When Nadia discovered that she had been put up for a fake auction online, she felt an onslaught of many emotions, except shock.
“It would be surprising to me if you told me that such apps or markets don’t exist,” Nadia, whose name has been changed due to safety concerns, told VICE World News. As a female Muslim journalist from Indian administered Kashmir, Nadia experiences constant discrimination and harassment both online and in her daily life.
“If you try to understand my intersectionality, you will see the levels of harassment I face and how I have just grown immune to it,” said Nadia. “We have been victims for a very long time of this fetishization and vengeful lust stemming from hate and we have been aware of this since our childhood.”
In India, the exoticization and fetishization of Muslim women as sexual objects is peddled by Hindu extremists as a way to humiliate and control the country’s 204 million Muslim population, who comprise 15 percent of the total population of over 1.4 billion.
The app known as the “Bulli Bai” commodified outspoken and influential Muslim women like Nadia by posting their photos as though they were being auctioned for virtual sale, along with a link to their social media accounts. The mock auction was shared widely online and listed around 100 journalists, activists, and politicians. It even included a Bollywood actress, the mother of a missing student, and Pakistani Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Although the auction wasn’t real, its purpose was to sexually obectify and degrade Muslim women, many of whom have spoken out against rising trends of Hindu-nationalism and anti-Muslim hatred under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government.
A similar app, the open-source “Sulli Deals”, was hosted on Microsoft-owned GitHub last year. It catalogued publicly available photographs of prominent Muslim women as “deals of the day,” as though up for virtual sale.
Both “Bulli Bai” and “Sulli” are pejorative terms for Muslim women used by right-wing Hindus. The apps have brought the systematic fetishization and the extensive online targeting of Muslim women in an increasingly polarized India to the forefront.
“The term Bulli Bai is so derogatory it feels awful to even say it. I feel for every woman who has had to face similar harassment,” said Nadia.
For decades, gendered violence against Muslim Kashmiri women has been characteristic of the conflict in Hindu-majority India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. But the problem exists elsewhere in the country.
“Personally, I wasn’t very aware when I was young that it is the same for Muslim women across India,” Nadia said. “I felt like I was being punished for being Kashmiri, but I guess in recent times Muslim women in general are being targeted a lot.”
Police have linked the creators of both apps to the online alt-right group “Trads” that derives inspiration from neo-Nazi online movements. Trads, which stands for traditionalists, promote genocidal rhetoric against Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs and other minorities in India.
For Trads, mainstream right-wing groups that they refer to as “Raitas” aren’t doing nearly enough by way of attaining a Hindu-only India. They believe Raitas, such as those belonging to Modi’s government, are too lenient towards Muslims and other minorities. The Trads’ view is downright onerous, considering the recent viral videos of Hindu religious leaders closely linked to Modi’s ruling party calling for the mass genocide of Muslims. In it, hundreds of Hindu activists, monks and other rallyists swore to take up arms and kill Muslims if necessary in order to establish a Hindu-only nation.
For Indian Muslim women who are regularly harassed online, the possibility of Islamophobic physical violence is a real and present danger. Recent data shows a surge in Islamophobic crimes. An independent hate crime tracker documented over 400 hate crimes against Muslims in India in the last four years.
“My biggest fear is being a victim of a hate crime, and hate crimes against women don’t end with just murder. It’s harassment, molestation, rape, torture, and then if you get lucky, then murdered,” Nadia said. “My fear isn’t specific to me. It also spreads out to my family who are also in the same pit as I am, and I know that if things were to go south, there is nothing I would be able to do for myself or for my family.”
It’s a concern shared by other women who were “auctioned” on the apps.
“I fear physical harassment if I have to travel anywhere in India,” journalist Quratulain Rehbar said. Rehbar originally reported on the Sulli Deals for VICE World News. For her, the repercussions of online abuse include victim blaming. “People judge and keep thinking why my name and photo were auctioned. They don’t have much awareness and information around it. That makes me feel very uncomfortable,” Rehbar told VICE World News.
The Bulli Bai app also targeted acclaimed Muslim journalist Rana Ayyub, who has actively spoken out against Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government. Ayyub and other prominent female journalists in India have been the subject of intense online abuse from the ruling party’s secret Tek Fog app, which has been used to magnify right wing propaganda online. From January to May 2021, Ayyub received some 22,505 hate tweets, the highest number among a list of the country’s female journalists.
Authorities have made efforts to go after the people behind the apps. Bulli Bai was discovered on January 1, and has since sparked increasing outrage across India. Last week, four university students including Niraj Bishnoi were arrested for allegedly creating the app. On Jan. 9, police arrested 25 year-old web developer Aumkareshwar Thakur in Indore city in Madhya Pradesh state. Thakur is believed to be the creator of the Sulli Deals app.
Police said Bishnoi, during his interrogation, gave a tip that led them to Thakur, who had deleted his online footprint following the backlash from Sulli Deals.
“Thakur had joined a group on Twitter by the name of TradMahaSabha in January 2020 using the Twitter handle @gangescion. During various group discussions, the members had talked about trolling and defaming Muslim women,” KPS Malhotra, deputy comissioner of Delhi police, told local press.
An investigation by the news outlet Article 14 last year exposed a series of social media accounts run by Hindu nationalists that were promoting pornographic memes and narratives, which fetishized Muslim women for the Hindu male gaze and encouraged sexual violence.
According to police, Thakur had created over seven Twitter accounts in the past two years and was a member of multiple Trad groups on Twitter and Telegram. Other members of the main group under investigation have since deleted their profiles. Police are currently investigating Thakur’s devices to recover all codes and images related to the app.
Despite the recent string of arrests, Nadia feels pessimistic about the prospects of attaining justice. “I don’t expect or hope for anything from any authority that is, has been, or will be in charge or in power. We have lived like this for more than two decades and nothing or no one has ever come to our aid.”
She feels the authorities’ efforts thus far to prosecute the people behind the apps have been a drop in an increasingly toxic ocean.
“There are pages and subreddits with the sole purpose of fulfilling desires that a Hindu man have sex with a Muslim woman, or that a Muslim woman shows her naked body on a porn site,” said Nadia. “Women who don’t follow their ideals or religion are being sold off to fulfill their lusts and desire to control us. Every such page or app should be tracked down, and I know for a fact there are plenty.”