In 2021, India saw a spate of online “auctions” on platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, GitHub and Clubhouse. Non-consensually sourced images, including morphed images, of hundreds of Muslim women were “rated” and “reviewed” for their “monetary and sexual worth” by men espousing allegiance to Hindu majoritarian politics. The “auctions” were the latest tactic in a broad range of misogynistic cultures online, primarily targeting journalists, politicians, activists, and civilians who are vocal against right-wing politics and its policies to marginalize religious minorities and oppressed caste groups. For Nur Akhtar, an activist based in Delhi, “online auction” was an entirely new form of harassment. “This was somehow different to me, honestly,” she said. “It was not like any other. It wasn’t even like a rape threat. It was more real than mere trolling because there was this element of auctioning, there was a whole activity around you where there are people now commenting on you and talking about you, objectifying you.” These “e-auctions” had transgressed a line by moving beyond the usual two-dimensional format of image-based abuse on social media, to create a public “event” where men could log in to “trade” upon the bodies of women reduced to their religious identity. Indeed, “trolling,” a word that carries overtones of “play” (see Emma A. Jane’s work on online misogyny) or “hate speech” does not adequately capture the gendered harms of “auctions” in the current postcolonial context where gendered and sexual violence and digital mediation have become core aspects of religious majoritarian political cultures.
Technologically mediated sexual violence is now considered a criminal act in many countries but despite the obvious malfeasance of the “auctions,” taking judicial action against the perpetrators posed a legal double bind for affected women. Exercising the legal option of lodging complaints came with the risks of inviting the attention of a majoritarian carceral state, and the burdens of navigating excruciating administrative processes and practical difficulties. And hence, while some women featured in these “auctions” decided to register a First Information Report (FIR), others stayed away from the police and other state institutions. Our interlocutors—women targeted in these “auctions” and activists who took up their cause—had little expectations from either social media companies or the judicial system. Their mistrust now stands vindicated in light of delayed cooperation by platforms, police apathy, and the prompt bails granted to the accused. How then should we understand the significance of lodging FIRs as a feminist activist practice in India despite the risks it carries and its “futility”?
Following Saba Mahmood and Lois McNay, Malmström has argued for “the need to understand agency as the capacity to act according to the exigencies of the specific socio-cultural context.” Keeping an intersectional approach to online misogyny, we propose that by registering complaints despite risks to life and family, these women demonstrated their understanding of and realized their agentive locus as it exists within the matrix of global statutory inertia and local authoritarian forces. We follow the experience of these women with the police and the heightened perception of risks in their everyday online lives, to contend that “filing a complaint” is not just an attempt to jog a constitutional provision but also a subversive practice in counter-archiving. However, while counter-archiving signals agency and resistance, we conclude that it cannot compensate for the lack of political will among platforms and state institutions to address violent online misogyny. The nexus between state and corporate complicity in enabling identity-based misogyny requires a thoroughgoing radical approach in our solution-seeking.
“Nothing Will Come of It”: A Refrain
Our interlocutors were convinced that nothing worthwhile would result from the judicial proceedings against the accused. Aliya Abbas, a human rights advocate, did not bother filing a complaint against her violators because “nothing was going to come of it.” Nadiya’s partner did not encourage her to take legal steps either: “He did not think any good would come out of it, that I would be the person harassed by the police, questioned, or summoned.” Nur found that framing and submitting an FIR was a learning curve for both herself and the investing officers. She was astonished at the “technically unsound” questions of the police, their complete ignorance of Twitter’s platform architecture, and how tweets and trolls worked. One of the first to bring these auctions to notice, Nur struggled to expand the scope of the charges from “stalking” to include communally motivated criminal defamation and sexual violence. Further, all the women interviewed found the police unsympathetic; consistently downplaying the enormity of the incidents through victim blaming, confounding legal jargons, and even simply refusing to register FIRs.
Multiple police complaints were eventually filed across the country, leading to the arrests of some perpetrators. Our interlocutors as well as news reports attributed the turn of events to inter-state rivalry in the police force, and not legal protocols.
Lodging the FIRs, however, came with anxieties and realities of surveillance. Lodging FIRs in India require submitting social media handles, identity proofs, and permanent residential addresses that open up the doors of surveillance over family members. “My fear is that I don’t want my family to get involved…The system will make me end up revealing more about me, and bring more harm than help me. They will take your guardians’ number, even though I am an adult,” said Taslima Zaidi, a data privacy lawyer.
Online, Muslim women are accustomed to operating and exercising their digital citizenship under the twin gaze of state and non-institutional actors. Aside from “official” social media monitoring (see Data Protection Bill 2022), “banal surveillance”—stalking and heckling by “ordinary” online users—has become a common form of harassment against minoritized publics and critical voices. Nadiya recalls a comment she had left on YouTube that caused a “swarming” of nationalist actors. After receiving more than 500 replies to her original comment, she decided to delete the entire thread altogether, fearing that this heightened activity would lead to her attackers tracing her Google account and ultimately her identity. For some of these women who had a modest following on Twitter and no celebrity to boast of, the auctions were a clear missive that they were being watched. Nadiya has no doubt that her data with Twitter can be used by both state and non-institutional players to launch further attacks, should she become “visible” again.
