On the morning of January 3, Sidrah, a Mumbai-based social activist, had just finished her fajr namaz (early morning prayers) and had stepped out for her routine walk. But this morning, for the first time, she felt unsafe in her city, Mumbai. "I was scared even of my own shadow. I have never felt this way," Sidrah, 35, recalled.
The unsettling fear of a danger lurking around for Sidrah stems from an episode that had happened just two days ago. On the first day of the new year- 2022- hundreds of outspoken Muslim women, including Sidrah, woke up to find their names and photographs listed for an 'online auction' on GitHub's 'Bulli Bai' app.
"I don't know who is seeing my picture. I don't know what comments are being made about me in such circles," Sidrah said. The social activist is now constantly worried about the possibility of trolling in the virtual world spilling over into real world and translating into a situation where she can be physically harmed.
"Who knows what their intentions are," said Sidrah, who has been vocal on social media about her opposition of right-wing politics, hate speech against Muslims, and attacks on minorities.
Some 1400 kms away from Mumbai, another young Muslim woman, in Delhi, was recovering from a shock. She, too, was put up on the same website for an 'online auction'. Arshi Qureshi, a Delhi-based freelance journalist, remembers the roller-coaster of emotions that she went through. From being numb to seething in anger and finally accepting that the dehumanisation like this can happen again, Arshi has felt it all in a matter of few days.
"In July 2021 when the Sulli Deals episode happened, my father texted me asking me not to do anything that could land me up in such a situation," said Arshi, who lives away from her family. Months later, Arshi found her name in a similar list meant for targeted harassment and misogynistic attack on Muslim women.
Sulli Deals, like Bulli Bai, was a GitHub app that put names and images of Muslim on the page for online bidding. While the probe in Bulli Bai case picked up pace and arrests were made within days, Sulli Deals investigation was indeed sluggish. The first arrest indeed was made on January 9, over five months after the case was registered. The alleged creator of the app, 26-year-old Aumkareshwar Thakur, was arrested from Indore by the Delhi Police.
Arshi's family is not aware of the recent "auction" as of now. And she is not sure how they will react to the news. Her 'rebellious and outspoken' nature worries them, more so in an India which is increasingly polarised along religious lines.
"I come from a conservative Muslim family and they are always worried for my safety," said Arshi. Her brother's advice to her has always been, "Think about your family when you post something on social media."
Like Sidrah, Arshi, too, fears that the online harassment can translate into real life threats.
Just a few weeks ago, Arshi had come under intense attack from right-wing handles on Instagram after she posted about the provocative speech made against Muslims at a religious conclave in Haridwar led by Yati Narsinghanand Giri. Her comments section, and inbox were flooded with abuses. "I have realised this will keep happening. But not speaking up against the wrong and staying away from social media is not an option," she said.
The fact that no visible police action had been taken in the Sulli Deal cases made many of the women targeted in Bulli Bai case more apprehensive about seeking help. However, Sidrah filed an FIR.
"I was apprehensive since I was told by other women that they felt dejected after no action was taken in the case of Sulli Deals," she said. But the moment Sidrah found names of elderly women — including 67-year-old activist Khalida Parveen on the list, she decided it was 'enough'. "There were women of my mother's age who were being auctioned. There was Najeeb's 65-year-old mother on the list. I felt disgusted," she said.
Najeeb is a JNU student who is missing since 2016 from the campus after members of the right-wing student organisation ABVP beat him up. His mother's efforts to find him have yielded no results even after five years of his disappearance.
"They just want to humiliate and harass Muslim women under a well-thought out strategy. For these bigoted trolls, it just has to be that Muslim woman, age no bar," said Sidrah.
Hyderabad-based activist Khalida Parveen, 67, too was put on the auction list. On the list, there were several other elderly women, including writer Rana Safvi and Rakshanda Jalil. Parveen filed a complaint with the Hyderabad Central Crimes Station on Monday. "I would like to draw your attention to the absolutely crass, vile, derogatory and misogynistic language directed at me by using the expression 'bulli bai'. The expression is pejorative, and is directed at harassing me, horribly sexualising me, a senior citizen, and casting aspersions on me, and my character, and the community to which I belong," she said in her complaint.
Women in general are an easy target for trolls on social media but it's hard to ignore the targetted attack on women from the minority community in the recent past.
It started with rating and auctioning of Pakistani women on a YouTube livestream on Eid in May 2021. In the 'live auction', women were rated based on their body parts as they described sexual acts and threats of rape. Two months later, Indian Muslim women were put on auction on GitHub's Sulli Deals app.
