My Mom's Photo Was Misused on Bulli Bai, No Daughter Should Be Writing This
This has happened twice in the span of six months; are we simply waiting for a third?
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.
Yesterday, she was supposedly 'sold on an auction' of Muslim women hosted on a GitHub app. No daughter thinks she may have to write these lines someday, and yet here I am.
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 screenshot attached below 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 a picture 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.
The Commodified Transaction of Perverse Pleasure
Reading about this app that allowed of Muslim women as household help (bai) made me think of all the stereotypes constructed around the fetishisation of us – the disfavoured and the condemned; the overlooked and underrepresented; the object and the 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 sanatorium preserved for only 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 off". 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 sentence — 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 it is, for now, in the virtual realm.
Sadistic Sense of Proprietorship
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 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, not mere condemnation.
Given our complex socio-political context, what Bulli Bai 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 professor, Martha Nussbaum, identified seven features of treating a person as an object, namely, instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects, ownership, and denial of subjectivity.
The one thread that links 'Bulli Bai' with its predecessor 'Sulli Deals' is the treatment of Muslim women as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes. To attribute only a gendered dimension to this incident without taking into account the blatant communalism at play is a myopic stand to take. The immense social capital wielded by an unidentified group fuelling this objectification of Muslim women needs to be examined.
It must be noted, to the ready information available in the public domain, that the FIR lodged in the Sulli Deals incident six months ago languishes in a limbo.
A Lesson in Unlearning, Shame That Isn’t Ours To Carry
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.
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 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 'Sulli Deals' is a case of legal wrong (defamation, sexual harassment and intent to outrage 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 is so overpowering at the moment will soon pass until the next atrocity.
It simply 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 this past year, and we will, all that anyone will notice is our deafening silence. Our hollow, half-hearted support, our faceless forbearance for monsters and our abhorrent lack of empathy.
But horror simply is not enough. Neither is shock nor outrage. This has happened twice in the span of six months; are we simply waiting for a third?
(Aaliya Waziri is a lawyer at the High Court of Delhi, presently working as International Consultant (Women, Peace and Security) with UN Women Office for Timor Leste. She also serves as Consulting Editor for Grin Media Pvt. Ltd. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)
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