Indian Muslim women don’t need male ‘saviours’ – Hindu or Muslim

Fringe Muslim trolls are morally policing Muslim women, mirroring the Hindu right’s violent tactics.

[Courtesy: Afreen Fatima]
Afreen Fatima, a researcher and activist, was targeted by Hindu activists in a 'virtual auction' two years ago. Now, many Muslim women are facing moral policing from Muslim trolls, too [Courtesy: Afreen Fatima/Al Jazeera]

In India, Islamophobic propaganda from the right often capitalises on unfounded fears of a Muslim population expansion. This deep-seated belief has given birth to a conspiracy theory known as “love jihad“, which alleges that Muslim men are actively seeking to entice Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

Exploiting this theory, vigilante groups have been involved in the harassment of interfaith couples, particularly when the woman involved is Hindu. Prominent Hindu nationalist figures regularly deliver speeches encouraging Hindu men to marry Muslim women and convert them to Hinduism. Recently, a femo-nationalist narrative has also gained traction, where influential women linked with Hindu nationalist organisations have urged Muslim women to marry a Hindu man to find “freedom” from alleged oppression.

“Saving” the Muslim woman has been an indispensable component of India’s Hindu nationalist narrative, as it helps portray Islam as a religion that oppresses women followers who need intervention from Hindu men for their emancipation. The ruling government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance, has claimed credit for getting the country’s Supreme Court to ban the practice of triple talaq or instant divorce.

The Muslim woman is paradoxically the most hyper-present and invisible figure in the political discourse in India. Her life is constantly a subject of public discussion, while her own opinion on it is nowhere to be seen.

In recent months, however, an equally worrying and conspiratorial trend has taken birth, again purportedly centred on “saving Muslim women” – this time led by Muslim men. What initially started as a Twitter campaign called Bhagwa Love Trap, warning Muslim women about Hindu men supposedly trying to lure them, soon transformed into a full-blown mirror-image theory of love jihad.

Self-appointed moral policing groups of Muslim men have targeted couples or friends where the woman is Muslim, following the exact same pattern as the Hindu right in its vigilantism. Several cases have emerged across the country where Muslim women seen with a man suspected to be Hindu, or in mixed-gender groups, have been confronted in public spaces.

In images and videos recorded and shared online to humiliate them, the women can be seen as they are interrogated, lectured on chastity and forced by the mob to share the telephone numbers and addresses of their fathers or brothers.

Separately, an anonymous Twitter account went as far as doxing the personal details of Muslim women who had married interfaith, obtained from the marriage registration website of the Telangana state government.

This is worrying and dangerous, particularly at a time when Muslim women are already on the receiving end of dehumanising stereotypes and harassment of a sexual nature by Hindu nationalists.

Ultimately, in both cases, it is Muslim women who bear the brunt of heightened surveillance and scrutiny – and this extends from physical spaces to the online world.

Over the past couple of years, young Hindutva radicals have created platforms – one was called Sulli Deals, the other titled Bulli Bai App – which posted photos and details of Muslim women who they claimed to be auctioning virtually. The idea: to humiliate and shame particularly those Muslim women who have been assertively calling out the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in India.

Among their targets – the platforms were shut down following a global outcry – were Fatima Khan, a journalist, and Nabiya Khan, an activist and poet.

The horrific irony? It is precisely women like Fatima and Nabiya who are now in the crosshairs of the small, fringe set of Muslim men, who do not represent the community and are attacking Muslim women whose views they disagree with online.

Fatima, a journalist for The Quint publication who has extensively covered rising Islamophobia in India, was targeted by these trolls online after she wrote a story covering the Bhagwa Love Trap campaign. Nabiya too was targeted for days, by several anonymous handles on social media, including Twitter and Instagram, after she tweeted: “Why is moral policing exclusively reserved for women?”

When Muslim men tweeted in defence of these women, they too were slandered and attacked by the trolls.

To tackle this dangerous phenomenon, it’s important to understand what’s driving it.

Living under a Hindu nationalist regime for almost a decade, the traditional perception of men as protectors and women as preservers of cultural traditions is increasingly getting reinforced in shaping people’s identities in contemporary India – among both Hindus and Muslims.

The recurring calls for genocide, rising hate crimes and everyday humiliation of Muslims at the hands of Hindu nationalists pose an existential crisis for the entire Muslim community. A few men, however, are internalising this crisis as a personal failing on account of their traditional gender role as protectors of their community and are adopting exaggerated and superficial masculine traits as a defence mechanism.

The trolling of Fatima, a non-hijabi woman, was centred around her Muslim name and the validity of her faith. In the case of Nabiya, meanwhile, accounts with large followings on the internet circulated images of her showing her sitting with male non-Muslim friends – an act that, according to those targeting her, brought disrespect to the hijab.

The Muslim trolls ironically attacked her through the exact same stereotypical beliefs that the Hindu right-wing associates with Muslim women, according to which the hijab worn by her is not a representation of her faith but rather a symbol of her subjugation to the men of her community.

The nature of the trolling that these women were subjected to was based on the belief that liberal or feminist thought within Muslim women has influenced them to go against the men of the community, misuse their names or their religious symbols (in this case, the hijab) while jeopardising the honour of the Muslim community. A troubling culture of victim blaming is breeding, where the Islamophobic violence directed towards Muslims is being blamed on the weakest of all within the community.

Despite putting their safety at risk to speak against the rising Islamophobia in India, women like Fatima and Nabiya are being labelled by some as traitors to the community. This has nothing to do with genuine morality and everything to do with the display of policing. A display of male supremacy, cloaked in the age-old guise of traditional morality.

While the online attack on Nabiya and Fatima is vile and harsh, they are urban, relatively privileged women – a status that affords them at least some level of protection. Women who come from marginalised sections have little to no support, once they have become subjects of public humiliation. This in turn can lead to social ostracisation and even physical violence, all of which is bound to have a profound negative impact on their psychological wellbeing.

It is difficult to speak up against the implications of these attacks. There already exists in India and many other parts of the world an unfair, made-up narrative that frames all Muslim men as oppressive, violent and predatory. Being aware of how her own oppression will be weaponised against her community and will embolden a system that is constantly on the lookout for excuses to put stamps on these stereotypes, the Muslim woman is under pressure to submit silently to this new, rising threat.

This double silencing not only limits her capacity to protect herself against violence but also denies her any political agency, reducing her to either a spectator, a supporter or a battleground.

She is forced to choose from a pre-written binary – one where she can either be “saved” by the Hindu man or “protected” by the Muslim man.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.