My mother is a writer and a literary historian. She bakes the best sourdough bread and loves going for walks in the rain. She is called “Apa” by almost everyone and is obsessed with red shoes. In early January 2022, she was supposedly sold off on an auction of Muslim women hosted on GitHub.
The incident was an online mock auction of prominent Muslim women in India. No daughter thinks she may have to write on such a topic someday and yet there I was. When I was first approached to write on this, people expected me to be horrified or at least enraged. To be honest, I was neither. I was numb.
Numbness is a strange, almost comforting thing. Doctors say it is our body’s way of protecting us from harm. In the event of an accident, our body goes into shock and adrenaline prevents us from succumbing to our injuries. But were my injuries extensive? Could I really be allowed my reaction? Should I not have been reasonably outraged? My mother was in disbelief. I, on the other hand, had a sense of normalcy.
It made me wonder: Have we normalised hatred to the point where we have standardised our response to women being sold off like cattle? Have we been silenced for so long that we now have only muffled murmurs to offer against targeted, gender-based harassment? Can we think of any greater impunity that the culprits enjoy knowing that the existing laws are not much of a deterrent against acts of cyber harassment? As absurd as it sounds, facing sexism as a modern Indian woman does numb you to an extent.
Internet’s despotic influence and the ruthless power of patriarchy seeps into your bones and carves a home for itself. You come to expect certain things. You are no longer appalled or scandalised when it strikes you. It dulls your senses. That is what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. In her seminal essay titled “I Choose Elena”, legal researcher Lucia Osborne-Crowley says anyone who has moved through this world in the body of a woman knows what it feels like to wish to be invisible.
Looking at the pictures of my mother’s face as she was being auctioned off, ostensibly to work as a maid in people’s homes with the “philanthropic” purpose of providing “employment” to Muslim women, all I could think was that the process of “othering” is now no longer visceral. It exists in the form of documented proof. Staring at you like an abyss of hatred. Bearing the face of my mother. The rot has set in deep and it leaves sorrow in its wake. The “otherness” is diabolical. It has moved beyond the realm of deep-seated sexualisation and entered the fray of vocal, blatant, in-your-face, unperturbed terrorising. This is what I would like to label as the commodified transaction of perverse pleasure.
Reading about the app that allowed the sale of Muslim women as household help (refereed to as “bai” in colloquial language) made me think of all the stereotypes constructed around the fetishisation of Muslim women – the disfavoured and the condemned; the overlooked and underrepresented; the object and subject; the villain and the witch, and equally the exotic and the secluded. Having said that, reading an abstract piece of vile news may fill you with disgust but how does one react when it hits so close to home? More specifically, when it hits right where your heart is, your inner sanctum preserved for only all the good things in the world. It is in that moment of lucidity you realise the precision of the attack.
My mother has been supposedly “auctioned”. My mother is a self-made woman in the field of literary history with a voice that belongs to an educated Muslim woman of modern-day India. For anyone unable to make the glaring connection between my two previous sentences, you have a privilege, a privilege of not being hounded, of being and staying ignorant, essentially the luxury of not living in fear.
Think for one second what fear does to people, how it cripples them. Fear of being persecuted, fear of being bought and sold like cattle – even if for now it is in the virtual realm. This incident reeks of a sadistic sense of proprietorship by men. Men who are aware of the impunity they enjoy. Men who have probably done this before and walked away scot-free. Men who will inspire others, women and men, to engage in sexualised communalism in its most puerile form.
At this point in time, it would be a meaningless attempt to understand what drives the objectification of women. This entire incident has now become an idiom of commodity exchange. That Muslim women are a means to an end, a successful transaction that renders the object at the disposal of the buyer. It boils down to the existence of Muslim women for the sole purpose of others to use or consume.
But this incident is more than just deliberate harassment. It wants us to believe that denial of basic dignity to Muslim women is as “normal” to those behind this app as the act of breathing. It is this “normalisation” that deserves close scrutiny, and not mere condemnation. British writer and activist, Laura Bates, describes this as: “One of the saddest things about silencing of women through shame, normalisation, dismissal, disbelief and blame is that it is has become so common that it is used as a controlling tool by abusers themselves.” Given our complex socio-political context, what the Bulli Bai incident means to me is the wilful, well-planned perpetuation of minority oppression, systemic sexism and gender-based violence against a certain community of women.
