concern towards the Indian government’s policies and actions towards its minorities.
“Since Modi’s BJP came to power in 2014, it has taken various legislative and other actions that have legitimised discrimination against religious minorities and enabled violent Hindu nationalism. The BJP government’s actions have stoked communal hatred, created deep fissures in society, and led to much fear and mistrust of authorities among minority communities.
“Prejudices embedded in the government of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police and the courts, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity,” the statement says.
The internet has always held out the promise of democratic communication, says Seshu. For Muslim women and women who are marginalised and face discrimination in society, the internet can be empowering.
“The internet is regulated and censored by the state and by private internet companies. Organised groups use the internet to incite hatred and abuse. When no action is taken against these vigilante groups by either the state or by private companies, they jeopardise and end up destroying all democratic space.”