This blog is written by Ramsha Hashmi, student of Tamil Nadu National Law University, India. Ramsha’s research interests include gender, communalism, religious studies.
There was a collective sense of anger and disbelief when we first heard of Sulli Deals in July 2021. An app that puts Indian Muslim women for sale; however, there was no real sale, the purpose of the app was simply to humiliate the women featured on the list. These women were primarily journalists and activists, and other women in the public eye.
The collective outrage against this activity from people all across the political spectrum provided a certain sense of relief to me as an Indian Muslim woman, however it was fairly short-lived. On the first day of the new year, several prominent women woke up to their photos in the app “Bulli Bai”, being auctioned off for sale from the likes of actress Shabana Azmi and Malala Yousafzai to various journalists, activists, and politicians. Bulli and Sulli are both derogatory slangs for Muslim women, these apps created by two young men who identified themselves to be from Trad communities.
As the collective anger stands against the creators of this app, these apps speak to a larger issue. This is merely a symptom of a larger problem; the use of Indian women as a pawn in communalism. Communalism is blind allegiance to one’s religion and community, made extreme with the immense hatred towards any other religion but our own.. It is a tool for or against mobilising people by appealing to religious sentiments. Communalism is the most polarising manifestation of dogmatism and religious fundamentalism.
In India, the problem of communalism is nothing new. Dating as far back as August 1893 the first major communal riots took place in Mumbai resulting in about a hundred people being killed and 800 injured. The period between 1921 and 1940 marked an immense growth in communal violence, the 1926 Muharram celebrations in Calcutta being a prime example. This issue of communalism was only exacerbated by the partition of India, with increased sentiments of hatred between Hindu and Muslim communities and a decades-long worth of blame game for the violence that ensued in that period.
Women have always been perceived as a tool in war. Violence against women is commonplace in conflict and war and often used as a way to symbolically humiliate the men of the same community or group. The connotation in rape is not just dominance over the woman, but also a way to emasculate the men of her community, showing that he is incapable of protecting her. Woman is a possession, damaging her is a retaliation.
This theme is overbearingly visible in India’s current political climate, when the chants of “Hindu Khatre mein hai”(the Hindu is in danger) are louder than ever; the response to which is snatching away the agency of Hindu women through the love jihad bill. This law was enacted in response to the perceived threat of “love jihad,” a term commonly used by Hindutva political leaders to describe interfaith relationships and marriages. The ordinance makes it a crime to convert another person through coercion, misrepresentation, fraud, and other means.
That in and of itself is not objectionable. However, it grossly violates the right to freedom of conscience and the fundamental right to practise religion guaranteed by Article 25, as well as the right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21. This law operates on the presumption of exclusion, and even reinforces it. It assumes that some segments of the Indian population must be excluded and “othered,” reinforcing the notion of communalism as a desirable end in itself.
To make matters worse, it thrives on and perpetuates the emotion of fear: through such ordinances, laws, and policies, certain people are effectively told that transgression will result in criminal sanction and ostracism.
Earlier a fringe extremist ideology, the islamophobia and communalism has been brought to the mainstream in the ever devolving state of affairs in the nation. Inter-faith couples throughout the nation are fleeing unlawful religious conversion laws in the context of marriage. The extremist Hindutva ideology propagates the conspiracy that Muslim women are wooing Hindu women to forcefully convert them to Islam.
In a country where most unions are arranged, a love marriage is a rarity, and an interfaith one is not only astronomically rare, but also increasingly dangerous. The 18 year old Hindu girl and 25-year old Muslim man went to court on 30th November to submit an application for marriage, but was surprisingly confronted and picked up from the court by her father who had been ‘informed’ about his daughter’s whereabouts. A few days later, the same woman files a police complaint against the man she was going to marry alleging that he raped, abused, and threatened her as well as asked her to change her religion. Instantly, he was booked under the ‘love jihad’ laws.
Bajrang Dal’s coordinator informed the press that he found out the woman was planning to marry a Hindu man and they “intervened”. He also boasted that “When a woman puts her foot outside her house without her father’s permission, the Bajrang Dal comes in the picture,”
“Hum inko (Muslims) jihad failane nai denge. (We will not let Muslims spread jihad),” he said. “Thanks to this law, we can operate freely. We hope that all 20 BJP-ruled states bring this law for the protection of Hindutva.”
The infringement on the freedom and agency of women in the name of religion and protection depicts the extent to which women have been turned into mere weapons in this propagation of the communal agenda. These torch bearers of religion have been allowed to rampantly propagate and practice their divisive policy, the subjugation of women being a cherry on top.
The importance of woman’s honour in Indian society has always been a tool of maintaining social order. A woman’s honour is considered not just to be hers, but her entire family and her community. Hence, when there is an attack on a community, a woman’s honour is under attack too. In 2021, an app by the name of Sulli Deals was made with this very intention where hundreds of Muslim women’s photos were posted, putting them on “auction”. In 2022, we saw an identical app by the name Bulli Bai.
“The sheer humiliation of being put up for ‘sale’ and called a ‘Bulli Bai’ is hard to describe in words” said entrepreneur and activist Amina Kauser.
As a Muslim woman, this sunk my heart. Islamophobia was nothing new in this country, however this made me petrified, scared for my own safety and my place as an Indian citizen and, more importantly, an Indian woman. It is our culture to treat women like goddesses, our mothers and sisters promised Raksha as an integral part of our society, that is the India I grew up in. But does my faith mean I do not deserve the respect and Raksha anymore? These women who were put up on auction had their pictures taken from their social media without their knowledge and consent. I deleted all my social media profiles.
Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Persons of Minorities, acknowledged the unique vulnerability that vocal minority women face. He took to Twitter this week to say that the international community was keeping a close eye on how trends like #bullibai and its earlier version #sullideals, which aim to humiliate and threaten minority Muslim women in India, were becoming normalised.
From telling women that they cannot wear hijabs to telling them who they can and cannot marry, the agency and autonomy of women in India is under threat. It is no more a question of religious partisanship, but a matter of basic freedom and human rights. Women being used as shields in this war of politics and radicalisation is setting women’s liberation in India back by hundreds of years.
Women have always been considered “the second sex”. “What is woman?” asks Beauvoir.
She claims that men are regarded as the default, whereas women are regarded as the “other”, thus “…humanity is male and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him.” This sentiment echoes loudest in times of polarisation and war. However, it is time for India to see her for her, and not just another pawn in this mindless struggle for religious supremacy.