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Sulli deals: Women caught in the tentacles of the dark Web

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on July 22, 2021

Caught in a web: In a report by the World Wide Web Foundation, half of the 8,000 respondents had replied in answer to a poll that they faced online sexual harassment and threats   -  ISTOCK.COM

Doxxing, or sharing a woman’s picture online without her consent, is a crime that has proliferated during the pandemic — chillingly, against one particular community

*Sulli Deals is the offending app on which pictures of Muslim women were put up without their knowledge or consent, to be ‘auctioned off’

*Islamophobic hate is an everyday battle for a lot of the women targeted

*It’s a protracted battle to get officials to take these complaints seriously

****

It was the night of Sunday, July 4. Afreen Fatima, a student of linguistics from JNU, was checking her phone and was surprised by the number of Twitter notifications popping up on her screen — many more than usual. Then she saw the link that someone had sent of an app. “At first, I didn’t understand it. I clicked on it, only to find someone’s random picture pop up with the line ‘sulli deal of the day’. I clicked on a few more, only to chance upon a friend’s photo, and then mine.” The word ‘sulli’ is an extremely derogatory way of referring to Muslim women.

Her first overwhelming feeling was one of disgust. The offending app in question was Sulli Deals on which pictures of Muslim women were put up without their knowledge or consent, to be ‘auctioned off’.

Hana Mohsin Khan, a pilot by profession, received a text the same night from a well-meaning friend who informed her that her images have been used without her consent on an app on GitHub, which was auctioning girls’ pictures. She checked the link to find they all happened to be Muslim women, some of them friends of hers.

It wasn’t long before these women came out in public to speak up against the gross misuse of their personal data to harass and intimidate them online. “I counted 83, but the numbers run in hundreds,” says Hana.

It’s that time of the year when Muslims across the world meet friends and exchange good wishes, and despite the pandemic, Eid festivities are on in full swing. However, for a large group of women, this Eid has been shadowed by the spectre of Doxxing — sharing a woman’s picture or information online without her consent.

Doxxing is a crime that has proliferated against women during Covid-19 — and alarmingly against one particular community. While Hana says Muslim women are targeted through the year, she adds that she has noticed an escalation in the abuse just before Eid.

The affected women are responding in different ways. Some tried to file FIRs and bring to book the perpetrators while others silently deactivated their accounts on social media platforms. GitHub, the web platform that hosted the open source app, has shut it down after receiving complaints. “We suspended user accounts following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies,” GitHub said in a public statement.

From anger and alarm to anguish and fear, the women’s reactions have varied. “I didn’t speak to anyone, reply to any friend who asked me how I was doing,” recalls Fatima and adds, “I didn’t sleep that night.” Hana remembers being very angry. “Two weeks on, I’m still angry. While it doesn’t consume me as much now, I’m not giving up on this.”

The Muslim women who were targeted belonged to diverse age groups. Hana says, “While there weren’t any minors on the list, there were several students and undergraduates. All the women didn’t fit into the typical right wing narrative of oppressed Muslim women.” They were mostly professionals, artists, students and journalists who were targeted by the open source app, which relied on Twitter display pictures and information to make their ‘profiles’ on the app which were then mock auctioned by people online.

Age no bar: The Muslim women who were targeted belonged to diverse age groups   -  The Hindu

 

Hostile web

In a report by the World WideWeb Foundation, an internet advocacy platform, half of the 8,000 respondents to a poll said that they had faced online sexual harassment and threats, sharing of their photos without their consent. While India remains one of the few countries where doxxing is illegal, with the Bengaluru police even launching an all-women task force to deal with such cyber-crimes, convictions remain low, and offenders operate with impunity. Moreover, targeting of these women is not just a case of hurt lovers seeking revenge but also a hate crime against a community.

Islamophobic hate is an everyday battle for a lot of the women who have been targeted. “Granted, all women face harassment at some level online, but we get targeted way more often due to our Muslim identities. We also find it way more difficult to register complaints and get any legal action taken on those complaints,” says Fatima. She recalls an incident with Nabiya Khan, student activist and one of the women targeted by the app, “She was trying to report a person on Instagram for inappropriate communal comments on one of her pictures, but no action was taken by the app. They had used the word ‘mulli’ [derogatory word derived from the word ‘mullah’] in the comments, which didn’t get taken down.”

