This is the second of a four-part series on the interaction between Indian Muslim women and the law in India in the recent past. Collectively, they seek to examine issues of criminal law, employment, labour practices, and educational opportunities, and ask if Muslim women have an equal status under the law.
THE first-part of this series focused on the case of Bilkis Bano, and the remission of 11 convicts of her gang rape and murder of her family. In the second part, we shift our focus from the heinous crime of rape and murder to a heinous digital crime, in the form of the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai apps, through which Muslim women were objectified and ‘sold’ online.
Trending since mid-2021: Objectification of Muslim women
On May 13 last year, Youtuber Ritesh Jha (a.k.a. Liberal Doge), with 87,000 subscribers, began livestreaming on his YouTube channel photographs of Pakistani women, taken without their prior permission. These photos, taken during Eid festivities from private social media accounts, were listed in the livestream while the channel’s audience ‘rated’ the women, ‘auctioned’ them off to each other, and posted sexually charged comments. Amidst high levels of protest against the Islamophobic and sexist act, the livestream was made private.
Not long after, in July 2021, an app titled ‘Sulli Deals’ was hosted on Github, an internet hosting service for software development and version control. The premise was similar. It hosted over 80 Muslim women, who were ‘sold’ off as “deals of the day”. Although a police complaint was filed, no arrests were made. In November 2021, several accounts on the social audio app Clubhouse were created, which propagated the same Islamophobic and misogynist hate using the tag ‘Sulli Deals’. Again, no action was taken.
The act of selling women in a mock auction happened not because they were women (viewed in vacuum from religion), nor because they were Muslim (without accounting for the patriarchy present in Indian society). It was precisely because the targets were Muslim women that the harm has been exacerbated.
On January 1 this year, another app was hosted on Github, this time titled ‘Bulli Bai’. Here, 102 photographs and personal details of women, the majority of whom were Muslim or had shown support for the Muslim community, were listed.
Both “Bulli Bai” and “Sulli” are pejorative terms for Muslim women used by right-wing Hindus. There was a huge pushback on this blatant attack targeting Muslim women and within days, police arrested several people involved in creating the app.
Police in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi arrested a total of five persons connected with the two apps: Vishal Kumar Jha (21), Shweta Singh (18), Mayank Rawat (20) and Neeraj Bishnoi (20) were charged with creating the Bulli Deals app; while Aumkareshwar Thakur (25) was the alleged developer of the ‘Sulli Deals’ app. Within two months, in March 2022, a Delhi district court granted bail to Thakur and Bishnoi, stating that the accused were “first-time offenders” and “prolonged” incarceration would harm them.
When discussing either the Sulli Deals or the Bulli Bai apps, we are looking at discriminatory behaviour turning into violence on the grounds of gender and religion. The Islamophobic misogyny, in this case, has been charged under several legislative provisions:
‘They have been charged under Sections 153 (wantonly provoking with intent to cause riot), 153B (publishing any imputation that any class of persons cannot, by reason of their being members of any religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community, bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings), 354 (assault or use of criminal force to any woman with intention to outrage modesty), 500 (punishment for defamation), and 509 (insulting the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Section 67 (publish any material which is lascivious) of the Information Technology Act, 2000.’
These sections either look at the harm these acts have caused on religious grounds, or the gendered impact of the apps. However, the act of selling women in a mock auction happened precisely because the targets were Muslim women thus exacerbating the harm.
By violating a Muslim woman’s body, not only is she subjected to gender-based violence, but also through socially acceptable mores, her entire family is subjugated to shame and dishonour. In this manner, Muslim women are buried under layers of patriarchy, arising from both within and outside their religious community.
