This article was supposed to be about how it had been four months and the people behind the ‘Sulli Deals’ hate crime were yet to be identified and arrested. It took me two months to finish. I would come to this page, write a few thoughts, be pulled into a spiral of negativity and I would leave it for another day. After I fell sick and was hospitalized, I wanted to put it all behind me. I didn’t want to feel the way that I felt every day: angry, bewildered, and hopeless.
As fate would have it, the day that I sat down with this article after weeks, there was a fresh new horror unleashed: “Bulli Bai.” I found myself clicking on a similar button looking for women friends and myself. I was not one of the women who was targeted this time but it still felt very personal. Also, it felt worse because it had happened again.
Then, last night, while I was writing with a renewed zeal to finish this time, I saw a tweet that said one suspect had been detained by the police in Mumbai for the “Bulli Bai” app. I could feel my mood changing to cautiously happy. And cautiously hopeful. But as the moments passed, I was left wondering about the police inaction in the other states where women had filed complaints in July last year when “Sulli Deals” was exposed. As I tried finding more details about the first suspect who was detained last night, I returned to the question that has plagued me for six months: how hard is it for the police to catch the culprits or do they just not want to?
When you are targeted in something like ‘Sulli Deals,’ the horror of the crime is amplified by the indifference of the state and the society at large.
Let me share some of what that feels like.
When “Sulli Deals” happened, I was unfamiliar with the app. It was hosted on Github and from the look of it felt deceptively innocent like a no-brainer app with a link to share on your page. A friend of mine sent me a link to a Twitter account that had tagged me saying, “Hana you’re there too.”
Clicking the app link sent me to a page that said “find the sulli of your day” and the button read “find me a sulli.”I clicked almost without thought. I had no idea what “sulli” meant. It was when I kept clicking the button and started seeing familiar faces, that the sinister meaning of this app started dawning on me. With the pit in my stomach growing, I found myself staring at a picture of myself. As the room became a blur and the ground seemed to give away, my body went into shock. I felt a kind of blinding rage unparalleled to anything that I have felt before.
I learned later that “sulli” was a derogatory word for Muslim women. It was another vile word used to dehumanize Muslims that I would have liked to go through life without knowing.
I counted the names of 83 women on the app. I don’t think we slept that night. A few of us got together on WhatsApp and we tried to make sense of what was happening. Some could tell families, others could not. My extended family from countries like Australia, America, and Canada started messaging me. It was well-intentioned, but it became hard to repeat the same story multiple times.
The decision to file a police complaint was not an easy one. I asked my friend who is a lawyer whether things would get worse for me if I did. I will never forget his reply: ‘Hana, kamar kas lo, yeh toh hona hai.’ (Hana, tighten your belt, this is bound to happen).
Something snapped in me then. I knew that I would not let anyone harass or frighten me this way. The hate-mongers had no power over me. The law was on my side. After all, scores of Muslim women were targeted in an online hate crime that the world was witness to.
Six months on, I’m not aware of any action that has been taken against the complaint that I filed at a police station in Noida, despite the National Commission for Women, the Delhi Commission for Women, and parliamentarians like Priyanka Chaturvedi and Mohammed Jawed, telling the police to investigate.
Initially, when I had filed the FIR, I was hopeful. I’m a law-abiding, contributing citizen of this country, who was targeted in a hate crime. Why would I not get justice? That hope died a slow death. Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months. There was radio silence. I was left with this all-consuming anger inside me that was affecting my health.
As a child, I faced bullies head-on. I would make everyone’s fight mine. But here I was left helpless and paralyzed. How could I alone fight an unknown enemy? How does one fight cowards? I felt like my dignity and my power to fight back had been taken away.
It was during Eid 2021 that I first heard of a virtual bid of Muslim women from Pakistan and India on YouTube. ‘Sulli Deals’ happened in July. In December, vocal women of different religions were targeted, their body parts described in the vilest language in a ClubHouse session. Now, we start the year with “Bulli Bai” where hundred of Muslim women including journalists, social workers, and students, have been targeted in an online auction.
I have no hesitation in saying that if there were arrests made the first time when women were auctioned on YouTube, we may not have had to deal with the collective trauma that we are feeling now. The system has failed us.
Many among those 83 women in “Sulli Deals” disappeared from social media. Either they censored themselves or their families did. In either case, they no longer have a voice. Many women who are still able to speak are not able to pursue this legally. Either they cannot confide in their families or they are discouraged to file complaints. It is only a handful of women who have the opportunity and resources to be vocal and to fight this.
I’m angry because as Indian women we face every kind of assault possible while growing up. We are constantly fighting battles. We fight misogyny, bigotry, and patriarchy. We are molested, groped in public, mansplained, and censored. We are told what to wear, how to wear, how loud we can laugh, or how late we can stay out. Even while living with the violence of patriarchy, we survive, we thrive, and we carve out a life for ourselves, only to be targeted because somewhere along the way we manage to find our voice.
When you are targeted so viciously, nothing prepares you for it, not even the knowledge of how other women are trolled. And much like grief, you never recover. It’s always a part of you, colouring every experience in your life and finally, you just learn to live with it.
This article has been a journey. The emotions that have swept me at every stage are documented on social media for anyone else who might relate. As I said, I’m cautiously hopeful after seeing the police of one state springing into action. I may never get back to the deliriously happy person that was Hana. Maybe every experience will be coloured for me, but I will fight to keep my voice.
Hana Mohsin Khan is a commercial pilot who was targeted in the “Sulli Deals” hate crime in July 2021. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.