Hana Khan also believes it is the patriarchal mindset which leads to a lot of hate being unleashed on Muslim women, where hatemongers believe that women are a softer target, and by insulting them or harassing them, they are somehow inflicting a winning blow on the entire community.

Nabiya wrote on Twitter, “This is a hate crime which targets Muslim women to silence our voice and deter our political participation... This is part of a larger hate campaign, carried out with impunity in order to dehumanise us.”

Fatima feels this is not a one-off. “People have come out in public alleging that since it is an open-source app, they will make such apps again to circulate pictures and carry out auctions again.”

At the centre of this controversy are dodgy accounts run by the moniker Liberal Doge on Facebook and Twitter, allegedly run by a certain Gurugram-based Rakesh Jha, who hosts Islamophobic videos on his channel Liberal Doge. He was called out for running a live auction of Pakistani women’s Eid pictures sourced from Twitter during Eid-ul-Fitr, a few months ago.

Vrinda Grover, Delhi-based human rights lawyer, who has been representing five of the women targeted by the app, says, “There is a heightened targeting of Muslim women on social media by persons with right-wing Hindutva leanings as they are attacked both on account of their gender and religious identity. The targeting is specifically directed at Muslim women who are voicing their social and political views challenging majoritarianism.”

The women such as Fatima complain of official hesitancy in filing FIR reports, despite providing all required documents and proof. “My case has been transferred from one police station to another, stating some flimsy reason or another. I have been unable to lodge a complaint and know that there are many like me.” Grover agrees. “The police have a track record of not pursuing such complaints with seriousness, treating them casually or taking no definitive action against the offenders.”

Legal battle

This is not the first time Muslim women have been thus targeted. Several people have come forward to claim responsibility for the app and even publicly declare on social media platforms that they would do it again. Jha did a 30- minute live on social media, according to Fatima, where he declared his support for the app, and claimed he would do it too. He had earlier written on Twitter that women who wanted their profiles ‘reviewed’ could contact him as well. But his account on Twitter was deactivated following complaints. The few FIRs that have been lodged (including one by Hana) is under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sexual harassment, along with section 66 and 67 of the IT Act dealing with hacking and publishing of illegal information in electronic form.

The controversy comes at a time when the IT Act has been strengthened with the new amendment holding social media intermediaries such as Twitter and Facebook accountable for what is published on their platform. However, a public statement is yet to be released by Twitter India.

And the horror is far from over. A full-fledged website has been registered with the domain name sullidealing.co.in at GoDaddy.com, world’s largest domain registrar. Civil society organisations such as the Internet Freedom Foundation, have been campaigning online against the sulli deals controversy, and has sent a legal representation to GoDaddy.com to immediately rescind the domain in question.

Says Hana, “We often don’t understand the full magnitude or impact of such a crime. I might not have reduced my presence online because I am not going to give an inch to the perpetrators on account of this, but I know others who have gone silent and deactivated their accounts. Everyone has different ways of dealing with this.”

Providing internet access to women in India has proven to be a challenge, with only 43 per cent having access to it as opposed to 57 per cent men. Indian women’s internet usage is highly controlled, and many don’t have the freedom to express themselves online. Developments such as sulli deals shrink the space further. The Digital 2021 April Global Statshot Report stated how the majority of people who were deprived of internet services were Indian women.

Kidwai says, “Social media is a reflection of what ails our society at the moment, and such threats are very much real, cognisance needs to be taken of them, and legal safeguards need to be put in place.”

Meanwhile, the women who were targeted, aren’t taking things lying down. “We have formed a WhatsApp group, where we have connected with the women who were targeted through Twitter DMs and we provide support and legal counsel if needed,” says Fatima. Hana echoes her sentiment, “I’m not going to let this go. My mother says they messed with the wrong girl this time.”

However, it’s going to be a long arduous battle.

Payel Majumdar Upreti

Published on July 22, 2021

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