You cannot shame us into silence
The Hindu far right thinks they can humiliate us into shutting up. They can't.
On the first of January, as the rest of India awoke to a fresh start, at least a hundred Muslim women found themselves traumatised, numb, and disgusted: Photographs taken from their social media profiles had been posted on an app called Bulli Bai on Github, where the women were listed under their own names for auction. The app asked members to bid for each woman. Each one is a Muslim with an opinion, a voice that punctures and protests India’s national Islamophobia and the bigotry of the Modi government. They articulate the state of affairs in the country. For that, apparently, they must be punished.
I was one of the women on the auction app.
This was not the first time Muslim women with public profiles had been targeted, sexualised, and shamed. It was not even the first time they had been sold in a mock auction, where users got access to the personal photographs of Muslim women and could virtually lay claim to them. Six months ago, another app called Sulli Deals (Sulli is a derogatory term used for Muslims) held a similar auction of Muslim women. Victims complained, but the government took no notice . Those who auctioned Muslim women the first time on Sulli Apps are still free.
This time, the perpetrators of the Bulli Bai app—police have so far arrested two, an 18-year-old woman and a 21-year-old man—came up with a wider list, emboldened by the impunity that this country offers to anyone wishing to silence Muslim voices.
Many of us, especially women on social media, are aware that the most sexist, perverted, bigoted and—importantly—coordinated abuse directed at us comes from Twitter handles and other social media profiles associated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu nationalist organisations. Often, Modi himself follows the accounts that threaten to rape and kill women who criticise him. Muslims protest, but too often we do so alone.
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As soon as news of the Bulli Bai app started trickling in, women who saw their names and photos listed for auction began reaching out to one another. Tabinda Shaikh, an MBA student and entrepreneur whose profile had been posted six months earlier on Sulli Deals, sent me a text, asking me to file a complaint with the police on behalf of myself and the other women who had been violated. Shaikh comes from a traditional Muslim family; in a phone interview, she says the first time she saw her image on the auction site, it nauseated and disturbed her. Her family was concerned for her safety—what crime had their young daughter committed? Why was she being punished with such brutal degradation on a platform where the highest bidder could virtually claim her body?
Shaikh wrote to the National Commission for Women asking for their support, but still has not heard from them.
“Why you?” I ask Shaikh.
“Because I am a Muslim, who is educated, who is informed, who speaks her mind, who protested against the anti-Muslim Citizenship [Amendment] Act that wants to wipe out our existence,” she replies. “I am a young Muslim girl who refuses to be threatened with online bullying and death threats”.
Shaikh started wearing the hijab two years ago as a form of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which she and many others say delegitimises the very existence of Indian Muslims. “Our Prime Minister claimed that the protestors, the criminals could be identified from their clothes. It was a dogwhistle against Muslims, so I started wearing the hijab in defiance,” Shaikh says. “We know what this was all about, this was an attack on our faith so I decided to wear my faith on my sleeves. With Sulli Deals, it is obvious. First they came for our identity and now they are assaulting our character.”
Within days of filing her complaint, Shaikh received porn videos in her direct message inboxes from men who claimed in their social media profiles to be members of the BJP and Hindu nationalist organisation the RSS. “I cannot explain that feeling. Why were they doing this to me? I was being sent nudes, [so] I called these twitter and Instagram handles out, asked people to report them. But do you think it makes any difference in this country? I am being attacked because I refuse to be bullied into subservience. The hundred women who are being put up for auction are all Muslims, including a sixty-five-year-old mother of [Najeeb Ahmed,] a Muslim student who disappeared in mysterious circumstances.”
Sania Ahmad, another Muslim writer who found herself on Bulli Deals on 1 January, said that this insult to Muslim women would not stand. “I will say what I have to, do what I have to,” she wrote on Twitter. “You don’t have the balls to come at us with your real identities, you bunch of cowardly, depraved trads. This won’t go away easily. We are not as helpless as you think we are and we are definitely in no mood to give up anytime soon."
There is a section of the Indian media—and Indian society writ large—that refuses to see this as yet another assault on the Muslim community. The auction of Muslim women comes just three day after open calls for the genocide of Muslims in the national capital, by nationalists including members of Modi’s party, but liberals prefer to see this as a problem of misogyny, rather than of Islamophobia.
Ahmad, Shaikh, and others like Sidrah, another victim of the app, rightly see the current response to the auction apps by some of our allies as patronising: This is not a generalized offense against women, it is an attack on Muslims.
Indian Muslim public figures, especially journalists , activists and students who are fighting an unpopular battle against Islamophobia, are often disheartened when members of the Hindu majority refuse to see these attacks as a concerted assault on Muslim identity. We hear accusations that we have lost our “objectivity” at this unprecedented time in Indian history, when Muslims are the enemy of the state. Our supposed allies insist on a culture of behalf-ism—that we should stay in the shadows and allow them to do the talking on our behalf.
Many of our allies in India, while sympathetic, insist on setting the terms, conditions and language used to describe the trauma inflicted on the minority, and those who speak of their lived experience as Muslims are often shamed into silence for being “too radical” or “too sensitive”. We are often advised to be more ‘balanced’ in our views when we try to make the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Here in India, as in too much of the rest of the world, we are forced to apologize for and denounce terrorism far from our communities and our own political interests.
An unapologetic Muslim, a Muslim who does not shy away from her religious identity but proclaims her faith, is a threat to Hindu nationalists—but she is also a threat to our supposedly “liberal” intelligentsia.
