Trigger warning: This article has graphic depictions and mentions of sexual and emotional violence.
Months before anyone had ever heard of 'Sulli Deal', in November 2020, Saniya Syed woke up to a notification of a Twitter poll that asked, "Which one will you choose for your harem?" The options were: Saniya or Sania. Both the Muslim women, in their 20s, were tagged on the poll. "I was shocked; there were at least 100 votes on it," she said.
The screenplay writer from Mumbai reported the account and it was soon suspended on Twitter.
This was just the beginning. Days after that, Saniya faced harassment by anonymous Twitter accounts— that started DMing her, sharing her morphed photos and personal details. Miles away from her, Sania Ahmad, in Delhi, faced similar harassment. And then, in July 2021, both of them were put up for auction on an app called "Sulli Deals". The app hosted on Github - publicly listed names and photos of Indian Muslim women - asking the audience to pick their 'Sulli of the Day'.
Months after cases were filed in different states and Github took down the app, on the first day of this year, Saniya Syed and Sania Ahmad were listed for auction on yet another Github app called 'Bulli Bai'. Hundreds of Muslim women - journalists, activists and many others who are vocal on social media were listed — with their photos.
"Right-wingers would often abuse me for my views on social media. But this was different. This was beyond abuse. This was sexual harassment done in the most vile way," Saniya said.
Following the Twitter poll, more accounts started cropping up that tagged Saniya and abused her. There were also threats of physical and sexual violence. Then, one day, she started getting DMs and being added to groups. In those groups, the anonymous handle would share her morphed photos — photos of naked women with her face on them. "They used dirty slangs — 'Let's rape this girl…suck her…' it was disgusting," Saniya recollected.
Saniya said she didn't exit the group because she knew it would happen again. "I am glad that I had a supportive family because this was taking a toll on me," she said.
Saniya and her friends would report one account, it would get suspended and then one more would crop up the next day. "They were relentless," she said. The Twitter accounts would be made with different names and identities. "Some of these handles were made with fake Muslim identities, it was so obvious," she added.
Sania said that that there was an organised attempt to blame a Muslim youth for creating the 'Sulli Deal' app.
Around the time when the Sulli Deals app came to light, a Twitter handle @sullideals was created that shared photos of Muslim girls generated by the app on GitHub. The bio of this account read, "'Community driven, Open source project by Hindu Trads".
Twice before the Sulli Deals incident, Saniya's morphed photos were shared on Twitter. She said it was the same group of 'Hindu Trads' that would abuse her on social media for nearly a year. "Their conversations are not the usual right-wing stuff; they would use casteist slurs, glorify extremism and call for the killing of Muslims openly," she said.
Before Muslim women were auctioned on the Github app, in May 13, 2021, on the day of Eid, two accounts — @LiberalDogeReal and @Keshu__10 started a live stream on YouTube called 'Eid Special' where they 'rated' and 'auctioned' Pakistani and Indian Muslim women. The channel had 87,000 subscribers. They shared photos of several women, laced with sexist and Islamophobic language. In the 'live auction', women were rated based on their body parts as they described sexual acts and threats of rape.
The women in the pictures had dressed up on the occasion of Eid.
"Eid is the day when we dress up, we want to share our photos. But they scared us — now I think multiple times before posting a photo on social media," Saniya said.
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.
An investigation by Newslaundry had revealed that the person behind the Liberal Doge account is Ritesh Kumar Jha, a tech-savvy 23-year-old individual from Bihar. Jha runs a number of Telegram channels under the pseudonym LiberalDoge, where users shared Islamophobic content. BOOM reached out to Jha, who declined to comment, and claimed to not know anything about Liberal Doge.
At least three cases were filed and two FIRs registered after the Sulli Deal incident - in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. But no arrests were made. Some of the complainants said that they didn't even receive a copy of the charge sheet.
All lies @DelhiPolice! you have never provided me a copy of FIR registered on my complaint dt 12/07/21 against the violation of my dignity and crimes committed against me re. Sulli Deals. I am still waiting for it. It's been 5 months already. What action will you take this time? https://t.co/I8LZP4XzCa— Nabiya Khan | نبیہ خان (@NabiyaKhan11) January 1, 2022
"It has been weeks now since the "Sulli Deals" episode of virtual sexual harassment. Despite top authorities getting involved and promises of investigation; there have been no arrests at all. This casual approach is exactly what gives these harassers the pass to be fearless," Saniya had tweeted in July. Although she didn't file a case, as there were already multiple cases filed, she was getting constant updates from her friends who had.
"I had seen Sania run around trying to file a police complaint. It didn't help. I had no hope and I still don't have any. If the police wanted to do something they would have- they had enough evidence," she said
The comments on the Twitter poll from November 2020 where Sania Ahmad was also tagged are etched in her memory. One of the comments read, "why do you want to add them to the harem, make Asifa out of them, chop off their heads to decorate your walls".
"It had started much before Sulli Deal," she said. These same Twitter handles had created a group called - 'Sania's milk' and added both Saniya and Sania to it along with scores of strangers. There, they shared morphed photos of them.
Sania filed complaints with the Delhi police twice in 2020, but no FIR was registered. "I have been going through this for two years. I was constantly reporting those graphic photos, I sent a legal notice to Twitter, I reached out to the National Commission For Women (NCW) - I knew nothing was going to happen, nothing did."
She had collected over 500 screenshots and archived links that targetted Muslim women. But the Delhi police, she said, didn't understand what archived links are and instead 'slut shamed' her.
Despite the outrage on 'Sulli Deal' and just months before 'Bulli Bai', Saniya's morphed photos were shared on Twitter, again. This time, on the account's timeline where all her friends were tagged too. "All this while my morphed photos were being shared on DMs and I was scared that they would put it out on their timelines and that's what they did." Yet another anonymous Twitter account shared her morphed photos, tagging her friends.
"I avoid using social media. Even if I don't share new photos, they will take from my DP. If they have one photo that's enough for them. I can't do anything about it till the police take action," she said. The 28-year-old believes that the Github app makers, the Twitter accounts and the ones that did the YouTube live — all belong to the same group.
"In this country, women were put up on bid. They were reduced to meat. Even after so many complaints, nothing happened. It only tells you there's a reluctance to take action," the media professional in Delhi said.
The Mumbai police have meanwhile detained a 21-year-old Bengaluru man in connection with the 'Bulli Bai' case.
"There's so much that trauma and victim shaming that one goes through," she said. In a Twitter thread, Sania wrote, "I have finally realized that after 2 years of continuous harassment as means of intimidation, I feel nothing this time after seeing my picture there. Stone cold. No trauma, no fear, nothing. I feel nothing...What I do feel on behalf of all my sisters who are having to go through this though, is rage. How dare you?"
"There is no consequence, there is no accountability," Saniya said.
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