In 1995, American philosopher and academic, Martha Nussbaum, identified seven features of treating a person as an object, namely, instrumentality, ie, the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifiers’ purposes; denial of autonomy, ie the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self determination; inertness, ie the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity; fungilibity, ie the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects; ownership; violability, ie the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary integrity and denial of subjectivity.
Sally Haslanger, an American philosopher and the Ford Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deconstructs gender against the background of hierarchical social relations. Haslanger accounts objectification as: “something, one views it and treats it as an object for the satisfaction of one’s desire; but this is not all, for objectification is assumed to be a relation of domination where one also has the power to enforce one’s view.” Having said that, Bulli Bai is more than plain cyber harassment. It marks the unfortunate converging of communalism and sexism.
The one thread that links Bulli Bai with its predecessors, Sully Deals, is the treatment of Muslim women as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes. The immense social capital wielded by an unidentified group fuelling this objectification specifically of Muslim women needs to be examined.
This entire incident is a lesson in unlearning shame that isn’t ours to carry for there are many women like my mother who might feel mortified, un-dignified, defamed even. For this incident banks upon exactly the emotions to be roused in the minds of its victims. It is a calculated attack intended to shame, oppress and intimidate. An incident such as this diminishes all the work done for empowering the status of women, more so on realising that there exists the objectification and commodification of a very specific category of women within our society.
But the scary bit is not its mere existence, but how it thrives, the venom it spews and how it absconds from justice with vindictive pleasure. What it also does is shrink to the point of non-existence the body of work that these Muslim women have accomplished in their respective fields. In 1979, the character of litigation in India was changed to make room for the friction of time and evolution of its society.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL), filed under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, relaxes the requirement of locus standi by allowing any public spirited citizen to move the Court on their behalf. Prudent and progressive, the nature of a PIL is such that it allows any constitutional court to look into grievances filed on behalf of those who are are unable to approach the courts themselves. It has often been stated by the Supreme Court of India that the subject matter of a PIL protects the interests/legal rights of the affected class or community.
A constitutional court can take suo moto cognisance of a matter that directly and repeatedly targets one community with the intention of insulting and demeaning the public achievements of these women. The Bulli Bai and Sully Deals is a case of legal wrong (defamation, sexual harassment, and intent to outrage the modesty of a woman) caused to a determinate class of persons (Muslim women in the public domain) with the methodical classification of selling, buying, and trading women hailing from the said community. Any corrective measure in response to this situation must be the identification of the offenders so that the law punishes them with all its severity.
A mechanism needs to be set in motion that monitors the process to its logical end. Or else this impunity will continue to create disquiet, cause hurt and harassment against this specific community and to women in general. All the women who have been targeted in both incidents are articulate and visible in the public space. At a more personal level, this sense of revulsion which was so overpowering when I first spotted the tweet soon passed but my worry is: Should one simply wait for the next atrocity? Surely, it isn’t enough to say that if only we dragged our politics out of the gutter (but not our minds along with), it might ameliorate the existing state of affairs.
When we look back at these small incidents that shaped 2022, all that anyone will notice is our deafening silence. And our hollow, half-hearted support, our forbearance for a faceless monster, our abhorrent lack of empathy and our hapless and half-hearted horror. But horror, simply, is not enough. Neither is shock nor outrage. We need more.
We need laws as robust as the scheme behind Bulli Bai. Laws that adapt to the changing nature of sexualised communalism. Looking back on this incident as I write this chapter months after it, I realise my numbness was a result of the system I belong to. We are all part of social systems, regardless of caste, creed, religion, age, or gender. Whether we like it or not, we are the system, we churn its wheels. I am in no way justifying my numbness but in trying to rationalise it, I find that it was in anticipation of a larger system that has, in the past, condoned sexualised hatred, that overlooks the women who suffer it, who are defamed by it.
Women who are demoralised and degraded because of it. Women who are citizens of this country and deserve equal and efficacious protection of the law. To conclude: the Sulli Bai and the Bulli Deals incidents happened twice in the span of six months; are we simply waiting for a third? Or will we as citizens, as legislators, as a vote bank, as watchdogs of an electoral democracy, rally to institute a mechanism in place that ensures an incident such as this is never repeated.
Excerpted with permission from In The Body of a Woman: Essays on Law, Gender and Society, Aaliya Waziri, Simon and Schuster India.