On the evening of January 1, 2022, Ismat Ara, a journalist with The Wire, tweeted, “It is very sad that as a Muslim woman you have to start your new year with this sense of fear and disgust. Of course it goes without saying that I am not the only one being targeted in this new version of #sullideals…Happy New Year.” With the tweet was attached a screenshot that carried her morphed photograph under the title ‘Your Bulli Bai of the day is’. Her Twitter handle was attached below the photograph.
The new year brought horror and disgust for more than 100 Muslim women who were auctioned on the online application ‘Bulli Bai‘. While no actual sales were carried, personal information of women was posted on the app without their consent. Many notable Muslim women found their names enlisted in the virtual auction; from the famous actress Shabana Azmi to journalists of grit like Ismat Ara to many path-breaking activists, feminists, and even the 65-year-old mother of Najeeb Ahmed, who went missing from JNU in 2016. Following the widespread protests, the application was taken down from its host GitHub, a Microsoft-owned open software development site. Twitter reportedly suspended an account which had the same name as the app and was sharing links hosted by the app.
According to the latest reports, Mumbai Police has detained Vishal Jha, a 21-year-old in Bengaluru who is suspected to be a co-accused as well as a woman from Uttarakhand who has been detained under the suspicion of being a main accused in the case.
Fatima Khan, a journalist, has also been targeted by the hate-inflicting application. She tweeted, “The collective anger of Muslim women you’re witnessing on your timelines today comes from a place of deep anguish – of being exoticized, demonised, and patronised, all at once. Experiences ranging from being constantly talked down upon, to being sold online. #BulliDeals.” She sums up the anguish and pain the online auction brought her and many others.
Bulli Bai is the second attempt at auctioning Muslim women online in less than a year. July 2021 witnessed a similar attack under the name of ‘Sulli Deals‘ that had auctioned approximately 80 Muslim women virtually. Complaints raised by the aggrieved women back then yielded no results or strong police investigation. This lackadaisical approach towards investigation has been rightfully pointed by many as the reason why this attack on Muslim women was repeated.
Bulli Bai, the online application that put up Muslim women for auction, was developed on the Microsoft-owned open development site GitHub. The application would make available morphed photographs of the women, taken from their social media pages without their permission, and encourage its audience to bid and comment. The profile that would garner the highest bid earned the title of “Bulli of the Day”. The photograph of the selected woman would appear on the app under the title “Your Bulli Bai of the day is” and the link to her Twitter account would be made available.
Khushboo Khan on a Twitter thread revealed how this was the fourth incident at publicly auctioning Muslim women. The first reported incident occurred when a YouTube account ‘Liberal Doge’ auctioned Muslim women on a live telecast. The second incident was the ‘Sulli Deals’, the third was when a clubhouse group hosted a private conversation where the women were auctioned and the fourth in the series was ‘Bulli Bai’. The recurring auctions are a taunt to the idea of equality and feminism in a nation that does not seem to accept vocal women of marginalised minority communities.
A Dangerous Cocktail Of Islamophobia And Misogyny
The incident of this virtual auction is a targeted attack on Muslim women, on account of them as belonging to a largely prosecuted religious minority community in India. The hyper-masculinisation and the glorification of the Hindutva forces defined nationalism that otherises and villainises the Muslim minority is a primary reason that Muslim women’s dignity gets exploited. The bodies of Muslim women become sites of communal tensions, in how an attack on Muslim women is also seen as an act of emasculation of the Muslim man. The intersection of her identity as a woman as well as a Muslim makes her doubly oppressed in an India fuelled by Hindutva majoritarian politics. A public spectacle is an act of threatening minority women while belittling the men of their community as men traditionally assume the role of protectors.
‘Bulli/Sulli’ are derogatory terms used for Muslim women. It should also be noted that the targeted women are not merely passive objects of society. They are vocal citizens who raise their voices against political and social wrongdoings. Putting up such women for auction reaffirms the belief that the society finds it hard to tolerate women with strong opinions and articulate voices. And if they belong to a marginalised minority, then their identity has to conform to that of a woman who is scared and not outspoken.
The Underlying Patriarchy
The targeted women made a social appeal asking for an extention of solidarity towards them, but what they got in return were suggestions of silencing (or at least toning down) their voices and removing their profile pictures, some from Muslim men. Quratulain Rehbar, in a reply to one such tweet, writes, “By asking women not to keep her photo as her DP won’t change anything…not only pictures but Twitter handles have been tagged in GitHub. So they know who you are.” This internalised misogyny normalised by many of us evidently shames the survivors for taking up space by asserting their opinions or sharing their pictures on the Internet, instead of driving sources towards finding the perpetrators.
In the Hindutva majority India we live in, the constant fear of being stalked and watched increases for women from marginalised communities. These virtual auctions were organized as an attempt to silence these women. It is almost as if the male-ego of the majority has been wounded by the voice of Muslim women.
It is not a coincidence that these misogynistic attacks have only increased along with the cases of lynching, communal hatred, political marginalisation and social boycott. The hatred that is being fed at a constant dosage encourages its subjects to cross the boundary of decency and shock society. Most often than not, they commit such acts to garner attention, but the means of them getting attention reflects a psychology that is both dangerous for them and the ones that are being targetted. As a non-Muslim woman, I write this article in complete empathy and as an extention of solidarity to the Muslim women who are constantly othered and whose loud of voices of dissent evidently unsettle Hindutva forces of the country on a regular basis.
The struggles of women must not be broadly concentrated under one umbrella, but their experiences do reek of similarities. Women are victims of patriarchy; the women of minority sections bear the brunt much worse. In a fanatic socio-religious war amongst the men of both communities, women become pawns of the assertion of their masculine might. The woman becomes a commodity that can be auctioned off and ridiculed to make their men suffer. Bulli Bai unveils the rotting nexus of patriarchy, politics and religion, hollowing the roots of society and needs to be addressed immediately to prevent further moral blows to the conscience of this nation.
Featured Image Credit: Arpita Biswas/Feminism in India