A few weeks ago, I was asked to write on the gendered communal ire faced by Muslim women in light of the ‘Sulli Deals’ incident. I wrote a few paragraphs and realized that this would be the first time I would be writing as a Muslim woman. Identity is a strange word when you think of it in isolation, suspended on a sunbeam bereft of the granular structural differences we grow up with. An intersectional identity essentially means our social identities are multi-dimensional, creating a prism of experiences that is the sum of our parts. Let us understand this as a gradient of the human rights theory that argues in favour of acknowledging the multiple facets of our identity that come together to form one compound identity. This new definition of identity includes the convergence of factors that really make us who we are. Let me assert at the very beginning that this essay is not a dialogue on gender identity. Neither is it about the struggle to assert religious identity. It is about free will and deterrence.
Women, anywhere in the world, are not a homogenous group and India is no exception to this. While it is a fact that Muslims form the largest minority in the country, a discourse on the identity of Muslim women in India is not as linear as it might appear. We may contextualize this by considering our domestic socio-political situation.
It was an ordinary day when the words, ‘Find your Sulli Deal of the day’, caught my attention on social media. Unaware of the fact that ‘sulli’ is a word with pejorative connotations, I clicked on the link which went on to display a real-life photograph of a Muslim woman. Psychologists have long argued that personally relevant stimuli can successfully attract our attention owing to their relevance to our lives. Naturally, my first reaction was to find out if I’m a deal meant for some random man browsing through my blithely smiling pictures. And then it dawned on me why talking about identity in our society is seemingly benign but actually extremely dangerous. We have been taught to not bring our identity to the playground, to not wear it on our sleeve. But what alternative does one have when we are so easily, and quite often, pigeonholed in the name of identity that is both facile and demeaning?
The difference between the two statements is one of volition. I may choose not to wear my identity (stemming from my caste, class, gender, religion, race) but this intersectional label (of religion and gender) attached to me without my consent and diametrically opposed to my self-interest is bigger than an ethical transgression. Pared down and put simply, consider this: one minute you are an urban Indian woman worthy of a voice and the next you’re a commodity on sale.
In her groundbreaking work, “The Fetishism of the Woman’s Image”, Mariana Meloni talks about how the female body has been used to excite sexual desire for an exclusively male audience while also allowing for passive voyeurism. Putting the word, ‘sulli’, into perspective, Zehra Kazmi, a PhD scholar and researcher on South Asian Muslim writing at University of St Andrews, Scotland, is of the opinion that “The use of language has always been gendered, for example property (zameen) is feminine and anger (ghussa) is masculine which is why Sulli Deals is an instance of sexualised bullying.” Kazmi goes on to elaborate that this reduces Muslim women to pieces of meat which ties into how we consume language and images of women. Having said that, how does one put into words this feeling of being reduced to one’s biological orientation and the cardinal direction of their prostration? After trying and failing to do so, I instead decided to trace the ontology of ‘Sulli Deals’ to argue why it is less jarring than it ought to be.
On the one hand, we are on the precipice of change for the global feminist movement and, on the other, women are targets of systemic sexualized hatred. At this juncture, a host of questions arise — is this incident a euphemism for another radicalized rape threat? Is it a simplistic, malevolent form of intimidation or a toxic stew of organized misogyny? To me, it seems ‘Sulli Deals’ is not mutually exclusive of any of the above. Perhaps because at its very core, ‘Sulli Deals’ is actually an ineffective deterrent rooted in perverse animosity. Law of Crimes teaches every law student the importance of a jurisprudential tool called deterrence. A deterrent is a sub-bracket of threat that follows an imposition of punishment. It is the system’s way of repressing unacceptable behaviour by creating an inhibition in the mind of the individual practising this behaviour and also of other silent subscribers to such impermissible conduct. The operative principle here is to prohibit the potential pursuit of this behaviour but by using one individual as an example for others.
In psychology, aversive conditioning is a tool to modify the subject’s response to any given situation by exposing it to an unpleasant stimulus. The goal here is to create a painful response that elicits avoidance of the behaviour by the subject. A form of associated learning, aversive conditioning is simply an apparatus to stop unwanted behaviour. Let me also point out that in this context there is a conjunctive that weaves together the threads of sexualized hatred and communal perversity — shaming the Other. But this isn’t the first time a deterrent of shame and ‘Othering’ has been used.
In her work, the author and literary historian, Rakhshanda Jalil, shows how bodies of women and girls have historically been the site of violence. The Partition of 1947 witnessed an overwhelming need for revenge, retribution, reprisal against women of the ‘Other’ community. Explaining this link between gender and religion in the current socio-political set-up, Rohini Sen, assistant professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University and a PhD candidate at Warwick Law School, says, “This is a concept of saving ‘our’ women and violating ‘their’ women because a woman’s body has been viewed as the site of honour or male virility.” Here, we must understand that the exoticization of women, especially of ‘Other’ kind of women from a different class and religion, is indicative of asserting ownership over their body.
Lastly, is this incident not symptomatic of the larger societal mentality? For the average Indian woman, to exist in a world of space-age technology is to acknowledge the forces of patriarchal hostility without conceding to them. One may argue that by aiming to instil a degree of apprehension and fear in the minds of young Muslim women, what this incident intended to do is take away all prerogative, agency, and capacity they have built over a long time. But speaking to Maliha Khan, a marketing consultant based out of Delhi, has given my analysis a new shade of grey. “All it does is show me the hatred at play against Muslim women, the kind especially palpable against working Muslim women. My name is Khan (literally) and that is enough for the people who made that app.” Stoic and unperturbed, she ends by saying, “they can never really touch me no matter what app they make.”
The moral of the story? Women ceding digital space, given its inherently unequal and unsafe nature, is to give power to this scaremongering. What we truly need to develop is a specific legislation that allows for prompt action and redressal of abusive content and criminal intimidation. Merging the complex issue of cyber-bullying with the wider periphery of existing laws on obscenity, hacking, impersonation, sextortion, and malicious distribution will permit an inclusive approach towards tackling this menace.
Aaliya Waziri is a lawyer, presently working as a Consultant with UN Women India