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New avatar of violence against Muslim women

IN PERSPECTIVE
Last Updated 20 January 2022, 19:15 IST

The ‘Bulli Bai’ and ‘Sulli Deals’ episodes of online auctioning of more than a hundred Muslim women from across the spectrum — human rights advocacy, law and journalism — reflect how a woman’s body and image are seen as the most common and attractive targets of violence and oppression even in the 21st century. In April 2019, World Bank’s report titled ‘Gender-Based Violence’ (GBV) described violence against women and girls as a ‘global pandemic’.

Prima facie, such mobile applications could be easily categorised as extremely sexist and misogynistic. But the major challenge is to argue that individual acts of creation and operation of mobile applications on which women are being advertised and sold constitute GBV and call for criminal sanctions under the law.

At the core of GBV lies the three-fold question: What is the impulse that triggers the creation and operation of such applications? How can these cause ‘violence’? What are the implications on Muslim women, their self-image and dignity?

One way to view such applications is through feminist author Jacqueline Rose’s unique conception of ‘insidious form’ of violence that cannot easily be seen, detected and defined. The rising penetration of the internet among citizens, greater individual access to information technology and an ever-increasing number of mobile applications have given rise to the phenomenon of ‘violence in quiet conditions’ whereby it is very difficult for law enforcement machinery to locate the actual victim, clearly identify the harm caused to her, classify the so-called ‘remote’ act as an offence, and pin criminal responsibility on a single perpetrator.

The world wide web has created a range of possibilities especially when it comes to identifying ‘real’ victims and attributing individual culpability within the realm of criminal law. The provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Information Technology Act, 2000 are ‘under-inclusive’ to the extent they do not encompass and outlaw such activities. The Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, on the one hand, reinforces the stereotypical image of a woman as a daughter, sister, wife and mother and on the other hand, proposes a subjective, vague, overbroad definition of the term ‘indecent’. This also fails to curb such applications.

Thus, there exists a deep abyss between the newer forms of GBV and indignities hurled at women and the language of the law which curbs only a given set of violations.

‘Bulli Bai’ and ‘Sulli Deals’ scandals display intersectional oppression in terms of both gender and religion. There is no rationality behind the creation of these applications except for the religion of the victims. This GBV is another species of communal hatred. This time around it is levelled against Muslim women — not men or the community as a whole.

When it comes to measuring the actual harm caused, the violence does not just mean overt acts of physical annihilation but includes even covert acts having emotional or psychological effects. It is appropriate to view these individual acts as a ‘continuum of violence’ and women victims as a ‘community of potential targets’. After all, it cannot be forgotten that all women are subjects of violence because all of them live in a violent ‘social media’ world.

GBV exists as a ‘form of entitlement’, deeply embedded in the dominant culture and psyche of the people belonging to the majoritarian religion and the ruling political establishment such that the violators enjoy complete impunity for their individual acts under the pretext of political speech and online freedom. Calling Muslim women ‘Bulli’ and ‘Sulli’ and auctioning them online has received tacit political approval which in turn cultivates a discourse of GBV as a valid and accepted reality.

Consequently, Muslim women end up suffering because both society and online culture typecast them as inferior beings and as ‘objects’ of violence. Unfortunately, the law neither sees through their pain nor classifies the violence and abuse they suffer as a ‘criminal offence’. The lesson imparted to Muslim women is that if they speak out against this cultural dehumanisation, bullying and violence, they would be auctioned online. Because of these risks to their reputation and life, Muslim women continue to ache in silence.

Detesting, shunning and repudiating such applications is not the standalone or effective remedy. There is an urgent need to expose this newest avatar of GBV and call for immediate reforms in the law followed by stringent action by law enforcement agencies.

(Prerna is an Assistant
Professor at NLSIU,
Bengaluru; Vandana is an
independent research
consultant based in Kolkata.)

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(Published 20 January 2022, 18:30 IST)

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