Women Abused, Stalked, ‘Auctioned’ Online On Eid. But They're Refusing To Be Silenced.

In India and Pakistan, women harassed on Eid, photo-by-photo. Horrific incident lays bare the regressiveness in mindset and cyber safety law.

Tanvi Akhauri
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Women harassed on Eid, with their photos publicly and sexually maligned, abused, even 'auctioned', declare they have had enough. They seek to drag their harassers down the legal road. Here, we speak to some survivors about what happened and social media experts weigh in on the way ahead. 

"It's just one day - we're happy, we dress up, post pictures. But hardly anyone did that this year. There was no joy," social media user Sania Ahmad tells us. May 15 this year marked the occasion of Eid al-Fitr in India. Pakistan celebrated a day earlier. On social media, the mood was anything but festive on either side of the border.

This sobriety was not brought on by the murderous pandemic or political incompetence. It was triggered by something keenly familiar to women. Something they hoped will spare them at least on the day of celebration. What they feared, however, came attacking with an intensity one couldn't have fathomed.

(Trigger warning: The following contains personal stories of communal abuse, suggestions of sexual violence and account handles comprising gender slurs, that may be disturbing to some. Reader discretion is advised.) 

On May 14, a section of social media users from Pakistan sounded the alarm over some Indian men "rating" and "auctioning off" women online basis the Eid photos they were sharing. A Twitter handle @keshu_10 and one YouTuber Ritesh Kumar Jha were reportedly identified and prominently named for allegedly leading the clarion call for online harassment of Muslim women.

Clips from a live stream Jha hosted on his YouTube channel 'Liberal Doge' around the same subject have gone viral on social media. In it, the two accused can be heard "rating" a woman's video, zooming focus on everything from her features to makeup. As of May 16, accounts of both accused do not exist on Twitter anymore and the 'Liberal Doge' YouTube channel (with over 80,000 subscribers) doesn't platform a video of the live stream in question.

The video could not independently be verified by SheThePeople. 

As Eid neared its close in Pakistan, word had spread online of the disturbing trend perpetrated by some men in India. It led to many women withholding their Eid photos on social media for fear of being violated by "rating." They urged netizens to report Keshu and Liberal Doge's accounts on Twitter, amid wide condemnation for the two perpetrators and their many supporters, who were simultaneously running an 'I am with Liberal Doge' hashtag trend.

As India awoke to Eid the next day, a second sordid round of targeted harassment was unleashed.

 Hasiba Amin, National Coordinator for Indian National Congress’ social media, was earmarked by the abusers. "They 'auctioned' me that day. Disgusting objectification of me in order to 'place bids' accordingly. I got to know later this was an extension of a YouTube live stream from a day ago. On Twitter, it was being dubbed 'husna pe charcha'. People found out the Liberal Doge account apparently does these videos for entertainment and then raises money for sustenance. A payment account listed named Ritesh Jha, which is how people came to know the person behind all this. He has been doing this for a long time now." 

women harassed on eid Netizens outrage, in different ways, after women harassed on Eid; Screengrab: Twitter

Social media users alleged that the main accused in question have been repeat defaulters, peddling hyper-Islamophobic and misogynistic narratives online via WhatsApp groups and live streams. A Twitter thread of call recordings, allegedly featuring Jha, captures him purportedly admitting to "roasting" Muslim women, including the likes of activists like Safoora Zargar, on his YouTube channel. The said calls could not independently be verified by us.

Amin notes that Jha's address is listed in Gurugram, Haryana. However, some netizens seem to have traced his whereabouts to Jharkhand.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, on May 14, directed the state police to investigate and take strict action in the matter. Jaunpur Police, meanwhile, too have taken cognisance of the matter in view of Keshu's (now-removed) account having listed their address in the Uttar Pradesh city.

SheThePeople has reached out to both Twitter and YouTube executives with regard to this case. The story will be updated when responses are received.

Women Harassed On Eid, Photo-By-Photo. Incident Casts A Pall On Cyber Safety Lax

A cyber-attack of this force is not something survivors are unfamiliar with. Harassment of women online spans the whole board, but the ferocity of it is exponentially more when minority or marginalised identities are at the receiving end of it.

Trisha Prabhu, a 20-year-old United States-based entrepreneur recently listed in Forbes' 30 under 30 and inventor of the ReThink app that aims to create safer online spaces, tells SheThePeople in an interview, "Between women and men, women are the most disproportionately cyberbullied... As per research, on Twitter, a threatening message is sent out every second to a woman. Just being a member of a marginalised community, a woman, or a minority already means you're going to have a tougher digital experience. That only makes the need to tackle cyberbullying more pressing."

Ahmad tells us she was subjected to similar "auctioning" harassment even in 2020.

"Ever since I joined Twitter, I have constantly faced abuse. Last year, I came across an account @sullideals101. 'Sulli' is a common derogatory term used for Muslim women and also a way to evade social media platforms' community guidelines. This guy was inviting bids on Pakistani women. I reported his account, as asked everyone to too. I filed a complaint with the cyber cell too. No action was taken against him. Instead, he then put up my pictures and name for 'auction'... All his followers began harassing me. And he's still around a year later," she says.

Ahmad tells us she has gone off Twitter for a bit after this year's Eid incident. "It was too triggering."

This year, harassers aggressively lurked around Amin's account. "A few days ago I asked on Twitter whether it was possible for citizens to cut off the lower part of their COVID-19 vaccination certificates. That prompted extremely Islamophobic and sexist reactions from people. They began putting my remark in the perspective of circumcision, abusing my family, etc. Around Eid, these men brought notice to my account again, invoking @sullideals101 to 'auction' me," she says.

Amin has relentlessly called out these abusive threats. She brought notice to a collage that placed photos of Ahmad and Saniya Sayed, writer, together with men vilely remarking, "Getting confused over which one to sleep with tonight." Horrifically, one Twitter account even incited sexual violence against Muslim women, referencing Asifa Bano, the 8-year-old victim of the 2018 Kathua rape case.

Though Silicon Valley giants boast of seemingly complex and corrective safety policies that claim to make the social media universe smoother for users, are they at all effective? Will hate speech guidelines, aimed at protecting persecuted communities and preventing potential offences, prove useful if they function selectively? What gravity of crime will compel big tech to stand up, take note, and more importantly, take accountability?

Prabhu believes younger and diverse voices at the creating end are imperative in leading the endeavour to make the internet safe. "The internet has democratised power. People who want to keep certain power structures in place - women subordinate to men - are scared that this power has been democratised. The tech space today is so male-dominated, we don't see women and women of colour, of different backgrounds. So how can we build technology that can speak to all people and is inclusive? A big part of it is going to be transforming the workforce."

Are women's voices reaching Silicon Valley multi-billionaires through their wealth-proofed walls?

"Just filing FIRs and complaints will not help. We cannot keep running after individual cases," Ahmad adds. "It is the responsibility of Twitter as a platform to ensure that women across ideologies are not subjected to this. Twitter should take action against these accounts. The onus should not be on us. Hasiba and I, with the help of lawyer Anas Tanwir, have decided to send a legal notice to Twitter."

Sexual harassment and cyberbullying are nearly everyday affairs if one is not a man on the internet. Offline, of course, the problem has persisted for much longer. Women are crying themselves hoarse over this routine gender violence that eventuates every time they speak up for rights, justice and equality. But to what avail will their efforts be if they are fighting the fight alone as an isolated population? If they're up against human, cultural and technological oppression all at once? Amending the normative status quo is never easy. But must it demand from women the cost of their dignity?

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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