Muslim women in India are no more a homogenous monolith than Muslim men, and there are divisions among them along the lines of caste, class and region as there are variations among Hindu women. However, what is undeniably a common experience for all Indian Muslim women today is that they are being used as pawns on the political chessboard by the Sangh Parivar.
From the criminalisation of triple talaq by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2019 to the recent controversy around disallowing girls from wearing hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka, Muslim women have been the target of the Sangh Parivar’s manoeuvres.
In speech after speech on the election campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented himself as the saviour of Muslim women. He claimed that he and his party had been rescuing Muslim women from the clutches of Muslim patriarchy. In an election rally in western U.P., he said, “Our Muslim daughters used to face a lot of trouble while going for studies because of eve-teasing on streets. They now have a sense of security after criminals were taken to task by our government.”
The irony of his speeches was not lost on anyone familiar with history, especially those in the Muslim community, which bore the brunt of right-wing attacks during the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, when Modi was the Chief Minister. Muslim women were specifically targeted by rioters; they were gangraped and their houses looted and destroyed. In the Naroda Pitiya massacre in Ahmedabad, a pregnant woman named Kausarbanu Sheikh was burned to death. The survivors and eyewitnesses of the riots spent years in refugee camps fearing for their lives.
The reverberations of the riots were felt across India, where polarisation and ghettoisation sharpened along religious lines and members of the post-2002 generation, who are eligible to vote now, continue to suffer the indirect impact of the violence faced by the community even though they have no memory of the pogrom.
Post 2014, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre, Muslim men have been both criminalised and terrorised by the state apparatus in the hands of the right-wing government as well as by non-state elements of the Sangh Parivar. When the lives of Muslim men were ruined, by extension, their families and the women in their families also suffered.
The Delhi riots of 2020 and numerous lynchings in the name of cow protection happened under the current dispensation, while random acts of violence against Muslims continue to be the order of the day. The suppression of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and mass arrests of students and activists, many of them Muslims, were the other instance of ‘otherisation’ of Muslims.
Following relentless attacks by the right wing, Muslims were pushed to the wall. Some of them decided to play it safe by erasing markers of religious identity and stayed in the shadows, while the more vocal among them asserted their identity, making use of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and the freedom to practise and propagate religion. Young educated Muslim women, in particular, chose to wear the hijab or headscarf asserting their right to do so in the eyes of the right wing. Many expressed their frustration at the state of affairs and, in solidarity with the less fortunate, took to social media to air their opinions. Twitter became the ground for political activism, leading to a heated battle between dissenting Muslim women and right-wing trolls.
‘Sulli Deals’ outrage
In July 2021, an open source app called ‘Sulli Deals’ on the GitHub web platform, intending to teach these young Muslim women a lesson, was shared on Twitter. It put up more than 80 Muslim women “for auction” using doctored photographs taken from the Internet without their permission. Many of the publicly available photographs shared on the app were of Muslim journalists, activists, lawyers and artists. Hana Mohsin Khan, a pilot, filed a first information report (FIR) with the police and said on Twitter: “I’m resolute and firm in getting these cowards to pay for what they have done. These repeat offences will not be taken sitting down. Do your worse. I will do mine. I am a non-political account targeted because of my religion and gender.”
Fatima Zohra Khan, a Mumbai-based lawyer whose name appeared on the app, also filed a complaint with the Mumbai Police.
A reporter named Fatima Khan was also targeted and she shared screenshots of the app on Twitter. She said: “Didn’t check Twitter last night. Woke up this morning to realise my name, along with those of many other Muslim women, was up on GitHub as a list of Sulli Deals. Thankfully by the time I came across it, it had been taken down. But just the screenshots sent shivers down my spine. How is this acceptable? What will be the punishment, if any, meted out to the people who made this list? Muslim men are lynched, Muslim women are harassed and sold online. When will this end?”
Sulli is a derogatory term used for Muslim women. Every day, a new woman’s face would be put up on the app as “Sulli deal of the day”. The app was clearly intended to humiliate and degrade Muslim women.
In an open letter condemning the political campaign of hate, women’s rights activists and concerned citizens said: “This is a conspiracy to target women by creating a database of those Muslim women journalists, professionals and students who were actively raising a voice on social media against right-wing Hindutva majoritarianism. The intention is to silence their political participation….We demand equal citizenship and political participation in offline and online spaces for Muslim women.”
The Editors’ Guild of India also deplored the act and said, “This vile attack is symptomatic of underlying misogyny in some sections of the society, especially against Muslim women as well as those who have been outspoken critics of the current government.”
The Delhi Commission for Women issued a notice to the Delhi Police after which the Cyber Cell filed an FIR under Section 354-A of the Indian Penal Code.
