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Opinion – App ‘selling’ Muslim women proves dangers of cyber space

Recently, an app was launched to put Muslim women in India up for sale. This is being seen as a sign of increasing islamophobia and misogyny online.

Trigger Warning: this article contains mention of islamophobia, digital abuse, and sexual harassment. Reader discretion is advised.

Ever been to an auction?

Everyone knows you usually bids on antiques, property, paintings, and the like. But what about bidding on women? That seems strange if not appalling, right?

That’s exactly what happened in India, however, when an app called ‘Sulli Deals’ was launched on GitHub to sell Muslim women.

That’s right – actual human beings were up for sale online just like a ‘thing’ on an e-commerce site. What has been the response and, importantly, is this indicative of a wider cultural issue? Let’s break it down.

What was the app all about?

As soon as a user opened this app, it would ask them to click on a button saying ‘find your sulli deal of the day’. Then, a photo of a Muslim woman would appear.

Those featured were mostly lawyers, journalists, activists, and researches who actively spoke out against the rise of the right wing in the country. It uploaded publicly available pictures of about 100 such women, and used it to dehumanize them.

Clearly, the perpetrator did not just want to go after any women; they wanted to specifically target vocal female figures from the Muslim community in order to ‘put them in their place’.

There was no transactions taking place – the main intention here was to demean these women. In fact, the word ‘Sulli’ is a derogatory term used to refer to female Muslims.

The app ran for twenty whole days until GitHub finally took it down.

This incident has understandably had a deep psychological impact on the survivors. Many of them have deleted their social media accounts and have withdrawn from the cyber space entirely.

One of those featured told BBC Hindi, ‘No matter how strong you are, if your picture and other personal information is made public, it scares you, it disturbs you.’

Who wouldn’t be frightened to the bone if they found out someone was literally trying to sell them online?

In response, a case has been registered by the Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police, and the Delhi Commission for Women has asked for a report into relevant police action taken. GitHub has also been asked to share necessary details about the app for investigative purposes.

We can only hope that the police are able to track down the perpetrator and penalise them.

This is not an isolated incident of cyber misogyny in India.  Religiously-motivated cyber-attacks are steadily increasing, with several high-profile incidents already making headlines just this year alone.

Are such incidents common in the Indian cyber space?

Today, cyber harassment against Muslim women has become extremely prevalent.

On the 13th May 2021, for example, an India-based YouTube channel with over 80,000 subscribers streamed a live video sexualizing and posting awful remarks on pictures of Pakistani women.

These pictures were related to Eid ul-Fitr, which is a very important Islamic festival. Bear in mind that this day is meant for Muslims across the world to express gratefulness to God for all his blessings.

The aggressor not only went so far as to degrade these women, but also had the intent to hurt religious sentiments of the Islamic community.

One of the worst parts about this live stream was its description. It read ‘Aaj apni tharak aankho se ladkiyan tadenge’, which means ‘Today, we will stalk girls with our eyes filled with lust’.

If that isn’t absolutely unnecessary and misogynistic, I really don’t know what is.

The channel was also running a live auction in an effort to dehumanize these women. People were found bidding with pennies, rating them, and threatening assault.

This all effectively means that female journalists and activists have nowhere to voice their opinions and be heard without feeling threatened. What are they to do – lock themselves in a dim room without any human interaction at all?

That’s pretty much what solitary confinement looks like, and no one wants that.

Is there a way out?

There have been some individual initiatives across the country to address the issue of cyber harassment. One such example is the ‘Cyber Aid Army’.

Shantanu Naidu, Deputy General Manager at the Office of Ratan Tata, launched an initiative in September 2020 to have non-consensual online content taken down.

The Cyber Aid army is comprised of a closed group of fifty people. Victims of cybercrime can reach out to the team by simply filling this Google form and explaining their situation. As of October last year, Cyber Aid Army has been able to help nearly twenty people.

In instances where victims were not comfortable with sharing the content in question, the team taught them how to have it taken down. Also, they do all of this absolutely free of cost.

With multiple cyber safety initiatives coming up, it becomes increasingly obvious just how necessary online moderation is. At the same time, it’s also giving us a sense of the extent to which bullies can go to prove a point.

It’s high time that aggressors reflect upon their demeanour and realise just how uncalled-for and eye-rolling attempts to outrage a woman’s modesty are.


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