‘Bulli Bai’ is a direct result of the state’s inaction on ‘Sulli Deals’ & Islamophobia

‘Bulli Bai’ is at least the fourth instance of Muslim women being put up for ‘auction’. The law, it seems, was snoozing.
Representative image of a silhouette of a woman
Representative image of a silhouette of a woman

On January 1, dozens of Muslim women woke up to a rude shock. Their photographs, taken without their consent from their social media profiles, appeared on a mobile application that put them up for ‘auction,’ calling them the ‘Bulli Deal of the Day.’ It wasn’t the first time that media professional Sania Ahmad has seen herself being ‘auctioned’ though. She found her photo on a similar app, ‘Sulli Deals’, which sprouted in July 2021. What she felt at that moment was rage. 

Sania, who is based in Delhi, has faced targeted harassment for months now. She tells TNM that for the past two years, she has been receiving hate and sexual threats on Twitter. Her photos are morphed, she is sent lewd direct messages, people hold online polls asking whether they would ‘include her in harems’. And despite reaching out to the police by filing complaints online and in person, there has been no action taken against the targeted harassment. 

“When I tried to file a complaint in person, a male police official and a female police official at the police station in Delhi slut-shamed me, asking me why I uploaded photos of myself online,” Sania tells TNM. 

Even ‘Sulli Deals’ was not the first time that Muslim women were put up for ‘auction’ — the perpetrators believed to be Hindutva affiliates whose aim seems to be to silence outspoken Muslim women with a voice. Such ‘auctions’ have happened at least four times in the last three years; the first time, it was a YouTube channel called ‘Liberal Doge’ in April/May 2021, where Pakistani women were ‘auctioned,’ and when Indian women began to draw attention to it, they too were targeted. The second was ‘Sulli Deals’ in July 2021, which, like the latest ‘Bulli Bai’, uploaded photographs of women and tagged them ‘Your Sulli Deal of the Day’ — the language of e-commerce websites selling products at discounted prices. The third was Clubhouse rooms in November 2021, when the culprits behind Sulli Deals turned to the audio platform after the GitHub platform was taken down. ‘Bulli Bai’ is the latest assault — almost a replica of ‘Sulli Deals’ — and has listed hundreds of women, and also some minors according to reports.  

“These are gender hate crimes that police need to take action against. But in spite of written complaints, FIRs, and Women’s Commissions reaching out to the police, despite Parliamentarians pulling them up, there is no action. And so there is a brazenness and impunity among those who target Muslim women,  and they know there will be no consequences. A couple of months after 'Sulli Deals', since there was no action, these people came back to Twitter with new accounts and again morphed my pictures,” Sania tells TNM. 

“I was shocked and angry at the fact that nothing had happened since ‘Sulli Deals’, let alone a constructive conclusion to all of this. There was no development in the investigation that we could fall back on,” Delhi-based journalist Ismat Ara, who was also listed on ‘Bulli Bai’, tells TNM. “There was similar outrage, FIRs were filed, there were reassurances from the police and from the authorities, the issue was taken till Parliament, letters were written to the Home Minister — all of this has happened before.” But in terms of legal action or a strong message against such misogynistic and Islamophobic attacks, nothing has happened. 

The Mumbai police have now arrested a 21-year-old student from Bengaluru and an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old from Uttarakhand. This is the first time arrests have been made in a series of such deplorable campaigns against Muslim women. No one has been arrested yet for ‘Sulli Deals’ or the other attacks so far. It is this inaction by the police that has clearly emboldened the perpetrators behind these applications to keep targeting Muslim women who speak out in public spaces. 

(Trigger Warning: Screenshots in the tweet below are sexually explicit and may be disturbing) 

Khushboo Khan is another Delhi-based journalist who was one of the dozens of women who found their pictures on 'Bulli Bai.' After she saw screenshots of the app, she went to the web link of the application to find out more. To her horror, her photo also came up. 

"The app and website showed a morphed image of a man in a bikini, and below it, there was a button called 'Get me a Bulli.’ Every time I clicked on that button, different profiles of Muslim women appeared, with the caption 'Your Bulli deal for the Day',” Khushboo tells TNM.   