I am a journalist reporting from India on human rights issues, watching militant Hindu nationalism occupy the highest seat of power, and bearing witness to the majoritarian decline of this country. My views are often deemed unpatriotic by my own colleagues. Very recently when I wrote a column on the repulsive Islamophobia in the Indian entertainment industry , a well-meaning colleague commented publicly that I needed to stop viewing everything from the lens of Islamophobia just because it helps to set the narrative of the Muslim as a victim to the White West. Our allies expect us to see Islamophobia through their lens that is laced with majority privilege. It implies that our hurt is not hurt enough until the majority community validates it.
In January 2020, communal violence broke out: Kapil Mishra, a BJP legislator, gave a speech declaring that Hindu nationalists ought to confront Muslims protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, and they did. Egged on by Mishra and others in the BJP, right-wingers vandalised Muslim places of worship, and cops defended the culprits. Absolute silence from Prime Minister Modi that further enabled the mob.
On one occasion, three cops assaulted Muslims and forced them to chant the national anthem as they lay injured on the street. One of them died because police refused to treat his wounds. In this communal violence, One community is aided and abetted by the state, its security apparatus, and government bureaucracy. The other side is left to defend itself against both the mob and the state.
58 people lost their lives, a majority of them Muslims. When I appeared on CNN, a huge international platform, to speak about this travesty, I chose to define the violence as anti-Muslim carnage. Many upper-caste Hindu and liberal personalities lost no time raking me over the coals, publicly telling me to behave like an Indian first and a Muslim second. One writer called me a jihadist masquerading as a journalist. In response to my segment, another peer wrote, “Humans were killed. Why make it about Hindu Muslim?, Get off your fake victimhood.”
Months later, cops investigating the violence arrested the Muslims victims; those who called for their murder still roam free. We witness majoritarian privilege each day, but simply describing it makes us less than citizens.
Indian-majority and Hindu supremacists are not unique in this demand. Nesrine Malik wrote an excellent article in the Guardian on condescending “white allies,” in which she observed that “‘white ally’ support is uncomfortable. It kicks in only when black people conform to an image and live up to a single moment. It raises them at this point, but the rest of the time black voices are not fashionable, their grievances not dramatic or simple enough, or caught on camera….Every few years, being black becomes a macabre spectacle.”
Aditya Menon—the journalist who writes for news outlet Quint, —adds, “Although not in my present workplace, I have been called an 'Islamist' in a work-related context on two occasions—once while applying for a job and on another occasion by a prominent journalist on social media. There was also an off-hand remark by an otherwise well-meaning journalist asking me if I'm a Muslim first or a journalist first, and if I would sacrifice a story for the sake of my community. At a time when Islamophobia is raging in the country, overwhelming every aspect of our lives, Muslims are asked to develop amnesia over their lived experience. An Indian Muslim can understand best what Indian Muslims go through just as a woman, Dalit or Sikh would best understand the oppression of their respective categories.”
Menon, a Hindu convert to Islam who often speaks about Muslim issues on social media, feels that one of the reasons the Indian right wing can coordinate crimes against Muslims with such impunity is the desire by upper-class Hindus to co-opt and lead the resistance on behalf of Muslims. They offer support only when resistance fits into the framework and definitions they dictate.
“There's a constant effort to censor Muslim voices to what they deem 'acceptable',” Menon says of liberal allies. “In the case of Muslim women, it works at two levels. Muslim women being raped or harassed in a communal context doesn't evoke the same outrage as individual cases of rape or harassment that may not be communal in nature. And for some who do talk about the crimes against Muslim women—such as Sulli Deals—it becomes about 'all women' even though there's a very specific ideology behind the targetting of Muslim women.”
Menon recalls a similar criticism of the historic Citizenship protests, in which millions took to the streets to oppose discriminatory laws against Muslims. “Muslim activists were told not to chant Muslim slogans, as it may 'alienate' allies,” he says. “If Muslims are the ones affected, they will talk about Muslims and speak with a vocabulary relevant to Muslims. Allies should recognise this. Otherwise it would mean they're practising majoritarianism in another form.”
Tabinda Shaikh adds that “Muslim women in India do not need to be saved. We have a voice and we shall speak, and we shall fight for justice despite the slut-shaming and the assault on our character. We need allies who recognise majoritarian privilege, who do not just treat us as hashtags or tokens of their largesse.”
Muslim public voices, especially women, are being mock-auctioned because for far too long, many of our allies labelled us “alarmists” and accused us of playing victim when hate was at our doorstep. What is unfolding in India is a prelude to a genocide, and unless the rest of the country acknowledges our lived reality and fears, unless the solidarity from the liberal Indian moves beyond tokenism, unless our movements of resistance are more than fashion accessories, our fight will continue to be lonely and isolating. Muslims are losing their lives, being jailed for dissenting, our children are being booked under terror laws in false cases and lynched in the streets, and our newspapers are publishing adverts for the Modi government on their front pages, where the Muslim is always the rioter, the terrorist.
The assault on us is real, the plan for our annihilation is real, the normalisation of the crimes against us is real, the demonising of the Indian Muslim by our craven media is real. It is time for ordinary Indians to acknowledge in public, without ifs and buts, that yes, they, the Hindus, the majority, have a problem, and for the sake of the Muslims, they need to fix it.