Muslim women in India are horrified to find themselves ‘auctioned’ on a racist app
Quratulain Rehbar was on a public bus in northern India earlier this month when she was alerted by a friend that her photo had appeared on an app, where it was advertised as being for sale.
At first she was numb, she says, but gradually the pain set in.
“It took me at least two to three hours to process,” she told NBC News in a Jan. 5 phone call.
Rehbar, a 27-year-old journalist, is one of about 100 lawyers, activists and other prominent Muslim women in India whose photos appeared on the app, called Bulli Bai, without their consent. The app, whose name is a derogatory Hindi phrase for Muslim women, encouraged users to bid on women at a fake auction.
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The app was quickly taken down and Rehbar said she deleted her Instagram account and removed her email from Twitter after discovering her photo had been featured. But for many women, the damage was already done. Rehbar said that while she received countless messages of support, there were also unwanted messages from a number of men.
The intention ‘was to sexually harass, dishonour, humiliate and hate women for speaking out against the government’, said Rehbar, from Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that is the subject of a territorial dispute. between India and neighboring Pakistan.
Online harassment is a growing problem in India, with women and girls disproportionately affected, researchers say. A 2020 study of female politicians on Twitter by Amnesty International India found that Muslim women and women outside the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were more prominent targets.
The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, advocates Hindu nationalism, which envisions a state whose policies elevate Hindu faith and culture in defiance of India’s secular constitution. Although tensions between India’s Hindus, who make up about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people, and Muslims, who make up 14%, date back hundreds of years, critics say they intensified under Modi, who came to power in 2014.
While opposition politicians condemned the app, the Modi government remained silent. The Home Office, which includes the Cybersecurity and Information Security Division, did not respond to a request for comment.
The auction app was not the first of its kind. In July, a similar structure was created under the name Sulli Deals, which is also a derogatory term for Muslim women used by right-wing Hindu nationalists.
It’s unclear whether the two apps are related, but the former also put prominent Muslim women on “auction” using photos taken from their social media profiles. The apps were seen as intended to humiliate the women who appeared in them rather than facilitate any actual sales.
Both apps were created on GitHub, an American coding platform owned by Microsoft and used by developers to build and host software. In a Jan. 5 statement, the company said it had “long-standing policies against content and behavior involving harassment, discrimination, and incitement to violence.”
He added that he had “suspended a user account following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies.”
Rehbar said she reported on the first app as a journalist, only to find herself targeted by her successor.
Others like Fatima Zohra Khan, a lawyer and outspoken critic of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata party, have been targeted by both sites. Khan, 26, said she was not surprised a second app emerged, as the first one drew little legal action.
“I don’t trust the establishment to do us justice,” Khan said, adding that she had filed a complaint against Bulli Bai with the Mumbai Police’s cybercrime unit.
Rashmi Karandikar, the deputy commissioner of this unit, said three people – Shweta Singh, 18; Mayank Rawat, 21; and Vishal Kumar, also 21, had been arrested for questioning in connection with the app.
A fourth person, Neeraj Bishnoi, described by Delhi police as the “mastermind and creator” of the app, was also arrested in the northeastern state of Assam. said on Twitter.
Bishnoi’s interrogation led to the first arrest in the Sulli Deals case, Indian news agency ANI reported, citing Delhi police. They accused Aumkareshwar Thakur, arrested on January 9 in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, of writing codes for the app.
All of those arrested remain in custody and could not be reached for comment.
Ismat Ara, another person targeted by Bulli Bai, called the app a “conspiracy against Muslim women”.
Ara, 23, a Muslim journalist who frequently criticizes both the government and India’s Hindu nationalist movement, said there had been “a growing trend of hate crimes against Muslims, particularly in recent years”.
But the problem goes beyond Hindu nationalism, she said.
“If the culprits get away with it, nothing can stop this,” she added. “So it’s not just Muslim women, but all women in the country who can be targeted.”