The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GitHub shuts down Indian website ‘auctioning’ Muslim women

Muslim women in New Delhi protest Prime Minister Narendra Modi's policies in January 2020. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Quratulain Rehbar, a journalist in India, found a profile of herself on a website on Saturday. The page was unauthorized, labeled her as up for “auction” and invited people to bid to own her.

The fake auction website Bulli Bai, which takes its name from a slur against Muslim women, was filled with profiles of dozens who were purportedly for sale. Most were Indian, and some were high-profile figures, such as the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Many were also opponents of Hindu nationalism who have publicly criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in India.

The website, which was built on the popular U.S.-based coding platform GitHub, was no longer accessible Tuesday, after a burst of online outrage against its misogyny and racism. A GitHub spokesman said in an email that it had suspended a user account that violated its policies on harassment, discrimination and the incitement of violence.

Rehbar, who is based in Indian-controlled Kashmir, is no stranger to fake auction sites that aim to demean Muslim women by pretending to sell them. This past summer, she wrote about a similar platform, which also took its name from a slur about Muslim women.

“In a place like India, one could expect [that] something like this could happen,” Rehbar said in an interview. “But it affected me a bit because it affects one’s mental peace. You think about your family and your relatives.”

Authorities have pledged to investigate the incident, which comes as Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party pursue an agenda that emphasizes Hindu primacy in India — a vast, multireligious democracy founded on secular ideals.

Spates of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims have flared up in recent months, while critics of the BJP are frequently attacked and trolled by online mobs. Internet — and occasionally physical — abuse is particularly rife against female opponents of Hindu nationalism.

The auction sites exemplify the “extreme xenophobia and misogyny used by Hindu nationalists to foster ascendancy,” said Angana Chatterji, an anthropologist specializing in Indian politics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Police in Mumbai have detained a man in connection with Bulli Bai, said Satej D. Patil, a junior minister in Maharashtra state, which is governed by a coalition including the Congress Party that sits in opposition to the BJP at the national level. He said a “large group of people who intend to disrupt … communal harmony” could be behind the website.

The operators of the fake auction websites aren’t known, but they appear to be part of a “decentralized apparatus of attacks, trolling and vilification of Muslim women,” said Gilles Verniers, a politics expert at Ashoka University in India. He added attacks on Muslims were often downplayed or tolerated by Indian leaders, many of whom are BJP members.

The BJP and Modi’s office didn’t immediately return requests for comment. The BJP has said that it acts promptly to manage religious tensions and that reports of hate crimes against Muslims sometimes reflect efforts by the media to malign the central government.

Analysis: Why India’s modern women say it’s a ‘burden’ to be female

There are about 200 million Muslims in India, representing roughly 14 percent of the country’s population. Many face discrimination in employment and housing and fare poorly on measures of socioeconomic progress. Modi’s government has clamped down on Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region, by taking away its long-standing semi-autonomy. New Delhi has also passed a citizenship law that many see as aimed at Muslims in the country.

Hiba Bég, a Columbia University graduate student who was targeted by the fake auction websites, wrote on Twitter that she no longer felt safe speaking out about the treatment of Muslim women in India.

“I am not safe in this country. Muslim women like me are not safe in this country. How many online deals will it take for us to see action?” she said.

Read more:

In Modi’s quest to transform India, a grand Hindu temple rises

Voices from Kashmir: Inside India’s year-long crackdown

Under fire from Hindu nationalist groups, U.S.-based scholars of South Asia worry about academic freedom