“It’s About Archiving More Than Anything Else”
One may then ask what is the advantage, if any, of registering complaints in a hostile environment with severely curtailed opportunities to seek justice? Some of our interlocutors had indeed become cautiously indifferent to the episodes’ aftermath. The news that the arrested were granted prompt bails did not evoke a reaction among our interlocutors. Most claimed that they had “unfollowed” the story about their assailants and took no particular interests in its twists and turns. Aliya reflected, “Retribution is not something they are seeking, the person might be let off on bail, already has happened, but it is important to document.” The goal post for justice has thus shifted to memory work.
An FIR is a complaint of alleged criminal activity or “cognizable offense” that sets an investigation into motion. They are “public records” that cannot be deleted or deposed unless through court order. FIRs are available to anyone once the case is completed. Thus, they are to be held in “reading rooms” of police stations ad infinitum. In other words, these legal records in all their materiality live as part of state archive and memory. To document formally then, beyond private and digital (re)collections, is to figure in the archive (see Refiguring the Archive). We claim that to figure and to insert a trace in the state’s memory despite the imminent threat to life, both individual and communal, is a political act of resistance. In this context, Nur’s determination to strategically engage India’s justice system when such assaults arise—“maidan nahin khali karna (must never retreat from the battlefield)”—can be read as a pledge that goes beyond an attempt to exercise a constitutional right, to inscribe into state memory what might otherwise become oral history and digital folklore.
Thus, these acts do not want to attract attention to archival content alone but to the subversion of specific archives. This is in direct contradistinction to their political opponents, the “Internet Hindus,” who have been collecting and citing a wide range of texts with disputable provenance, assertive commentaries, and “evidence” of Hindu civilizational excellence as an integral part of their political practice of “history-making” and digital discourse (see S. Udupa’s analysis of Archiving as History-Making: Religious Politics of Social Media in India). While such archiving as digital practice seeks to challenge the very authority of state-sanctioned narratives of the past, the question around “source” and procedural vetting derail the acceptability and authenticity of such projects as the univocal History of the subcontinent. On the other hand, by approaching the state itself and inscribing their agency as source, the women create counter-archives. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, and Graeme Reid claim that archives, even as sliver and symbol, “mobilize possible imaginings of community,” and in archiving their resistance, these women create both archives and heirs for this memory work. (See Peter Fritsche’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s exposition on memory.) And although the materiality of official archives is bound to their regimes, and their holdings may be sanitized or silenced, Achille Mbembe tells us in his essay “The Power of the Archive and its Limits” that such material destruction runs the risk of creating a hollow that might act as a “receptacle of all utopian ideals and of all anger, the authority of a future judge.” Further, while what is left out of state archives “cannot simply be put back in,” FIRs also provide copies—signed and stamped documents—for the complainant to keep. Thus, traces survive in myriad ways as “hauntings” and “promises” of reconstructing herstory through an against the grain reading of state-sanctioned public memory.
Are State-Corporate Agencies Enough to Prevent Online Misogyny?
In exploring the legal double bind in which targets of identity-based online misogyny find themselves in countries like India, we have reflected on Muslim women articulating their agency through becoming archived. And while this is powerful, it is not the ideal course of action for any of these women. Systemic stonewalling has a large debris zone: these women are not only forced to forfeit their digital citizenship and grant a hostile state access through legal records, they have to recalibrate their political, social, economic, and familial lives after such episodes of online violence. Therefore, if we are to retain marginalized and minoritized voices in the digital public sphere, governments need to correct fundamental gaps including, at the very minimum, police unfamiliarity with emerging technologies and forms of online abuse. The evidence of identity-based online misogyny and institutional bias also asks for a fresh reckoning with how data archons such as Twitter or Facebook share user data. Enforcing greater transparency over data sharing removes the element of uncertainty and suspicion of banal and state surveillance amongst vulnerable publics, and it can enable women to make informed decisions regarding their platform use and mental health. The new Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, as internet rights advocates have argued, is not particularly strong on data protection. The bill has drawn criticism for lacking safeguards against arbitrary use and storage of data. Such developments yet again prove the fallacy of viewing the digital as the new egalitarian public square. If companies are bound territorially to share data, especially with hostile governments, then perhaps it is time to consider an independent public body of redressal for misogynistic violence feeding on violations of privacy in the digital space.
Note: Names have been anonymized to protect the identity of interview partners. The FIRs in New Delhi and Mumbai were eventually registered under sections 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion), 153 B (imputations prejudicial to national integration), 295A (insulting religious beliefs), 354D (stalking), 509 (word, gesture, or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman), 500 (criminal defamation), IPC and section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act.
This work is part of the project “Understanding, Detecting, and Mitigating Online Misogyny against Politically Active Women,” funded by the Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (BIDT).