The Muslim women targeted by Bulli Bai, a vile app created (now removed) in a bid to ‘auction’ them, secured some hope in an otherwise somber situation when police made multiple arrests in the case in what seems like a significant breakthrough. A 21-year-old engineering student Vishal Jha from Bengaluru was first apprehended by Mumbai police on Tuesday in the days after the harassment first came to light on January 1, marking a grey New Year’s.
A woman from Uttarakhand, identified as 18-year-old Shweta Singh, was also subsequently arrested and is being named as the “mastermind” behind the app by investigators in the case. One more student, on whom details are presently limited, is being held by Mumbai police. Read more here. Meanwhile, Delhi police have written to GitHub, the open-source platform that hosted the app, and Twitter seeking information on ‘Bulli Bai.’
“I was numb and angry when I came to know my name was on that app,” The Wire journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani tells SheThePeople over a call. “I am being made to feel such humiliation and degradation. There is so much happening in such short time that I didn’t know how to react to this.” She makes a reference to the recent Haridwar conclave that had political leaders allegedly deliver public hate speeches against the Muslim community.
‘Auction’ harassment of women from India’s minority community, particularly against those who are vocal and confident online, is not the first of its kind. It is, in fact, the fourth such incident to occur within a span of one year. The first was a livestream on YouTube in May 2020; the second was ‘Bulli Bai’s predecessor app called ‘Sulli Deals‘; the third was a similar ‘auction’ hosted on a Clubhouse chat room.
Survivors of such abuse say they have received no solid word on the status of the probe in the earlier matter till date, six months on.
Social media user Sania Ahmad who was, unfortunately, a target for perpetrators during both the ‘auction’ apps, tells us, “In the case filed in May, they closed the file without informing us. In the others, authorities said they have reached a dead-end and nothing can be done… It was a half-hearted attempt at pretending to look into it simply because it became a big issue.”
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Other survivors we spoke to revealed their first reactions at seeing their own morphed pictures staring back at them on an app that described them as the ‘Bulli Bai of the day.’ Journalist Arshi Qureshi, like Sherwani, recalls going numb. She didn’t know “how to process it,” she says to SheThePeople. When the ‘auction’ controversy surfaced last year, Qureshi’s father messaged her, asking her not to “speak up so much” in the public domain.
Khushboo Khan, another journalist targeted by the ‘Bulli Bai’ app, says many of the women listed for ‘auction’ are outspoken on social media, have used the internet to amplify causes, talk about Shaheen Bagh and other protests, and are independent. “It’s happening because they want to suppress the voice of vocal Indian Muslim women,” she tells us.
Sherwani weighs in saying that the whole purpose behind such targeted abuse and vilification of Muslim women is so “people get used to it and start living with hatred and insecurity.” It may lead to the depletion altogether of young, fiercely forthright women raising social issues from the public space.Streets have notoriously been unsafe for women. With the acceleration of the digital age in the past decade, there was hope that the internet will become a vehicle for mainstreaming equality and afford space for even the most marginalised, oppressed communities to make themselves heard.
While social media does come across as a free, liberated platform that is used to drive change, and has proved its position as so, the darker side of it allows for and enables hate to flourish under the jurisdiction of loose safety and hate speech guidelines. This too is proved every single day.
For women like Sherwani, whose profession requires her to be politically and socially vocal on Twitter where she has a wide following, such communal abuse is a daily exercise. Even so, even a “hardened” journalist like her, she says, was affected by the ‘Bulli Bai’ harassment. She chose to withhold it from her family.
The episode led Sherwani to ponder on whether this kind of harassment bears any real-life dangers or whether it is all part of psychological warfare. “The whole agenda is to patronise Muslim women and demonise Muslim men,” she says.
Ahmad adds such abuse doesn’t just target vocal women, “you are also indirectly trying to send a message to the community as a whole that if you speak up or are taking a stand against us, this is what we can reduce you to. This is how we can ‘auction’ your women.”
Muslim women in recent years have become the face of protests across India.
Most prominently during the Anti-CAA-NRC protests, the epicentre of which was the women-led sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, Muslim women leaders emerged at the forefront of the agitation against a hate-fuelled atmosphere. Many also stood in support with the year-long Sikh-dominated farmers’ protest that sought a repeal of the centre’s controversial farm laws.
Screenshots from the ‘Bulli Bai’ app show there was text displayed in the Punjabi language, with police calling it an attempt to misdirect accusations against the Sikh community. As per reports, police are probing a link to political or other organisations in the ‘Bulli Bai’ case; more here.
Hasiba Amin of the Indian National Congress (INC), who was targeted on both ‘auction’ apps, tells us the “lack of political will” prevented investigation in the last ‘auction’ case from proceeding positively, as a result of which the ‘Bulli Bai’ harassment surfaced.
On the recent arrests made by the Mumbai police, she adds, “I’m sure that the fact that action has been taken will act as a deterrent but this won’t be the end of it. This is also a reflection of our society… we have become a society that hates women, Muslims and other minorities. What have we turned into?”
“Trolling has moved into the realm of sexual harassment because of impunity. And who can say that these attacks won’t become physical someday? How do we know we are safe in this country?”