Qurat-Ul-Ain Rehbar, a journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir, was traveling when a friend called to tell her that she had been put up for sale. She was told that someone had taken a publicly available picture and created a profile, describing her as the “deal of the day” in a fake auction.
Rehbar was one of more than 100 Muslim women whose names and photographs were displayed on the fake auction site, which was hosted anonymously on GitHub in early January.
Following a massive social media backlash, GitHub took down the website, which was called “Bulli Bai”—a slur against Muslim women. But the event was only one of the latest online incidents targeting Muslims in India—and Muslim women in particular, many of whom have been vocal about the rising tide of Hindu nationalism since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
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In July of last year, another fake auction site, called “Sulli Deals,” displayed profiles of more than 80 Muslim women. In the social audio app Clubhouse, Hindu men are “auctioning” off parts of Muslim women’s bodies and openly issuing rape threats. And in December, Hindu leaders organized an event in the city of Haridwar calling for genocide against Muslims. Soon after, videos containing provocative speeches went viral on social media.
In the first few weeks of January, police made arrests related to both online auction sites. But all told, critics say, the Indian government is not doing nearly enough to stem the targeting of Muslim women online. “If our government continues to remain silent in the face of this kind of hate-mongering, the message it will send out is that such criminal behavior targeting minorities will go unpunished,” says Geeta Seshu, founder of the Free Speech Collective, an initiative of journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists.
An independent hate crime tracker documented more than 400 hate crimes against Muslims in India over four years, until his Twitter account was suspended in 2021.
Muslim women targeted by the auction sites have included journalists, activists, lawyers, politicians, radio hosts, pilots, and scholars; they’re active on social media and speak out about issues, and specifically about rising Islamophobia in India. “I think the attack was to silence those who are vocal on social media,” Rehbar says. “This was a hate crime against Muslim women particularly.”
Law enforcement has moved slowly in these cases, especially last year’s Sulli Deals case, says N.S. Nappinai, a lawyer with the Supreme Court of India and founder of Cyber Saathi, an initiative focusing on cybersecurity. “If law enforcement had acted faster, the copycat may possibly have been avoided,” Nappinai says.
The slow action is part of a larger pattern, says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Authorities are quick to accuse government critics, she says, but “hate speech and violent actions by government supporters are seldom prosecuted.”
Social media companies, which have the ability to take down offensive posts and stem misinformation, are not filling the void. “Tech companies take down content based on their community guidelines and local laws. In this case both were violated,” says Krishnesh Bapat, a Centre for Communication Governance Digital Fellow at the Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi. “GitHub, to the best of my knowledge, does not proactively take down content. It does so only after it receives a complaint and took longer in this case.” GitHub did not respond to a request for comment about its policies.
In India almost all forms of online harassment fall under the general category of cyberbullying. India’s Information Technology Act, 2000, commonly known as the Cyber Law, governs online abuse. The act was intended to address e-commerce but was adjusted in 2008 to cover cybercrimes as well. Harassment can also fall under the country’s overall penal code, says Nappinai, which can help protect victims in serious cases.
Nevertheless, some say the country’s online laws need revision. Anushka Jain, a lawyer with the Internet Freedom Foundation, believes the digital world has changed too much for the law to be effective. “Some of the provisions of the [Cyber] Act have become redundant and incapable of addressing the currently persisting issues and rapidly evolving changes and threats,” she says. The government, she adds, needs a holistic approach to cyber policy, including stricter laws.
In addition to harassment, Muslims in India are also struggling with misinformation online. For example, last September, ID Fresh, a halal-certified food products company owned by a Muslim family, faced a large-scale misinformation campaign on social media claiming that the company mixes cow bones and calf rennet to increase the volume of ready-to-cook batter and urging “every single Hindu” to avoid the products. The company faced a boycott and saw its sales drop; it had to launch its own campaign in response to set the record straight.
So far, there seems to be little movement to change the situation from either tech companies or the Indian government. That has left little remedy for victims like commercial pilot Hana Mohsin Khan, who took to Twitter to express her anger when she saw her picture in the January auction. “Muslim women were yet again targeted. Yet again there will be no action,” she wrote. “We are caught in a never ending cycle of anger and anguish. Every. Single. Day.”
Safina Nabi is an independent multimedia journalist from South Asia based in Kashmir.