Following several complaints, GitHub shut down the app, but the app reappeared six months later under the name of ‘Bulli Bai’. This time, the names of more than 100 Muslim women figured in the app, including Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai, the actor Shabana Azmi, Congress leader Sadaf Jafar, Kashmiri journalist Quratulain Rehbar, the wife of a sitting judge of the Delhi High Court and 65-year-old Fatima Nafees, mother of Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) student who has disappeared.
Delhi-based journalist Ismat Ara filed a complaint with the police on the basis of which the Cyber Cell filed an FIR under the charges of promoting enmity on the grounds of religion, threatening national integration and sexual harassment of women.
The Delhi High Court Women Lawyers Forum wrote to the Chief Justice of India seeking directions to strictly prohibit such online auctions of human beings as though they were inanimate objects. The forum said that the lack of action in the ‘Sulli Deals’ case emboldened the culprits to use with impunity pictures of freethinking women who are considered independent with dissenting voices.
Soon thereafter, the Mumbai Police arrested four persons: 18-year-old Shweta Singh and 21-year-old Mayank Rawat from Uttarakhand, an engineering student named Vishal Kumar Jha from Bengaluru and Neeraj Singh, an MBA graduate from Odisha. Meanwhile, the Delhi Police arrested 21-year-old Niraj Bishnoi from Jorhat in Assam and declared that he was the mastermind of the ‘Bulli Bai’ app. He is a second-year B. Tech student of Vellore Institute of Technology in Bhopal. Shweta Singh was reportedly handling three accounts in the ‘Bulli Bai’ app and Vishal Kumar Jha opened an account called Khalsa Supremacist, apparently to make it look like it was a Khalistani operation.
Later, the Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations (IFSO) of the Delhi Police arrested a man named Aumkareshwar Thakur in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and declared that he was the mastermind behind the ‘Sulli Deals’ app.
The Delhi Police said that they were able to identify Aumkareshwar Thakur on the basis of inputs provided by Niraj Bishnoi. They also said that he had joined a group called ‘Trad Mahasabha’ using the Twitter handle ‘gangescion’ in January 2020. The group members would often discuss how to troll Muslim women and Aumkareshwar Thakur developed the code for the ‘Sulli Deals’ app. After the app hit the headlines, he deleted all his social media accounts, the police added.
A Delhi court denied bail to Aumkareshwar Thakur stating that misuse of technology and the impact of the alleged acts on the larger section of society cannot be seen as negligible crimes when compared with other offences that invite harsher punishment. Metropolitan Magistrate Vasundhara Chhaunkar observed: “The accused had consciously used Tor browser so that his identity could not be disclosed and various complaints have been received against the ’Sulli Deals’ app, which are pending across India. The investigation is at a nascent stage where crucial evidence and the further chain of events are yet to be conclusively unearthed. Granting bail to the accused at this juncture will prejudice a fair investigation.”
Ramifications of hijab issue
Even as the authorities were taking action in the online auction cases, controversy surrounding the hijab in Karnataka schools returned the Muslim woman to the centrestage of national politics.
The hijab issue became so heated in just a matter of days that its reverberations were felt even in the election campaigns in distant Uttar Pradesh. However, given the diversity of the community and its aspirations, the semantics of the issue differed. For instance, in the slums of Delhi, where a huge Bengali Muslim population lives, the term ‘hijab’ is a foreign word. Women who live in working-class neighbourhoods and who work as domestic labour, construction workers, and so on, sometimes cover their heads with a scarf but refer to it as ‘isqab’.
Tabassum, a domestic worker, and her friends who live in such localities also call it the chunni, dupatta, purdah or pallu when wearing a saree. They cover their heads when they are out on the road but take it off while at work or at home, or while taking selfies outside, or when riding a bicycle, a prized mode of transport among the working-class women of Delhi. Besides, the unmarried girls in their circle do not cover their heads at all.
Speaking to Frontline , Tabassum said that girls who read the Quran and keep a purdah or chunni on their heads are considered “good girls” by the men and elders of the community. She said: “Sometimes, even women pass comments or taunt us if we go to the mall or to a movie.” Tabassum has worn a headscarf, off and on, since she was 10 years old and it has become a habit now. She said: “I have worn it for so long that if I were to stop wearing it, I would feel odd as if something was missing.”
But she has never worn a burqa because she does not want to get “habituated” to it. She said: “If I start wearing a burqa, then how will I work? I will have to sit at home all the time. I do what the Quran says, I try to be a good person, what more? Besides, if I worry about the taunts, then how will I earn or feed my children?”
On the hijab controversy in Karnataka, she said that it was a good thing that the schools were asking girls to remove the hijab because “if people have their way, they will not think twice before putting girls behind cages. It is not such a bad idea what the schools are doing.”
In the polarised debate that is raging between rights and rituals in India, there is little space for the articulation of a working-class Muslim woman like Tabassum. And that is the real tragedy.