Muslim women in India singled out for online hate

An alarming surge in abuse and harassment in cyberspace by nationalist trolls has its origins in Hindutva ideology that fuses chauvinist patriarchy and misogyny.

India’s radical Hindu nationalists have unleashed a vicious online blitz targeting Muslim women that is laced with sexual slurs, rape threats, explicit imagery and malicious objectification. Most of the women on the receiving end of this Islamophobic and misogynistic bullying are seen as outspoken critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

Over the New Year’s weekend, photographs of more than 100 Muslim women with their identities appeared on a fake auction app that listed them “for sale” with the phrase “Your Bulli Bai of the day is…” It urged users to bid on the women in a fake auction. Bulli bai is a derogatory Hindi term that right-wing Hindu nationalists use for Muslim women. The women listed on the app included journalists, activists, film stars and artists as well as the mother of a missing Indian student and Pakistani Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

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The police arrested four people in connection with the case in the first week of January and said they were investigating whether the app was part of a “larger conspiracy”. Those arrested were named as Niraj Bishnoi, Shweta Singh, Vishal Kumar Jha and Mayank Rawal. According to the police, the accused, all students, allegedly used Sikh aliases while sharing the app in a deliberate attempt to mislead people about the identity of its creators and to vilify the Sikh community.

The app was hosted on GitHub, a United States-based coding platform owned by Microsoft. The company said it had “long-standing policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination and inciting violence” and would cooperate with investigating authorities.

“I had a nervous breakdown when the severity of the situation sank in,” wrote rights activist Mariya Salim, who was put up “for sale”. “As a Muslim woman in India, I am not new to Islamophobia or anti-Muslim narratives and hate. From outrightly being denied houses for rent because of my religious identity to workplace Islamophobia and hate, I have had my fair share. But this was a new low.”

Repeated humiliation

This is not the first time Muslim women in India have been “auctioned off” on the internet. A similar web application named Sulli Deals was placed on Github in July 2021 and remained available for weeks before being taken down. Sulli is also an insulting term used for Muslim women.

In May last year, a right-wing Hindutva YouTube channel called Liberal Doge Live live-streamed photos of Muslim women on Eid with a description in Hindi that read: “Today, we will stalk women with our eyes filled with lust.”

In August 2018, the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Yuva Morcha, a Hindutva organisation, announced a reward to any Hindu man who married a Muslim woman. In the same year, militant Hindu organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad called on Hindu men to marry Muslim women and convert them. In 2017, another Hindu group affiliated to the ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation announced the marriage of 2 100 Muslim women to Hindu men as part of its bahu lao (get Muslim daughters-in-law) campaign.

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And on 18 January, the Delhi Commission for Women issued a notice to the city’s police urging action against people making obscene comments about Muslim women on the audio chat app Clubhouse. The commission wanted the arrest of those who participated in a nasty conversation in which participants made “obscene, vulgar and derogatory remarks” targeting Muslim women.

The fake “sale” of Muslim women on the Bulli Bai auction app sparked an uproar after several victims shared screenshots from it on social media platforms. Women’s rights groups and politicians from opposition parties urged the government to take action against the perpetrators.

“The insult of women and communal hatred will stop only when we stand against it in one voice. The year has changed, the situation should also change. It is time to speak up,” senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted using the hashtag #NoFear.

State inaction 

India’s National Commission for Women said it was “extremely anguished and distressed” by such crimes against women in cyberspace. “It is disappointing that even after … so many months since the Sulli Deals outrage there has been no concrete action taken in the matter, which is utterly unfortunate and concerning,” it added.

The outrage prompted Ashwini Vaishnaw, a minister whose portfolio includes electronics and information technology, to block the app. Though he said the government was coordinating with the police to ensure action against those responsible, some opposition politicians accused the authorities of ignoring the issue despite repeated complaints. 

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Indian women, particularly outspoken Muslims, have often been the target of hateful comments on social media platforms by individuals aligning themselves with Modi and his BJP. It has spiked since Modi came into power in 2014, and many say that Hindu extremists have been emboldened by implicit government support for such attacks. 

These campaigns have been encouraged by the dog-whistle politics of BJP leaders who claim Muslims engage in a so-called love jihad (Muslim males entrapping Hindu women in order to convert them) and a population jihad (Muslims having more children to change India’s Hindu demographic). Despite the lack of evidence, numerous states led by Modi’s BJP have implemented legislation essentially prohibiting or regulating interfaith marriages, while some plan to introduce laws on population control.

Historic roots of bigotry

The origins of Muslim women’s sexualisation can be linked to Hindutva ideologues’ ethnocentric and Islamophobic doctrine that sought to project Muslim men and women as aggressors and sexual threats. The Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar justified rape as a legitimate political tool in his book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, declaring that “it was a religious duty of every Muslim to kidnap and force into their religion non-Muslim women”. He said Muslim women were to be treated as enemies for their alleged role in perpetrating atrocities against Hindu women.

In a 2017 article interrogating religious nationalism and Hindu patriarchy, scholar Runa Das said the “woman question” had remained central to the Hindu supremacist project led by nationalists like Dayanand Saraswati, Savarkar and MS Golwalker. In their discourse, upper-caste Hindu women were seen both as objects of male Muslim lust and as the custodians of the national honour who needed to learn the “new” politics of community based on the creation of a Muslim Other. 

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The BJP’s discourse, too, has been fixated on Hindu “hurt” and the violation of Hindu women by Muslim men in order to rebuild a Hindu nation. Therefore, Das noted, while one extreme response to the Hindu Right’s defamatory tone against Muslims is found in riling calls exhorting Hindu men to engage in punitive policy and rape Muslim women, those on the other end of the spectrum question why Hindu men should pollute their bodies with Muslim women.

“Thus, in the BJP’s discourse not only are Indian Muslims constructed as the Other, but Muslim women, by being part of the Muslim community, also became an Other to the Hindu nation and its women. For the same reason, defiling the honour of the opposite community was necessary and best done by violating their women,” she wrote.

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