This week, an anonymously-created, open-source website called S*lli Deals – named for a slur against Muslims – went live. On it were the photographs, names and social media handles of numerous Muslim women in India, and the lewd suggestion that these individuals could be purchased, like in any “Deal of the Day” promotion. It was an open invitation for harassment of all kinds.
Women have their photos stolen and misused all the time, especially online. I’ve written in this column in the past about discovering my own images being reposted by sleazy accounts, among hundreds of others’. But this latest cybercrime – the latest in a long line – should not be seen only in light of overall societal misogyny, but specifically has to be understood in the context of anti-Muslim hate. The women were targeted because of their religious background. This too joins a long line of similar incidents of varying levels of brutality, spanning from bias to genocide.
Anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric in India currently happens very overtly, and from very high platforms. It has been a part of election campaigning. Hate speech rings out at major rallies, such as at the Hindu Mahasabha in Haryana a few days ago, where among other radicalised public speakers was a 17-year old who opened fire near Jamia Millia University at an anti-CAA protest last year. Those who openly incite violence against minorities have impunity. In the meanwhile, activists who work for equality and justice – usually with political secularism, regardless of personal sentiment, as a core value – suffer and even die incarcerated (like Father Stan Swamy) or assassinated (like Gauri Lankesh, or further back, like M.K. Gandhi).
The reprehensible term “love jihad” has been used for years to control and punish Hindu women (and now, Sikh women too, as recent cases in Kashmir have shown). It is based on the idea of women as property, chattel that cannot be permitted to exercise free will. Abusive enterprises like S*lli Deals also operate under the concept of ownership, and by extension trade or trafficking, but with two additional layers: inviting public participation in the oppression, and explicit religious discrimination.
No religion is free of fundamentalists. No matter its tenets. No matter how meaningful or uplifting a private spiritual life may feel, to deny that some will always use religion to create violence of all kinds is to help perpetuate that violence.
People like me – who technically belong to the Hindu religious majority – are often dismissed in conversation with versions of the statement: “You do not know the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism”. Actually, I do. I spent most of my life in a Muslim country, 17 years to be precise, with anti-minority edicts enshrined in its Constitution. I have personally undergone the quotidian discriminations of belonging to a minority and having my culture be erased on a systemic scale, and I raised my voice loudly against these maltreatments there too. None of this made me anti-Muslim. It made me anti-bigotry. I know the dangers of religious fundamentalism on a general population, full stop. It’s irrelevant which strain – all are equally violent, and must be rejected, for the good of everyone, of every denomination.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 8th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.