NEW DELHI: Delhi police on Saturday said they were investigating online harassment involving hundreds of Muslim women, who were put up “for sale” on a now-defunct app and website titled “Sulli Deals,” many of whom also received rape and death threats.
The women, active on social media platforms such as Twitter, found their profile pictures displayed on GitHub, a web platform that hosted the open-source app, as the “Sulli Deal of the day,” offering people the chance to “bid” on them in a mock auction.
GitHub immediately shut down the website for “violating its policies,” but several of the women say the app’s purpose was to degrade and humiliate them.
The term “sulli” is a derogatory slur for Muslim women in India, commonly used by Hindu nationalists.
On Thursday, Delhi police registered a case against “unknown persons” under IPC Section 354A (concerning sexual harassment) over a complaint received through the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal after the Delhi Commission for Women raised the matter.
“We have lodged a case on this issue, and we are now investigating,” Delhi police spokesperson Chinmoy Biswal told Arab News on Saturday.
Many whose pictures were uploaded on the site are prominent, vocal Muslim women, including researchers, pilots, journalists, and artists.
However, despite their prominence, several said they doubted the police would do enough to find and charge the perpetrators.
“If one goes by experience, then I don’t think any action would be taken against the perpetrators,” Nabiya Khan, a Delhi-based poet and writer, told Arab News.
“I am exploring legal action against these men and perpetrators. I hope to get justice. I hope my complaint is not met with animosity but dignity,” she added.
Khan said she is still being harassed online “day in and day out, with people sending all kinds of pictures and pornography to me.”
Commercial pilot Hana Mohsin Khan, whose photo was also uploaded, said she is seeking closure and justice in the case, especially since “traumatized women’s concerns have to be addressed.
“Not everyone is strong, and there are many women who are traumatized after the experience,” she told Arab News.
“We should make sure that those people who are harassing are behind bars; only then will (the victims) have closure. If we don’t do that, they would be permanently traumatized.”
Mohsin Khan said she only heard about the case when a friend shared a link to a tweet that took her to an image of hers being featured on the site.
“I did not understand (what it meant) in the beginning. When I clicked on it, random girls’ pictures came, and on the fourth click, my name came, it said ‘Sulli Deals of the day’ and ‘click here to share on Twitter.’ I have never been so angry in my life.
“That anger has been constant,” she added, saying she immediately filed a complaint with the police. “I did not want these guys to get off scot free.”
Media professional Sania Ahmed said she tried to confront the men responsible for harassing the women “despite the constant threat” she faces from them.
“When I raised the issue with guys who were doing it, they started harassing me, threatening me with rape and all. The (person operating the) unknown account was not scared of any exposure, and the account kept on harassing by changing names,” she said.
“It’s extremely offensive and violative of me as a woman. They are doing it because I am a woman and a Muslim,” she added.
Ahmed lamented the fact that Twitter had failed to block the accounts, despite complaints.
“One account ran a poll for 24 hours with the question: “Which one of these women would you choose for your harem? And my name was on the poll. I complained to Twitter, but it did not take it down” she said.
Twitter was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.
Ahmed blamed the current political climate for “this surge in hatred and Islamophobia.”
Since assuming top office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of remaking India into an authoritarian, Hindu nationalist state with the latest attack seen by the women as part of an effort to target Muslims.
“The impunity with which they are doing this is because they are not afraid; maybe they (the perpetrators) have political patronage, maybe they have political support — that’s why they are not scared of consequences,” Ahmed said.
Mohsin Khan agreed, drawing focus on an “extension of majoritarian politics,” which makes it “hard to be a Muslim” in India.
“They are trying to humiliate minorities by doing such horrendous acts. It is no secret that it is very hard to be a Muslim in India, especially a Muslim woman. We are a minority within a minority,” the pilot said.
Ghazala Wahab, a Delhi-based author of “Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India,” believes the government has “incubated and nurtured” hatred.
“Such people enjoy immunity ... Even in the physical space, when you see someone making a hateful video, or somebody attacking a Muslim person or killing him, see the kind of sheltering that person gets,” Wahab told Arab News.
“Not being held accountable for what you have done further incubates and further nourishes the hatred,” she added.