How can a young woman be the alleged mastermind behind a vile platform for “auctioning” other women online?

This was the question in many social media discussions on Wednesday, after the Mumbai Police arrested Shweta Singh, an 18-year-old woman from Uttarakhand, for allegedly spearheading the “Bulli Bai” app. The online platform listed over 100 prominent Muslim women for a virtual “auction”.

Singh is one of three people arrested by Mumbai Police so far: 21-year-old engineering student Vishal Kumar was arrested in Mumbai on Tuesday, and Mayank Rawal, also 21, was arrested in Uttarakhand a day later. Now, the Delhi Police too have opened up an investigation, reportedly making an arrest in Assam.

According to Mumbai Police, however, Singh is the prime suspect. The police told reporters that Singh was directed to start Bulli Bai by a Nepalese friend identified as “Giyu” on Twitter, who has since claimed that he is the “real mastermind” behind the app. Singh herself ran a Twitter handle named “JattKhalsa07”, which she allegedly used to post messages directing hate towards the Muslim community.

Bulli Bai is a revamped version of “Sulli Deals”, a similar app that had triggered outrage after it was created in July 2021. Both “sulli” and “bulli” are derogatory terms for Muslim women, and both apps featured chilling content: photos of Muslim women who were offered up for sale, as “deals of the day”. Both apps were taken off GitHub, the open source web platform hosting them, after women filed complaints against them. In the past six months, however, there have been no arrests in the cases against Sulli Deals.

Now, the arrests in the Bulli Bai case have sparked surprise among many who expected sexist, right-wing men to be behind the app, but not a woman.

It may seem counterintuitive that a woman could be involved in an act that is so blatantly anti-woman – an act that objectifies, demeans and dehumanises other women.

But it should not really be that shocking.

The question of gender

The violence built into the Bulli Bai app is not just about gender, but we might as well address the question of gender first.

The idea that women would not oppress each other, or that all women would band together in the face of patriarchy or misogyny, is flawed. It is based on a common misinterpretation of patriarchy (and feminism) as a man-versus-woman battle of the sexes.

The system of patriarchy is far more complex and insidious. Yes, it privileges men over women and is built on a foundation designed and defined by men in power. But this system functions only because it trains women to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. It is the role that women are expected to perform: not just passing down gender roles by telling boys not to cry and girls not to stay out late, but also policing other women and punishing them when they step out of line.

We see this most ubiquitously in the institution of marriage, where the mother-in-law is typically in charge of training her daughter-in-law to conform to the rules of the household. Conflict, competition and rivalry between the two are so widely accepted in popular imagination that they have provided fodder for films and television soaps for decades.

Patriarchy thrives by pitting women against each other – this is what makes it so toxic and yet so effective.

Communalised misogyny

But the Bulli Bai app, much like the people behind it, is about more than just gender.

People’s identities are defined by their caste, race, region, religion or language just as much as they are defined by their gender. In a country like India, most people have been taught from a young age to hold their caste and religious identities at the centre of their self-definition, and gender often takes a backseat.

This is why thousands of Hindu women were outraged by the idea of women entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, or why hundreds of Muslim women objected to the invalidation of triple talaq: they saw these as affronts to their religion rather than issues of women’s rights. This is also why upper-caste women routinely participate in the discrimination against lower-caste women, at times inflicting brutal violence upon them.

The attempt to “auction” Muslim women online is a similar act of violence. Its perpetrators belong to an informal faction of the right-wing Hindutva universe called “trads”, a term allegedly referring to their “traditionalist” adherence to a rigidly upper-caste and violently Islamophobic worldview. They have been fed on the narrative that the Muslims are the enemy, a dehumanised threat to Hindus. This narrative is then twisted further through the lens of misogyny, so that Muslim women are seen sexual objects to be defiled in order to target the whole community.

Because this misogyny is communalised, a radicalised woman like Shweta Singh is just as likely to buy into it as the other “trad” men involved in the Bulli Bai case.