“Even if FIRs have been filed in the previous case, no action has been taken. And these culprits are targeting only vocal Muslim women because they cannot tolerate them speaking out. But they cannot silence us; we will keep raising our voice,” says Khushboo.

However, the inaction so far has also discouraged women from even wanting to pursue a lengthy legal case that may not even see any progress. 

“When ‘Sulli Deals’ happened, I backed off because I had had a very bad experience before, and I felt nothing would happen in this case, at least in Delhi. And as I had expected and predicted, nothing happened. There was no update, just radio silence, even though we had some leads and we told them that we suspected people. There were people who tagged me on Twitter saying, “see I made this account, I used this VPN” — it is that brazen,” Sania tells TNM.

Two separate FIRs were filed by the Noida police in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi police as well, after complaints were filed over the 'Sulli Deals' application in July 2021. However, there has been no arrest made in the case. Police officials have maintained that the investigation is on, but refused to elaborate. It is believed that the police reached a roadblock when they reached out to GitHub, where the mobile application was first set up. Since GitHub is not an Indian company and adheres to US laws where it is headquartered, it may choose not to reveal the names or support the investigation. However, GitHub is just one part of the issue. 

“This is not limited to just GitHub and this application, these screenshots get circulated on WhatsApp and other applications as well, and then it becomes a real threat — it can convert into a physical assault at any moment. That is what is infuriating. I don’t know when it will convert into physical action or threat for me,” shares Ismat, echoing the feelings of many others whose pictures were taken in violation of their privacy. 

Sania shares an incident when Twitter failed to act despite many notices sent to the social medium. “There was an online poll, titled ‘Which one would you choose for your harem’ and another Muslim woman and I were put up as ‘options’. There were hateful comments, sexually explicit replies and yet the poll stayed up for 24 hours. We kept reporting the poll, but Twitter did not do anything at all. And this is just one of the incidents that have happened, this is not the only one. Anybody can say anything and get away with it. There are no consequences to people abusing, making absolutely hateful comments.”

(Trigger Warning: Screenshots in the tweet below may be disturbing) 

“I was targeted because I was a Muslim woman. There is no shying away from this fact. I am not involved in politics, I don’t have a political account, but I still am targeted for being a Muslim woman,” Hana Mohsin Khan, a pilot by profession who had found her photos on 'Sulli Deals', tells TNM. 

Lack of timely action by social media and a certain lethargy by the police in failing to act against those who send rape and death threats to women online has led to an ecosystem of hate on online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many others. While these hate campaigns have been downplayed by many as ‘stray incidents,’ ‘fringe elements’ and ‘this is just online, how does it matter,’ it has led to the normalisation of hate and objectification of Muslim women. Which then, seeps out of the virtual world into civil society — and the recent arrests of the 21-year-olds and the 18-year-old is an indication. And it is not just social media that furthers such hate — unchecked hate crimes, events and rallies like the communal Dharma Sansad, divisive remarks by members of Parliaments, all this encourages young perpetrators to continue their harassment, without the fear of facing any legal action.

“This is a consequence of letting hate go unchecked — in political speeches, on social media, on WhatsApp forwards. Arresting people will mean a lesson for others that there can be consequences of your actions. But overall, I feel this is a bigger problem of where our society is at the moment — the unfiltered hate that is coming through and spreads on WhatsApp, Twitter and other mass media, along with fake news, etc. This is an endemic of sorts that needs to be checked right now, because look at the kind of hate that is filtering down to the young people in India,” Sania says. 

The probe so far

The Mumbai police on Wednesday, January 5, briefed the media about the three arrests made in the case. The police said that the accused used ‘Sikh names’ in their Twitter handles that shared links and screenshots of the app, to mislead people.

The police said that the main Twitter handle of the app called was created by the 18-year-old Shweta Singh. Shweta, who passed her Class 12 exams and was aiming to study engineering, was acting on the instructions from a person named ‘Giyou,' who was based in Nepal, the police have said. 

Maharashtra Minister Satej Patil on Wednesday told TNM that if Shweta got involved in the issue for money, the Mumbai police will find out who paid her. 

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