Muslim women are at a juncture of being seen either as a project to be rescued (the veil as oppression discourse), or hyper-sexualised (as in the case of the online auctions). This cannot be seen devoid of other instances of violence threatened upon Muslim women. In December last year, a woman said to be fringe Hindu leader Vibhanand Giri was heard pressing the attendees of a religious event to “rape and impregnate Muslim women if Muslim men cast even a glance at Hindu girls”. On April 2 this year, Hindu priest Mahant Bajrang Muni Udasin also threatened Muslim women, stating “…I will openly abduct your sisters and daughters and rape them.” Broadening our scope to the 2002 Godhra riots, a 2003 report by international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch described thus the violence which Muslim women were subjected to: “Muslim women and girls in Gujarat were stripped and paraded naked, gang-raped, mutilated, and burnt alive. Iron rods and other objects were inserted into their bodies.”
The nature of gender-based violence against Muslim women thus originates from deep-seated patriarchy, Islamophobic misogyny and communal tension. Women’s bodies are often a site of political and communal conflicts. The violence perpetuated here, whether in the digital space or through calls for gender violence, are not only prima facie violating Muslim women’s right to life, but also using Muslim women’s bodies as a means to control Muslim men. These threats, in certain views, are seen as being made against Muslim men as a way to humiliate them. This view is particularly misogynistic, as it subscribes to women’s bodies as a way of maintaining her family’s honour and dignity.
The woman’s body in South Asia is seen as a means of propagating religious, caste and class hierarchies. Thus, by violating a Muslim woman’s body, not only is she subjected to gender-based violence, but also through socially acceptable mores, her entire family is subjugated to shame and dishonour. In this manner, Muslim women are buried under layers of patriarchy, arising from both within and outside their religious community.
How does law capture the power imbalance?
The above instances of violence are due to repeated collisions with masculinity, power and being Muslim. Having established that the violence perpetuated in the above cases on Muslim women, is intersectional, that is, on the basis of religion and gender; how can the criminal justice system reflect this in each case?
In the previous post dealing with Bilkis Bano, the remission of 11 convicts was seen in the singular lens of rape. In the case of the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai auction apps, each of the victims will be seen, by the Indian Penal Code, as women whose modesty has been outraged.
While the criminal offence is against each woman listed on the app individually, collectively, they show a trending disregard for Muslim life, Muslim women’s rights and safety, and the impunity with which such acts take place. By not considering the collective effect of sexualising an entire community of citizens, the criminal cases depict a form of discrimination on the basis of gender and religion.
However, this is not just a woman’s body being violated physically or digitally. It is the perpetration of power over gender, religion and community. While the criminal offence is against each woman listed on the app individually, collectively, they show a trending disregard for Muslim life, Muslim women’s rights and safety, and the impunity with which such acts take place. By not considering the collective effect of sexualising an entire community of citizens, the criminal cases depict a form of discrimination on the basis of gender and religion.
Legal academic Shreya Atrey writes about intersectional gender violence:
“Intersectional gender violence is about: (i) rejecting violations of bodily and mental integrity when perpetrated based on people’s multiple and intersecting identities (intersectionality); and (ii) recognizing that violence should be understood as a whole taking into account unique and shared patterns of violations yielded by intersections of gender, race, caste, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation etc (integrity). The intersectional dimension shows the nature of gender violence as constructed by unique and shared patterns of experiences (as depicted in a Venn diagram); whilst the integrity dimension emphasizes that experiences of intersectional gender violence can only be understood in this way when considered as a whole. This bipartite framework of ‘intersectional integrity’ serves as the normative background for deconstructing the nature of intersectional gender violence.”
The Supreme Court, in the case of Patan Jama Vali versus State of Andhra Pradesh (2021), recognised intersectionality in a case of gender violence. In this case, the court recognised the heightened risk of violence of a girl with disability, belonging to the Scheduled Castes.
The sexualisation of Muslim women’s bodies, through the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai apps, shows that the gender violence committed here is not just on the basis of gender. It is intersectional – on the lines of religious identity considered along with gender. It shows a systemic and pervasive patriarchal outlook with grave connotations, arising in Islamophobia.
The issues of Muslim women should be considered as issues of a minority group within a minority. In prosecuting these cases, the judiciary should be mindful of the power structures in place which perpetuate the specific disadvantages that Muslim women face precisely because of their identity. The courts should thus decide violence against Muslim women as a heightened risk because of their group affinity to a particular religion.