Hana Mohsin Khan says she knows why she was targeted on a website that appeared to offer her for sale.
“(It’s) because of my religion. Because I am Muslim,” she said.
In early July, the 32-year-old pilot and proud feminist was among more than 80 Muslim women – journalists, writers and influencers – whose photos were posted on a mock app called Sulli Deals, a derogatory term for Muslim women typically used by right-wing Hindu men.
Users were offered a chance to “buy” the women like commodities in an auction – and while the women weren’t actually for sale, they say it left them scared, traumatized and angry.
Two months later, the site has been taken down by US-based platform GitHub, but the women are still angry none its creators have been detained or arrested. They say the lack of action highlights the discrimination Muslim women face in Hindu-dominated India, where outspoken advocates of women’s rights are singled out for attack on social media.
They say they won’t be silenced.
Khan’s complaint is one of at least four filed with Indian police by victims, opposition lawmakers and activists. Praveen Duggal, a senior official for Delhi police, confirmed India’s cyber cell unit is investigating the complaints, but said he could not share any further details because it was a “sealed matter.”
India has laws targeting cyber crime, but it doesn’t have a specific legislation against cyber bullying, despite a surge in abuse directed at Indian women.
Khan and other feminist activists say they are being targeted by men hiding behind handles on social media, who are attempting to intimidate them – and Indian authorities aren’t doing enough to stop it.
Calling out gender inequality
Besides their religion, one thing the women share is their strong view on gender rights in India.
By most global measures, the country performs poorly on gender equality. Fewer than a quarter of Indian women are in the labor market, and even then they earn about 20% of a man’s wage, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 report.
Violence against women remains a problem, with more than one in four women abused or controlled by her partner during her lifetime, the report added.
No explicit threats of violence were made against the women on the Sulli Deals app, but they say the publication of their Twitter handles with photos copied from their social media accounts was an invitation for abuse.
Khan has 15,000 followers on Twitter and regularly receives hateful comments – primarily from men. She said the volume increased after her photo appeared on the app.
“Men are threatened by women who are assertive in our country,” she said. “And vocal, outspoken Muslim women are the biggest level of threat in their eyes.”
Of India’s 580 million women, approximately 6.5% are Muslim, according to the most recent government census conducted in 2011.
After the “auction” photos went viral on social media, 21 of the women joined a WhatsApp group one of them created for mutual support, including poet Nabiya Khan.
Nabiya Khan regularly posts her prose to Twitter to amplify the voices of marginalized people in India, which she believes caught the attention of the Sulli Deals trolls.
“Men think sexual violence is a valid punishment (for being an outspoken woman),” said Nabiya Khan, who is no relation to Hana Mohsin Khan.
She has also lodged a complaint with police but says she hasn’t heard anything.
“I was expecting that my complaint would be met with dignity but seeing that no step has been taken in the direction of justice, it just makes me angry,” she said.
The women say the online abuse is indicative of the mood towards Muslims in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
In recent years, reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased and several BJP-ruled states have passed legislation that critics say has contributed to a rise in religious polarization.
For example, in 2019, India’s parliament passed a bill that would give immigrants from three neighboring countries a pathway to citizenship – except for Muslims.
Anti-Muslim bias is also present in the police force, according to a survey of about 12,000 police officers. The 2019 Status of Policing in India report found about half of the Indian police surveyed thought Muslims were “naturally prone” towards committing crime.
Zakia Soman, a social activist and founder of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, said prejudice was also apparent online, where attacks against Muslim women had escalated in recent years.
“You have paid bots on social media who target women, journalists or anyone who is dissenting in this country,” Soman said.
“These conservative and radical (people) are obsessed with women’s sexuality. And if it is women from another community, it becomes bestial. You are talking about auctioning women like cattle. It shows a medieval mindset.”
Online trolling of women in India
Cyber abuse is a major problem in India, particularly against women.