New Delhi: Police in India are investigating how dozens of Muslim women were offered for sale in fake "auctions" online without their knowledge, in a case the victims say illustrates growing Islamophobia across the country.
Photos of more than 80 women were reportedly uploaded in recent weeks to GitHub, an open software development platform, under the title "Sulli deal of the day". "Sulli" is derogatory slang for Muslim women.
Hana Mohsin Khan, an airline pilot, was alerted last week by a friend who directed her to a link that led to a gallery of images of women.
"The fourth picture was mine. They were literally auctioning me as their slave for the day," Khan told AFP.
"It sends chills down my spine. From that day till today, I am just in a constant state of anger," she said.
GitHub said it has now suspended the users' accounts, saying they violated its policies on harassment, discrimination and inciting violence.
Delhi police have filed charges -- but against unknown persons because they do not know the identity of the perpetrators.
- Troll army -
Sania Ahmad, 34, who also found herself "up for sale" last week, points the finger at what she calls an online troll army of Hindu zealots in India that has proliferated in recent years.
They have become adept at hounding people including journalists and activists with thousands of abusive messages to the extent that some shut down their social media accounts.
Many among India's 170 million Muslims say they feel like second-class citizens since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP party came to power in 2014.
A string of lynchings of Muslims by Hindu mobs over so-called cow protection -- a sacred animal for many Hindus -- and other hate crimes has sown fear and despair in the community.
Indian journalist Fatima Khan, who was also among the women targeted on GitHub, said the fake "auction" fitted into this pattern.
"How is this acceptable? What will be the punishment, if any, meted out to the people who made this list?" she tweeted.
"Muslim men are lynched, Muslim women are harassed and sold online. When will this end?"
- 782 screenshots -
Online harassment of women and girls -- including threats of violence, rape and manipulated pornographic images -- is a huge problem, not just in India.
A 2020 survey by UK-based Plan International of 14,000 girls in 31 countries found more than half had been victims of such treatment.
"Rather than free and empowered to express themselves online, girls are all too often harassed, abused and driven from online spaces," it said.
In India, Muslim women are a particular target, said Ahmad, 34, who works for an Indian media company.
"It starts with petty abuse and grows into death and rape threats," she told AFP.
"I have 782 screenshots of abuse -- mostly on Twitter -- targeted at me. And these are just from the past year."
The perpetrators, she believes, have "political backing" as part of a growing trend of ugly Islamophobia under India's Hindu nationalist government.
The government has not commented on the latest scandal. It denies being anti-Muslim.
Ahmad sent a legal notice to Twitter reporting multiple derogatory posts but no action had been taken, she said. Twitter has not commented on the case.
- Educated -
The victims in the latest case included researchers, analysts, artists and journalists, according to the National Commission for Women.
"The women targeted here don't fit into their idea of a typical Muslim victim -- docile, burkha-clad and abused. When we don't fit into that, they want to silence us," said Khan.
Ahmad, whose heart now races every morning before she checks her phone, said the abuse was aimed at insulting Muslim men too.
"When you want to attack somebody, you attack the women of the house. That is the sensitive spot," she said.