Hana Mohsin Khan, a commercial airline pilot, has watched her Muslim friends leave India over the past few years. She used to try and talk them out of it. She would scoff at the idea of doing it herself. Last week, after she and scores of Indian Muslim women were auctioned off on an app called “Sulli Deals,” Khan felt the time had come for her to bite the bullet and decide whether she too should leave. (Sulli is a derogatory word for Muslim women).
Neither privilege nor the affluence that her father had worked hard to achieve has ever shielded their family from the otherization of being born Muslim in India, but now she feels unsafe all the time, said Khan.
The first house that her father bought in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, was torched in a communal riot in the 90s, she said. Her father sold their land at a loss and bought a house in a Muslim neighbourhood with rich NRIs (Non Resident Indians) who were not rented or sold homes in the posh localities of the city. It was where she stayed after returning to India from Saudi Arabia in class 11. As her grades slipped during the transition to her new school in Meerut, her teachers suggested that she take arts instead of science, telling her that the only reason women from her community completed their studies was to make a good match. A few years later, her landlord turned her out of her rented house in Delhi when he found out that she was Muslim.
As she stared at her photo and the words — “Your sulli deal of the day is” — an avalanche of emotions was arrested in a silent scream.
In a recent conversation, Khan said, “I can’t even tell you how angry I am right now. It is only that emotion that is a constant from that day till today. I laugh, talk and eat but the anger is there. I have to compartmentalise the trauma. Honestly, right now, I’m still processing.”
For two days, Khan debated whether she should file a police complaint, imagining the worst things that could happen if she decided to fight back. Would they float morphed images of her face on a woman from a pornographic clip, she wondered.
On 6 July, Khan filed a complaint at a police station in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.
“If I would not have filed that police complaint, it would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Now, I’m going to do everything possible to get the men who did this arrested,” she said. “If I have to fight for years, I can fight for years. I’m not going to stop. I’m prepared.”
If I would not have filed that police complaint, it would have haunted me for the rest of my life.
“Sulli Deals” was an app that put up an online auction of Muslim women, using their photos. It was hosted on GitHub, a repository hosting service, and taken down after its content was exposed on Twitter.
Women who were put on sale on the “Sulli Deals” app told us that the obscene and sexualised nature of the hate crime made it impossible for them to speak about it with their parents. Friends and siblings were the only people they could turn to, but it was difficult for them to put into words just how dehumanised they felt. The moral policing that followed the hate crime — people saying that the women should not have uploaded their photos — was devastating. But “fighting back” has helped them manage the pain and anger that has become a constant in their lives.
Noor Mahvish, a law student, was no stranger to online harassment because of her activism on issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). But this hate crime left her reeling, imagining the worst consequences for herself and her mother, a single parent in a traditional Muslim family.
Mahvish, a Kolkata resident who is pursuing her law degree in Allahabad, said, “I wanted to file a complaint but I was really afraid of how the elders of my family would react if they found out. We are village people. We live in a joint family. I was afraid they would never let me return for my studies. There was too much fear.”
“Our society, even our families, ignore harassment. What will they understand about online harassment? They will say why did you put your photo? Why are you talking so much?” she said.
On 9 July, Mahvish went to the police headquarters in Kolkata to file her complaint.
“When I went to file my complaint at the police headquarters, I started crying. I realised that I was crying for my country and the women of my country,” she said. “How can you sell a woman? My spirit is shivering. There are tears in my eyes. Hindu or Muslim comes later. How can you say ‘women are on sale, come, let’s enjoy it.’”
I realised that I was crying for my country and the women of my country.
When she saw her photo and the words, “Your sulli deal of the day is” — Mahvish said that her mind flashed back to the first instance in which she felt otherised in her own country. It was 2015 and Mahvish was preparing for NEET, the qualifying exam for medical schools. She was wearing a burqa and sitting in an auto-rickshaw in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, Mahvish recalled, when two men who were crossing the street looked at her and said, “’Move along or we will send you back to Pakistan.’”
“Everything stopped at that moment. What had happened was such a big thing for me,” said Mahvish. “I decided to pursue law. As a lawyer, I can fight this discrimination. Now, I will find the men who have traumatised so many Muslim women. I will fight until justice is delivered. I know it will take a long time but I will fight.”
Wary of alarming her parents and, in equal measure, incurring their wrath, Aysha Riyaz told us that she confided in a male cousin who told her to immediately remove her photo and go offline.