'Online Harassment Is Trauma, It Can Lead To PTSD'
While online trolling can damage an individual's self-image and self worth and trigger conditions like depression and anxiety, mental health experts point out to the long-term impacts of such bullying. "It is a traumatic situation for individuals facing online trolling. The trauma of something like being listed for online auction can linger for years together and trigger conditions like Post traumatic Stress Disorder," Snehal Singh, a Bangalore-based psychologist, told BOOM.
Singh explained that survivors of online harassment and trolling are often unable to live in the present moment. "These survivors are either in the past recollecting what all happened or they are thinking about what can go wrong in the future. They are unable to live and enjoy the present moment," she added.
On the question of Bulli Bai app case, she said that while the women were targetted because of their religion, another important part was that these were also "vocal women". "Society in general has had issues with women speaking up. Women who were targeted in Bulli Bai were those who are self-made, determined in their careers and vocal," she said.
To some women, online trolling is a double whammy since their families are already apprehensive about their outspoken nature on social media. It can also act as a trigger for self-censorship. Following the Sulli Deal incident of virtual sexual harassment, some of the Muslim women came together to form WhatsApp groups — where they discussed updates of the police cases they filed and exchanged solidarity. Many of them who were listed on the app got off social media completely. For some of them, online harassment meant families who felt threatened took away many of their freedoms, their phones, and their right to be on social media platforms.
"Online trolling is the extended version of harassment that women have been going through in physical spaces. There is no relief here because the miscreants can track down your location. It becomes a traumatic experience for the survivors," Singh added.
Amnesty International in one of its reports spoke to US writer and feminist Erin Matson who termed the distinction between online and offline as 'false'. "There is an attitude that it's just name calling and the online world is not real and one's feelings getting hurt online is not a real problem. But the online world is real and our offline lives are absolutely integrated with the online space. The idea that we don't need online platforms to survive is false," Matson said in the report.
A study by the Amnesty International showed that 41% of women trolled online felt that their online experiences made them fear for their physical safety. The women, aged between 18 and 55, were surveyed in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA.
Another global study in 2020 that surveyed women across 22 countries, including India, Brazil, Japan, Australia and Canada, suggested that more than half the women they spoke to had faced online abuse, causing mental stress and fear for physical safety. The survey was conducted by Plan International, an independent humanitarian organization, and recorded the online experiences of 14,071 women aged between 15 to 25. The women revealed that they faced online abuse like threats of sexual violence, body shaming, insulting language, abuses, etc. One in three respondents reported experiencing mental and emotional stress, low self-esteem. One in five respondents reported feeling physically unsafe.
Most of the women who were put on auction on 'Bulli Bai' have faced trolling before as well affecting their personal life and mental health. In May 2020, when India was under a strict lockdown owing to Covid-19 pandemic, Sidrah found herself, what she calls a "dark space". She was trolled for speaking up on the harassment of Tablighi Jamaat. The photographs of her son, who is 8 now, were dug out and shared on social media. She was faced online harassment for days after that, often being called names for being a single mother.
"I don't wish that darkness on anyone. I would violently scream at my parents, yell at my son," Sidrah recalled.
But she decided she is not going to get affected by the bullies. Sidrah has been juggling between her responsibilities of personal life and legal formalities to track the people behind the Bulli Bai app.
Another impact of being an "outspoken" Muslim, Sidrah said, has been on friendships and equation with her colleagues in the professional circles. "I have cut-off from my friends who could not speak up against the wrong. It is a lot of emotional labour," said Sidrah adding that she tends to avoid confrontation.
"I was once told that I am a rebel and I can soon be a radical. This remains etched on my memory," said Arshi adding that her opinion on issues comes from her own experiences of being a Muslim woman in India.
What's Happening In The Bulli Bai Case?
On Thursday, the Delhi Police arrested the alleged mastermind of the Bulli Bai app. He has been identified as 21-year-old Neeraj Bishnoi from Assam.
"Neeraj Bishnoi, arrested from Assam by Delhi Police Special Cell's IFSO team, is the main conspirator and creator of 'Bulli Bai' on GitHub and the main Twitter account holder of the app," KPS Malhotra, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations (IFSO) unit said. Neeraj is an engineering student at a Bhopal-based institute.
Before Neeraj, three other people were arrested in connection with the 'online auction' of Muslim women. The cyber cell of Mumbai Police arrested 21-year-old Mayank Rawal, 18-year-old Shweta Singh and another engineering student Vishal Kumar Jha. Mumbai Police had said that Shweta Singh was the mastermind of the plot. Although the police, on record, did not call her the mastermind, media reports did. The police had said that Shweta used social media to post "derogatory photos" and had created a fake account on Twitter which was used to post contents from the app.
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