The Indian Muslim women ‘up for sale’ on an app
Last Sunday, dozens of Muslim women in India found they had been put up for sale online.
Hana Khan, a commercial pilot whose name was on the list, told the BBC she was alerted to it when a friend sent her a tweet.
The tweet took her to “Sulli Deals”, an app and website that had taken publicly available pictures of women and created profiles, describing the women as “deals of the day”.
The app’s landing page had a photo of an unknown woman. On the next two pages Ms Khan saw photos of her friends. On the page after that she saw herself.
“I counted 83 names. There could be more,” she told the BBC. “They’d taken my photo from Twitter and it had my user name. This app was running for 20 days and we didn’t even know about it. It sent chills down my spine.”
The app pretended to offer users the chance to buy a “Sulli” – a derogatory slang term used by right-wing Hindu trolls for Muslim women. There was no real sale of any kind – the purpose of the app was just to degrade and humiliate.
Ms Khan said she had been targeted because of her religion. “I’m a Muslim woman who’s seen and heard,” she said. “And they want to silence us.”
GitHub – the web platform that hosted the open source app – shut it down quickly following complaints. “We suspended user accounts following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies,” the company said in a statement.
But the experience has left women scarred. Those who featured on the app were all vocal Muslims, including journalists, activists, artists or researchers. A few have since deleted their social media accounts and many others said they were afraid of further harassment.
“No matter how strong you are, but if your picture and other personal information is made public, it scares you, it disturbs you,” another woman told the BBC Hindi service.
But several of the women whose details were shared on the app have taken to social media to call out the “perverts”, and vowed to fight. A dozen have formed a WhatsApp group to seek – and offer – support and some of them, including Ms Khan, have lodged complaints with the police.
Prominent citizens, activists and leaders have also spoken out against the harassment. The police said they had opened an investigation but refused to say who could be behind the app.
The people who made the app used fake identities, but Hasiba Amin, a social media coordinator for the opposition Congress party, blamed several accounts which regularly attack Muslims, especially Muslim women, and claim to support right-wing politics.
This is not the first time, Ms Amin said, that Muslim women have been targeted in this manner. On 13 May, as Muslims celebrated the festival of Eid, a YouTube channel ran an “Eid Special” – a live “auction” of Muslim women from India and Pakistan.
“People were bidding five rupees (67 cents; 48 pence) and 10 rupees, they were rating women based on their body parts and describing sexual acts and threatening rape,” Ms Khan said.
Ms Amin told me that later that day, an anonymous account tried to “auction” her on Twitter. Several others – one called @sullideals101, which has since been suspended – joined in, “abusing me, body shaming me and describing gross sexual acts”, Ms Khan said.
She believes that those who tried to auction her on Twitter are the same people who are behind the Sulli Deals app and the YouTube channel – which has since been taken down by the platform.
In the past week, Twitter has suspended accounts that claimed they were behind the app and it would be back up soon.
Campaigners say online abuse has the power to “belittle, demean, intimidate and eventually silence women”.
Last week, more than 200 prominent actors, musicians, journalists and government officials from around the world wrote an open letter, urging CEOs of Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter to make women’s safety “a priority”.
“The internet is the town square of the 21st century,” they wrote. “It is where debate takes place, communities are built, products are sold and reputations are made. But the scale of online abuse means that, for too many women, these digital town squares are unsafe.”
An Amnesty International report on online harassment in India last year showed the more vocal a woman was, the more she was targeted. And just as black women were more likely to be picked on in Britain and the United States, women from religious minorities and disadvantaged castes were harassed more in India.
Nazia Erum, author and former spokesperson of Amnesty in India, said there were few Muslim women on social media and those that were were “hunted and haunted”.
“This targeted and planned attack is an attempt to take away the mic from the educated Muslim women who express their opinion and speak out against Islamophobia. It’s an attempt to silence them, to shame them, to take away the space they occupy,” she said.
Ms Amin said the harassers had “no fear because they know they will get away with it”.
She pointed to several recent cases of atrocities against Muslims encouraged by supporters of the ruling BJP party, such as a government minister who garlanded eight Hindus convicted for lynching a Muslim, and the country’s new broadcasting minister who was seen last year in a viral video working up a Hindu crowd to “shoot Muslims”.
For the women whose identities were taken and used by the “Sulli Deals” app, the fight for justice could be long and tough. But they are determined to have it.
“If police don’t find those who put us up for sale, I will go to the courts,” Ms Khan said. “I’m going to pursue it till the end.”