Riyaz, who grew up in Delhi and is working for a large corporation in Dubai, said, “What has happened is something very big. Auctioning Muslim women. What are they trying to do to us? What are they doing to the country? Now, on top of that, people say why did you upload your photo? I just couldn’t take it anymore. I took down my photo.”
Even as she removed her photo from her Twitter, Riyaz said that she is filing a complaint with the police in Dubai. This involves her getting her complaint and the screenshots of the “Sulli Deals” app translated in Arabic.
When we asked her why she was pursuing the case in Dubai instead of Delhi, Riyaz said that from the treatment of cyber crimes targeting Muslim women in the past, she had come to believe that the Indian police lacked the will and the skill to crack these cases.
“Our system is lacking the resources and technology to track them,” she said. “We can’t rely on the Indian police. If they had caught and punished people who have done this before, like with Hasiba Amin during Eid, perhaps this would not have happened.”
Auctioning Muslim women. What are they trying to do to us? What are they doing to the country?
Silence for the most part
The number of women who have or are in the process of filing FIRs are a small fraction of the affected women. There are those who have no choice but to take down their photos and close their social media accounts.
The silence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, the Opposition, and sections of the mainstream media has hurt the morale of these women.
The political landscape is so polarised that what should have been condemned in the strongest language across political parties, is subjected to a cost benefit analysis by the Opposition. Any show of support to the minority community, an Opposition leader explained matter-of-factly, only ends up benefitting the BJP and further dividing the electorate along religious lines.
But there were a few politicians who condemned “Sulli Deals” including Member of Parliament from Kerala, Shashi Tharoor, who called it “revolting,” and said that he would “pursue the matter” as head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology.
Member of Parliament from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi, wrote to the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and called for the culprits to be arrested.
Even the drumming up of outrage on social media took days and was the result of a sustained effort on Twitter by the affected women including journalist Fatima Khan.
Fatima Khan said that not everyone who speaks about women empowerment takes a stand when it comes to Muslim women being targeted and harassed.
“To do the labor of explaining why it’s worthy of basic outrage and solidarity can be tiresome and draining. But many of the Muslim women who were named in the list have had to do precisely that,” said Fatima Khan.
Following a concerted effort to bring attention to the hate crime, the NCW and the DCW called on the Delhi Police to act, and an FIR was registered against a police complaint on 8 July.
“When there isn’t enough condemnation over these things, it makes those targeted feel small and abandoned. It makes them feel like this isn’t just a normalised reality, but perhaps even one that is being condoned by the liberal society at large. And that can be really hurtful in devastating ways,” said Fatima Khan.
When there isn’t enough condemnation over these things, it makes those targeted feel small and abandoned.
In the past
In May 2020, following Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar’s arrest in connection with a Delhi Riots case, the DCW told the Delhi Police to take action against the “vilification campaign being run against her and her unborn child on social media.” “The the way trolls have outraged her modesty and vilified a pregnant woman’s character is shameful,” Swati Maliwal, DCW chief, wrote at the time. Zargar, who is now out on bail, said that she had received no communication about her case.
Muslim women who have been similarly targeted in the past are more tempered in their expectation of justice.
On 13 May, a YouTube channel called Liberal Doge, reportedly run by one Ritesh Jha, organised a virtual bid on Pakistani Muslim women who were celebrating Eid. At the time, Newslaundry reported that he is a 23-year-old living in Gurugram. That same day, Hasiba Amin, the National Convenor for Indian National Congress (INC), was being “auctioned” on Twitter.
In the two months since an FIR was registered against her complaint at the Kishan Garg Police Station, Amin said there had been no progress in her case. A senior police officer told The Print that an investigation was underway.
As an Indian Muslim woman in politics, Amin said that she had become numb to obscene trolling and abuse. But this — “being sold” — had disturbed her so much that she cut down on using social media. From her interaction with the police in connection with her case, Amin has come to believe that the Indian police did not have the competencies to deal with cyber crime cases.
“I just don’t think they are well equipped or tech savvy or know how Twitter works,” she said. “If they had caught the people who did the obscene stuff on Eid, then perhaps the same thing would not have happened again on a larger scale.”
Journalist Sania Ahmad, who has been subjected to obscene trolling for over a year, said that her images had been morphed on the woman’s body in a pornographic movie. She has collected 782 screenshots of violent abuse targeting Muslim women.
