Women’s safety on the internet has to account for intersectionality

tl;dr

In the beginning of July, 2021, the  internet was horrified after we came across an application hosted on GitHub which shared the photographs and social media handles of women belonging to the Muslim community in the country without their consent to purportedly “auction” them off. In this post, we outline the steps we have taken to ensure and promote women’s safety and security on the internet in light of this incident.

What happened?

On July 4, 2021, multiple Twitter accounts posted the screengrab from an application hosted on GitHub titled, “Sulli Deals”. The application shared the photographs and social media handles of more than 80 women belonging to the Muslim community in India. The application showcased the information of the women in a way that the user could “claim a ‘sulli”, which is a derogatory term used by right-wing trolls in India for Muslim women, as the “deal of the day”. The aim of the application was to objectify and demean the targeted women by allowing them to be auctioned for sale to the users of the application.


As a result of the public outcry against the application, GitHub removed the application. The National Commission for Women took suo motu cognisance of the incident and asked the Delhi Police to file FIRs against the perpetrators as well as to submit an action taken report within ten days. Additionally, the Delhi Commission for Women also issued notice to the Delhi Police on the incident and asked for a detailed action taken report. Subsequently, the Cyber Cell of Delhi Police registered FIRs under S. 354-A of the Indian Penal Code which relates to sexual harassment. Additionally, one of the targeted women, Pilot Hana Khan, also filed a FIR with the Delhi Police under S. 509 of the IPC which relates to acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman and S. 66 & 67 of the Information Technology Act which relates to hacking and publishing of obscene information in electronic form respectively.


However, according to an update posted on Twitter, there is a new domain which has been registered, but not yet hosted, on GoDaddy.com titled, “sullidealing.co.in”.

The relevant authorities have failed to identify the actual issue

While indeed these are relevant provisions, we feel they fail to adequately address the nature of the crime in the current incident. The application categorically targeted women belonging to the Muslim community and therefore, this is not only an act of gender based harassment but also an instance of targeting on the basis of religion. The application targeted these women specifically because of their religious identity as the aim of the application was not just to sexually harass women but to also demean Muslim women and their community by objectifying them and reducing them to “auction items”. This is evident from the fact that the application title itself contains a derogatory slang term used to denote Muslim women specifically and not just women in general. Therefore, we are of the view that while the provisions related to sexual harassment, insult to the modesty of a woman and publication of obscene information are relevant here, this investigation is incomplete unless and until the Delhi Police as well as the NCW & the DCW take cognisance of the fact that this incident was religiously motivated.

Accordingly, we feel it is exigent that the concerned investigative agencies charge the accused(s) under the following provisions, in addition to the aforementioned provisions:

  1. Section 153 A of the IPC which punishes any “persons who indulge in wanton vilification or attacks upon the religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc of any particular group or class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion.”
  2. Section 295 A of the IPC which penalises  “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage reli­gious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or reli­gious beliefs”.
  3. Section 298 of the IPC which punishes anyone who “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places, any object in the sight of that person.”

Our concerns

We are concerned that such incidents will adversely impact the constitutional rights and personal safety of the internet users who might continue to be subjected to harassment through the similar websites & applications and inflict serious threats to the privacy and safety of those targeted on the basis of their religion and gender.

  1. Displaying sensitive information without consent to intimidate and/or harass women is violative of Art. 21 of the Indian Constitution: The application conducted a “auction” of the targeted Muslim women for over 20 days, by using sensitive information like the photographs and social media handles of the women. Needless to say, these “deals” elicited lewd, perverse and horrifying comments from a vast number of users. While there was no actual auction of any human being, the main goal of this application was to dehumanise and intimidate women who were targeted. This has affected the personal safety and security of those targeted, thus violating their constitutional right to life, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and has undermined their right to privacy, deemed an integral component of the “right to life” by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India’s decision in KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) 10 SCC 1.
  2. Doxxing and online harassment of women infringes upon the freedom of speech and expression of women: Social media platforms are the town halls of our modern times. Yet, the persistent incidents of sexual harassment and doxxing have made these platforms highly unsafe and toxic for women, ultimately leading them to disengage from social media altogether after facing harassment. According to a study conducted by Plan International, one in every five young women have opted out of social media after being targeted or harassed. The abuses are further aggravated in cases of women who voice their opinions as well as those women who belong to minority communities on social media platforms and in turn, dissuade them from expressing themselves without any fear or inhibitions. This squarely violates the women’s right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.
  3. Delayed response to curb the spread of such vitriolic information undermines the digital security of women online: With no overarching data protection legislation in India, your terms of service lack the obligation to protect the data collected or govern the sharing of such sensitive information, within the purview of purpose limitation and exacerbates the privacy and security threats. Further, in the absence of any narrowly defined safeguards against data breach, practices of doxxing and online sexual harassment can continue with impunity. Moreover, the failure of the law enforcement bodies to initiate any prompt action is likely to cause a loss of deterrence for similar miscreants.
  4. Instances of online harassment has vitiated the experience of internet use for women all across the world: According to a survey of more than 8,000 respondents undertaken by the Web Foundation, “half of young women and girls in the global survey have experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private photos and videos without permission”.

What did we do?

Horrified by this incident and aware of the rights violations that have taken place we have:

  1. Sent a representation to GoDaddy.com asking them to immediately rescind the registration of the domain in question.
  2. Sent representations to the NCW and the DCW asking them to take cognisance of the fact that the incident in question is religiously motivated and to ensure that all investigations reflect this factor.

Important Documents

  1. Representation to Godaddy.com dated July 16, 2021 (link)
  2. Representation to the National Commission for Women dated July 17, 2021 (link)
  3. Representation to the Delhi Commission for Women dated July 17, 2021 (link)