#Bullibai will lead to attacks on all women, not just Muslims

We should not forget this episode because it reflects the contempt that even young and educated Indians have for educated, confident, articulate and assertive women, writes Kalpana Sharma

#Bullibai will lead to attacks on all women, not just Muslims
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Kalpana Sharma

Given the nature of breaking news, and the daily litany of media reports on atrocities in the current communally charged climate in India, our sense of outrage seems to have been anaesthetized.

This year began with news that Muslim women were being "auctioned" on social media. The "Bulli Bai" app followed a similar attempt in July last year with the "Sulli Deals" app; and within weeks emerged evidence of how social media platform Clubhouse is being misused, with participants in a discussion using sexually explicit and violent language while mocking, objectifying and humiliating Muslim women.

Unlike last July, the outrage this time pushed police in Mumbai and Delhi into action. Several young people from different parts of the country were arrested. Each time an arrest was made, police claimed they had found the "mastermind". Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that they have actually got to the bottom of who created and funded these apps.

The law will, or will not, take its course. There is little about the way the criminal justice system works that gives us confidence that it will. However, the process of tracking down the culprits behind this dehumanising, misogynistic and Islamophobic ploy has revealed a much more disturbing and uglier reality.

The young people detained so far are all in their late teens to early twenties. They are educated and tech-savvy. Evidently, being "educated" does not protect you from irrational and hateful propaganda. The question we must ask is how much hate do you need to imbibe before you become a part of a hate-spewing system? What compelled these youngsters to be part of such a system?

Also, irrespective of whether any one of these young people is the main instigator, we are confronted with not just a bunch of lonely, twisted individuals, but an entire ecosystem that is spawning such people.

A major contributor to the creation of this ecosystem is mainstream media, especially news television that amplifies communal bias and hate speech. Some TV channels have virtually become the mouthpieces for those who want to keep Indian society divided along communal lines. The latest slogan on some of these channels is "Hindu khatre mein hai" (Hindus are in danger) taking off from an out of context statement made by a Muslim preacher and to detract from the vile hate speech that emanated from Hindu preachers recently. Such shenanigans would be laughable if they were not so dangerous.

Equally responsible is social media. Initially, it was seen as a space for self-expression, for connections, for community. It has now become home to misogyny and communal hate of the vilest kind. It works on the basis of confirmation bias. You read or hear all that confirms that bias because the system is designed to do just that. As a result, it assists in creating these vast pools roiling with hate towards the 'other' -- Muslim, Christian, Dalit, women, take your pick.

Secondly, we have to ask what these attempts to "auction" Muslim women in India tell us about Indian society?

While not all the targeted women are necessarily political, they project themselves on social media as confident and independent professionals with strong opinion. Social media has opened up a space for women, albeit with its attendant risks if they express opinions contrary to the dominant narrative. Most outspoken women on social media, irrespective of the community to which they belong, and including many women politicians, suffer vicious and dangerous trolling that includes rape and death threats.

Although this attack on Muslim women is part of a deeper woman-hating strain that is so integral to Indian public life, where women who are confident, who speak out, must be demonised, in this instance we cannot use that generalisation. Because this is specific to Muslim women, and part of the larger agenda of demonising and dehumanising all Muslims. The attacks represent the dominant ideology in this country that essentially tells all Muslims to either behave, or face the consequences.

Think about it. When the men spewing hate and openly calling for a genocide of Muslims in India at the recent "Dharam Sansad" in Haridwar escape virtually unscathed; when the scores of lynchings of poor Muslim men just going about their lives are written off as acts by a fringe; when Muslim journalists like Siddique Kappan are in jail for months for no reason except for doing their jobs; when those disrupting Friday prayers not just in open spaces but now even in mosques are not punished; then why would anyone be afraid to "auction" Muslim women as an extension of this growing Islamophobia? They did this because they were confident they would get away with it.

And finally, what stands out is the deafening silence from a government at the Centre that constantly speaks of "women's empowerment". Is "empowerment" only for some women? Are women "empowered" if they are auctioned and demeaned in this manner? Do Muslim women not matter because Muslim votes make no difference to the party in power?

Those of us born into privilege by way of caste, class or religion, cannot even imagine what it must feel to be a Muslim woman in this so-called "new India' under construction. If despite the hurdles that so many of them would have encountered, if some Muslim women are confident enough to speak out and express themselves freely on social media, we should celebrate and salute them for their courage.

I believe it is imperative that we do not forget, or allow this particular attack on Muslim women to be forgotten. Today these attacks are on social media and directed towards women identified as Muslim. If unchecked, this will pave the way for far greater violence on all women, and not just on social media.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and author.

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