As we celebrated ‘Safe Internet Day’, on 8th February this year,, it is important that we focus on the safety of women on the internet. The Internet came with a promise of a wealth of opportunities for everyone. A powerful tool which was viewed as a gender-equaliser has done the opposite in reality, by deepening the gender inequities even more. A global survey by Plan International revealed that 60 percent of girls and women have experienced harassment on social media platforms and one-fifth of them have either quit or reduced their social media use. This survey included 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries, including Brazil, Benin, the USA and India, and a series of in-depth interviews.
Gender-based abuse on the internet in the form of sexual harrasment, messages threatening rape and murder, leaking private pictures and videos without consent or trolling have become rampant. Internet-based crime in India has taken a severe dystopian turn which was seen in the horrific incidents whereby Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ on a mobile application by a group of Hindu men.
The first incident happened in July, 2021 when an app called “Sulli Deals” put up hundreds of Muslim women ‘up for sale’. The application, hosted by the web-platform Github, contained photos and details of these women which were sourced without their consent. Every time a user clicked the website, it generated a new result out of the dozens of profiles, describing the woman as their “deal of the day”, in an auction-like manner. Most of the profiles included in the database were of vocal Muslim women who have often spoken out about crimes against religious minorities in India. Even though the app was taken down after public outrage, no arrests were made as many people who promoted the app on Twitter deleted their accounts.
This year, on January 1, a similar incident took place as Quratulain Rehbar, a journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir, woke up to see herself listed for an “online auction”. Her photograph was sourced without her permission and uploaded on an app for “sale”. She was not alone.
This new app called ‘Bulli-bai’ hosted photographs of more than 100 Muslim women, including prominent actress Shabana Azmi, wife of a sitting judge of Delhi High Court, multiple journalists, activists and politicians were displayed on the app for auction as “Bulli Bai” of the day.
The words ‘Sulli’ and ‘Bulli’ are derogatory terms used for Muslim women by the right-wing trolls in India. In both these cases, women, partciularly Muslim women who speak against the wrong-doings of the current government and religious atrocities against minorites were targeted. This indicates that these were not simply digital crimes but digital ‘hate-crimes’ againts Muslim women in India that stem from rising Islamophobia in the country.
Both these incidents are crucial as they did not happen in a vacuum but against the backdrop of rising attacks on Muslims in India. Religious hate crimes against Muslims have been on the rise in India, including lynchings; the destruction of mosques and houses; attacks on Muslim comedians, actors, and directors; and the imprisonment of Muslim activists, journalists and human rights defenders.
But, the ‘Sulli Deals’ and ‘Bulli Bai’ incidents brought two strands of hatred together: misogyny and communalism. The app was created to humiliate Muslim women and also silence their voices. It was meant to scare them away from social media platforms.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns preventing in-person gatherings, social media is often the only space for discussion, dissent and socio-political mobilisation today. Yet the presence of rampant online trolling, harassment, attacks against voices of dissent — particularly against women from marginalised identities — ensures that these digital spaces remain unsafe and inaccessible to many.
These cases reflect a new disturbing element that has emerged in the digital space that is the weaponization of sexualized disinformation about women. A recent report by the Wilson Center, Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized against Women Online, says, “It is a phenomenon distinct from broad-based gendered abuse and should be defined as such to allow social media platforms to develop effective responses.” The research team defines this kind of disinformation as “a subset of online gendered abuse…sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination.”
The objective of such an attack is clearly political, that is to drive out women from the public sphere by dehumanising them. It is coordinated, false and uses software tools as weapons to multiply attacks targeting women. It is weaponized as it uses software tools to multiply the lies it creates. And, it targets minorities—religious, oppressed castes and women.
Moreover, the incidents violate core fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed under the Indian constitution. The applications elicited lewd, horrifying comments from a vast number of users. Even though there was no actual auctioning of a human being, the main goal of this application was to dehumanise and intimidate women who were targeted. This has affected the personal safety and security of those targeted, thus violating their constitutional right to life, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. This has also undermined their right to privacy, deemed an integral component of the “right to life” . The incidents’ goal of silencing women from speaking up also undermined their freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.
The repetition of these cases one after the other is due to delay of action by the legal authorities in the country. Even after launching two FIRs in Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi, there was no concrete action from the police. In January 2022, police arrested two people, Niraj Bishnoi and Omkareshwar Thakur as alleged creators of the ‘Bulli Bai’ and ‘Sulli Deals’ apps respectively.
Not only is it necessary to hold accountable those who create these derogatory apps but it is also important to hold tech-giants which host such apps. The web-platform on which these apps were hosted, Github’s parent company, Microsoft has been silent of this grave issue. Algorithms of social-media giants such as Microsoft or Twitter failed to detect words such as ‘Sulli’ and ‘Bulli’ as hate speech, encouraging such incidents.
Muslim women in India are extremely vulnerable in both physical and online worlds. They have been targets of ‘hate-crimes’ which are on the rise on various social-media platforms, be it Twitter or Clubhouse. With the advent of new social media applications, people are finding new ways of doing digital hate-crimes. Thus, we need to find new ways of making the internet safer for women, especially those from marginalised groups.