What It Feels Like to Be a Muslim Woman Auctioned Online by India’s Right Wing

When the New Year dawned, New Delhi, I woke up to discover that my name was being auctioned on the Internet. It was there: a photograph of me with the words “Your Bulli Bai deal of the day.”

BulliThis is an insulting term that Muslim women are allowed to use. Bai, meaning maid, is another derogatory term often used by India’s right wing for Muslim women.

I got out of bed. Having written stories critical of the government for the last two years—dealing with attacks on members of the Dalit caste, crimes against women, COVID-19 mismanagement, and hate crimes against Muslims—I was no stranger to trolling. My name is actually among the top 20 most-abused female journalists in India. But being auctioned?
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There were nearly 100 more women on the list—prominent ones, such as broadcasters, politicians, authors, pilots, and actors. All of them were Muslim, just like me. Some of them were making their sixth appearance in the bogus sale, which was designed to humiliate and mock. Many of these women have been harshly critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party of (BJP), which is led by Prime Minister NarendraModi.

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To the creators of this “auction,” none of us were women who had made something of our lives. In my family, I’m not only the first journalist (thanks to my mother, who struggled to bring me to the city for my education). I’m also the first woman to venture out alone in public, to come and go by myself, depending on the needs of my work. To our potential auctioneers, however, they saw us as Muslim women that needed to been silenced.

My anger was overwhelming and I knew I had to act.

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India attacks Muslims on the Muslim faith

The persecution of Muslims has increased since 2014, when the BJP (a Hindu nationalist party) came to power. Muslims in India have lost their homes and many Muslim artists are fleeing from Hindu extremist groups.

Three-day religious conclave held in Uttarakhand was held December. Several Hindu supremacists openly called to genocide minorities. Yati Narsinghanand, the event’s organizer, urged Hindus to “take up weapons” for a “war against Muslims.”

A gathering was also held at the same moment by the Hindu Yuva Vahini. It was founded by Yogi ADityanath who is a politician-monk and openly advocates hatred against Muslims. This event saw hundreds take an oath of allegiance to India as a Hindu nation. They chanted: “We will fight and die if required, we will kill as well.”

In January last year, police under Yogi Adityanath, who is the chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and a member of the BJP, filed a First Information Report (FIR) against me for my coverage of the farmers’ protests. Indian law enforcement issues an FIR as a confirmation of a criminal investigation. They claimed I had spread fear and alarm in the state and was a threat to India’s “national integration.” I was only 22 and not even six months into my first job.

Although I was granted protection by the court, the harassment continued. For reporting news that is not in the interest of the ruling party, journalists have faced trumped-up criminal charges. Editors and writers at the media organization I work for, The Wire, have faced charges ranging from defamation to “promoting enmity,” having “intent to cause riot” and posting “provocative tweets.”

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As the New Year began, I came under fire again. But the tweet I posted on New Year’s Day about the auction had gone viral and a few lawmakers were starting to speak up about it. India’s minister of information technology tweetedGitHub had canceled an account that belonged to one of these alleged auctioneers. I was able to overcome my fear of approaching police officers, as they had not done anything the previous time. Surprisingly, I was successful in submitting an FIR.

The mainstream media took an interest in the story. All major national television channels were covering the story, and wanted to speak to me. It was exhaustion that kept me awake at night, and the constant need to sustain the momentum of the case. I couldn’t stop eating or resting. Suddenly, It was the story—on the other side of the camera, or with somebody else writing notes while I talked. For the first time, I realized the importance of adding a few words of solace before barging into people’s traumas as a journalist—the impact of a simple, “sorry for what happened.”

A week later, my editor at The Wire insisted that I see a psychiatrist. He prescribed medication to help with anxiety and sleep. My body was drained when I got back from the appointment. The lymph node tuberculosis that I had found out about a few months earlier didn’t help. And then, just when things couldn’t get worse, I tested positive for COVID-19. I’m writing this from my bed.

Accountability for crimes against India’s Muslims

After my police report was filed, I received an email from a girl who had seen her name on the auction-list list. The auction list had left her with severe trauma. However, knowing that other people were openly discussing the issue was giving her courage.

Police began making arrests. Each one was followed by many calls from my fellow victims. “They’ve arrested someone, Ismat,” and “We did it.” But I was shocked and saddened to learn the ages of the suspects. Each of them is under 21. One of the four is a female orphan aged 18 years old. She and the others are accused of publicly humiliating women from another religion—women they had never met—and here I am writing about them, almost the same age. Is there anything better to describe the current state of Indian society?

It is even more troubling that the politicians who continue to fan hatred within our society are free to go.

There are no FIRs against Kapil, a prominent BJP member, who gave Delhi police an ultimatum in February 2020 to clear out protestors before he started his own revolution. Protesters were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act that makes it easier to deny Muslim migrants citizenship. When this happened, riots broke out. This was the most violent religious violence India has seen in years. Mobs of mostly Hindu Hindus attacked Muslims. Fivety-three people were killed, with most being Muslims.

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In an interview with me in 2021, Mishra denied that his exhortation “Shoot the traitors” was the cause of violence. Mishra is still free, but protestors are held in prison for conspiring to start riots.

Khalid Saifi is one of these activists. He tried to broker peace between Hindu and Muslim communities prior to the violence. The riots began just a few days later. Bulli Bai affair, Saifi’s wife, Nargis, forwarded a message from him to me about my treatment.

“My sister,” it read, “I feel so helpless inside the jail that I can’t do anything to protect you. Had I been outside, I would have been out on the street protesting to the best of my capabilities.”

It was a shock to me. This was an individual who, despite being in jail for over two years and in the midst of a pandemic. But he was feeling helpless because he couldn’t protest in support of me. It was late, around midnight—and still, I had to call his wife.

Nargis responded immediately. My mouth did not contain any words. In reality, neither one of us spoke. It was just that we shared a sense of sadness about the current state of our nation. Then, I started to sob uncontrollably. I responded by crying loudly and also to her. Perhaps she had resisted her tears for much longer than me.


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