Amaana Begum’s heart skipped a beat when she logged on to Twitter one late night last week. The Muslim woman in her 30s from the northern Indian city Jaipur had been tagged in a tweet with her photo and personal details. The caption above the photo read, “Sulli Deal of the Day.”
“Sulli” is a slur used against Muslim women, commonly by Hindu nationalists in India.
Over 700 miles away, in the western Indian city Mumbai, Saniya Sayed, a 28-year-old writer, woke up to find her personal details and photos also shared on Twitter as part of the day’s “deal.” Another Muslim woman, lawyer and social worker Fatima Zohra, found herself and her younger sister in another tweet.
“Sulli” is a slur used against Muslim women, commonly by Hindu nationalists in India.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how some unknown person has compiled our data, and uploaded it,” Zohra told VICE World News. “Now whenever I go out, I feel like somebody is stalking me.”
Over the last week, nearly 100 Indian Muslim women found their photos and personal information, apparently gathered from their social media accounts, on the web app called “Sulli Deals”, hosted by the software collaborative platform GitHub.
The app mimicked online auction sites like eBay, except that Muslim women, instead of goods, were being traded without their consent. Most of the profiled women were journalists, activists, analysts, artists and researchers from India. One click on their “Sulli Deals” profiles led to their Twitter accounts.
“It was humiliating and traumatising,” said Sayed, the writer. “We were being auctioned like cattle. It was nothing less than us being trafficked.”
Hindu-majority India has a history of religious intolerance and violence. Muslims make up 14 percent of India’s total population of 1.3 billion. Yet recent data showed a surge in Islamophobic hate crimes under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, whose ideology is centered on right-wing Hindu nationalist politics. An independent hate crime tracker documented over 400 hate crimes against Muslims in India in the last four years.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how some unknown person has compiled our data, and uploaded it. Now whenever I go out, I feel like somebody is stalking me,” said Fatima Zohra.
On social media, rising Islamophobic hate speech intersects with online misogyny. “I see this as an expression of pathological misogyny rooted in religious bigotry that targets assertive Muslim women,” Sayed said. “This ‘auction’ was designed to stamp on our psyche that we are second-class citizens in our own country, and we can be treated so with impunity.”
In the past, Muslim women have spoken up about being targeted with hate-driven fetishization campaigns by right-wing Hindu trolls. The campaigns were even supported by prominent Indian politicians who cracked down on interfaith love on the basis of an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that Muslim men were entrapping Hindu women as a form of “love jihad.”
In a statement to VICE World News, Chinmoy Biswal, a public relations officer of the Delhi police, said the police cyber cell had registered a criminal complaint against the unidentified creators of the app by July 8.
“Notices have been sent to GitHub to share relevant details,” said Biswal, adding that there is no significant development in the investigation yet.
At the same time, Twitter suspended accounts such as @sullideals101 and @sdfrgt4rf that tweeted the “auction”. The accounts did not respond to messages from VICE World News before they were suspended.
A spokesperson for GitHub told VICE World News that they suspended the user accounts that were under investigation for “Sulli Deals”. “GitHub has long-standing policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination and inciting violence,” the spokesperson said.
At least seven Muslim women who were targeted by the app told VICE World News that they fear for their lives, especially since their personal data led to more online sexual abuse.
“It is not simply an issue rooted in patriarchy, but a particular attack to Muslim women to intimidate them,” Sayed said. “[The trolls] hate that Muslims in India are vocal about the injustices meted out to them. Their mind works like that of a potential rapist.”
In the past, Muslim women have spoken up about being targeted with hate-driven fetishization campaigns by right-wing Hindu trolls.
Team Saath, an anonymous group that flagged and helped take down Twitter handles promoting “Sulli Deals”, told VICE World News that online trolling reached “dangerous” levels last week.
“These attacks are not primarily meant to gain sexual pleasure out of it, but rather they’re used as a weapon to traumatise, harass and eventually silence the voice that these Muslim women are,” said the admin of the group that operates incognito to protect their members from online abuse.
“It’s harrowing when a group of men hiding behind anonymous handles do this with such impunity,” added the Team Saath admin. “It’s scary and dangerous as we don’t know what their next move will be.”
The “Sulli Deals” came just a few weeks after a similar hate campaign during the Muslim Eid festival in May, when a Hindu right-wing YouTuber called “Liberal Doge” livestreamed photos of Pakistani women without their consent, and asked his 87,000 followers to “rate” and “auction” them. Tweets with screenshots of the livestream went viral. Some Twitter handles that participated in the virtual “bid” had shared links to the “Sulli Deals” app.
“It’s harrowing when a group of men hiding behind anonymous handles do this with such impunity,” said Team Saath’s admin.
VICE World News was able to contact the YouTuber through his ProtonMail address that was publicly available before YouTube shut down his channel. The YouTuber, in an exclusive interview conducted on Google Meets, told VICE World News that he “regrets” targeting Muslim women in the past, but had no role in “Sulli Deals.” He added he was investigated by the police over his May livestream.
“Back then, one of my agendas (sic) was to offend Muslims, and I also wanted to gain traction. So when I put it on Twitter, it went viral, as I had expected,” said Liberal Doge, who requested anonymity citing fears of death threats and online abuse that followed his viral livestream.
He also claimed to have been “radicalised” on Facebook after he saw Hindu women being targeted by Muslim men online. He added that similar “auctions” of Muslim women by right-wing users have taken place in the past, too.
“Sulli Deals”, Liberal Doge said, appeared to have been done “for fun” as well as to target Muslim women who spoke up against his livestream in May. On Twitter, hashtags supporting him have multiplied ever since the “Sulli Deals” case went viral.
“I don’t know who they are, or what their intention is. I don’t endorse them. But I’m getting connected with this case anyway,” he said.
These hate campaigns have forced some Muslim women to deactivate their accounts and go into hiding. A few have filed police complaints against the app creators.
Zohra, the lawyer and social worker from Mumbai, said she would file a public interest litigation at the high court if no action is taken by the police. “A precedent has to be set for this,” she said. “We should not take it as normal trolling.”
Some women created a WhatsApp support group to help and advise one another. “We want to be each other’s support in these bad times,” Hana Mohsin Khan, the social activist who started the group, told VICE World News.
“We have enough laws to deal with such incidents but there is no seriousness on [the] part of the police,” said Anas Tanwir, a lawyer who represents two women in the “Sulli Deals” case.
On July 8, the government’s National Commission for Women asked the investigating police officials to submit a report on the case within 10 days.
On the same day, Tanwir sent a legal notice to Twitter, asking for $13,435 in monetary compensation for his client, saying the company failed to take action against “Sulli Deals” content on their platform, which had led to online sexual abuse.
“Twitter needs to step up and go beyond the esoterics, especially in cases that have been reported,” Tanwir said. “Women shouldn’t be running around to get justice. Social media platforms should be accountable, too.”
In an email statement, a Twitter spokesperson said, “We have actioned several tweets and accounts in line with our range of enforcement options, that were engaging in targeted harassment and attempting to harass and intimidate women.”
Team Saath said incidents like “Sulli Deals” are bound to repeat. “There have been no repercussions for the perpetrators yet,” said the group’s admin. “There’s enormous Islamophobic hate on Twitter India, which goes completely unchecked, often rewarded, too. The government has failed to come to grips with this issue.”