But no FIR was registered against the two complaints that she filed with the Delhi Police in 2020, said Ahmad, adding that the attitude of the police was “misogynistic” and they were bent on “victim shaming.”
From her interaction with the police in connection with her complaints, Ahmad said that she realised they didn’t seem to understand basics like screenshots and archived links.
“If you don’t understand what archived links are, how are you even handling a cyber cell that is looking into the cyber crimes being done on that platform,” she said. “You don’t even understand that platform.”
If you don’t understand what archived links are, how are you even handling a cyber cell that is looking into the cyber crimes being done on that platform.
After losing faith in the police, Ahmad focused on getting reprieve from Twitter. While some accounts are suspended after people come together to exert a great deal of pressure, Ahmad said it can take days. A poll asking people to choose between her and another Muslim woman was live for a day, she said. An obscene joke about her mother was deemed by Twitter as not violating the community rules, she said.
“You don’t see this kind of abuse on Twitter in the US?” said Ahmad. “Twitter India does not have the time or the people to ensure that Twitter is a safe space.”
Cyber crime experts said there was very little understanding of cyber crimes in police stations and very few FIRs were registered. There was an urgent need to sensitise the police, they said.
Dhanya Menon, India’s first woman cybercrime private investigator based in Thrissur, said, “Cyber crime investigation takes a backseat in any police station because the crime is not apparent immediately and the danger is not apparent immediately.”
Mirza Faizan Asad, a cyber security and law consultant based in Bengaluru, said, “In cyber crimes, it is important to register the FIR and investigate very quickly because the culprits immediately delete the evidence. It is not difficult to retrieve it but the police just don’t know how to because they don’t have the training.”
Journalist Rana Ayyub said that an FIR, against a complaint about online rape threats that she filed in July 2020, was registered by the Mumbai Police in June 2021.
In July, last year, the Delhi Police closed the case against a 2018 complaint filed by Ayyub after her face was morphed on the body of another woman in a pornographic video. Even as the Twitter handles with the offensive messages which Ayyub had given the police were still active at the time, the Delhi Police told her that “despite efforts the culprits could not be identified yet.
“I have lost faith on behalf of millions of women on social media who are slut shamed, given rape and death threats every hour, who have to bear the brunt of concocted stories targeting their character, who are auctioned on social media, their bodies put on sale,” said Ayyub. “I have lost count of the number of times that I have gone through the drill. File complaints, sit with cops who watch morphed naked images of you, appear before the magistrate and I am exhausted.”
I have lost count of the number of times that I have gone through the drill.
Living with the fear
The women who were targeted told us that something like “Sulli Deals” will weigh on them for a long time, possibly forever.
There are three things they fear the most; morphed photos, virtual stalkers finding and attacking them in the real world, and compromising the safety of their families. “I don’t think it is very hard for people to come to my house and do whatever they have to do. I’m very worried for my family. I don’t think my privilege protects me. I don’t think being a pilot protects me,” said Hana Mohsin Khan. “You feel unsafe. You feel anything can happen.”
Noor Mahvish is worried about the fallout of this hate crime on her education. If the abuse persists and she continues to be targeted, her family may not let her return to Allahabad to study law. Her immediate concern is about her safety.
“Online harassment can become an offline crime. I live away from my family. I live away from my city. What if someone saw the ‘Sulli Deals’ photo and tries to hurt me?” she said. “What will I do in that situation? What will I do?”
In a discussion on the Clubhouse app last week, Afreen Fatima, Jawaharlal Nehru student and a political activist, said, “They are putting up women for sale online. There is nothing that is stopping from doing it offline.” “It is extremely traumatising. I don’t think we will ever be able to recover from it. But we are willing to fight,” she said.
I don’t think we will ever be able to recover from it. But we are willing to fight.
In the two months since she saw the message that she had been “sold,” Hasiba Amin said that she has become afraid for her physical safety and conscious of the people who pass her on the street.
“This most primitive form of objectification is being thrown in our faces. We are being dehumanised. What is there to say that one of my neighbours hasn’t seen the online abuse? What is there to say that someone I pass on the road has not seen it?”
Hasiba said that she lives in “constant fear of the road.”
“These things are so deeply hurtful that they fundamentally change who you are as a person. Each such incident changes you and there is no going back,” she said.
Each such incident changes you and there is no going back.