Roots of Islamophobic sexualization of Muslim women and men

Few would be unaware of the recent controversy around the outrageous auctioning of Muslim women online under the tag of “Sulli Deals.” An app claiming to deal in Muslim women which was hosted on Github and popularised on social media. Multiple Muslim women’s pictures were non-consensually posted on the app which evoked a barrage of reactions on social media. There have been multiple statements on the cause and effects of this incident, however there seems to be a lack of contextualisation in the larger charged communal-nationalist political atmosphere.

It would be naïve to view the Sulli Deals or similar objectification of the “Other” women merely from a gender lens. A historical analysis that puts into perspective the sexualisation of racism will help us to interconnect multiple different incidents like claims of love jihad, population jihad, hyper-masculine jingoism, metaphorising of women as the nation, sexualisation of both Muslim women and men that currently seem to be distinct and unrelated.

It is not uncommon for women’s bodies to be the site of political conflicts. However the intended attacks are not limited to mere objectification or sexualisation ; rather, they are carefully weaved through narratives of nationalism , tribalism, biological essentialism and specifically the figure of the female as a nation reproducing element. As writer Sara K Farris points out in her work “In The Name Of Women’s Rights:The Rise of Femonationalism”:

“The notion of sexualization of racism emphasizes that racism is sexed because it relies on different stereotypes of Othered men and women—as oppressors and sexual threats, and as victims and sexual objects/property, respectively. Racist ideologies express the desire to dominate the Other through the fantasies of possessing the body of the racialized woman and of sexually humiliating the racialized man.”

We can recognise a similar pattern in the context of sulli deals, where the goal was not only to dehumanise and violate muslim women but to establish a superiority on muslim men by possessing and demonizing the women of the “other” group. While feminist frame would only see the aspect of women in the discourse, it is essential to bring the debate on “Sexualisation of racism” of an othered community without bisecting or pitting one gender against the other or taking muslim men or women in isolation to their community.

Identification of nation with women

The image of nations is generally associated with women. However it is only a part identification wherein the nation doesn’t embody the women citizens but the idea of a biological woman with reproducing capacities. With the decline of aristocracy that was generally associated with female divine figures, and the rise of the idea of nationalism, the idea of nation came to be associated with common women. It intended to elicit feelings of loyalty and a filial connection towards a mother figure. Although this stays true for most nations, nowhere it becomes more evident than in India where there has been a historical insistence on the image of Bharat Mata. Bharat Mata is simultaneously depicted as a divine figure that is strictly Hindu but also a mother that denotes a familial connection with the citizens. This evokes a twofold dilemma for Indian Muslims. Firstly, the idea of a divine Bharat Mata clashes with the monotheistic ideals of Islam. Secondly, due to remnants of partition Muslims are still seen as a “nation within a nation” and are associated with a foreign masculine imagery. The Hindu community directly relates to the female identification of India whereas the Muslim community whole-sole is identified as hypersexual men defiling the sanctity of the mother figure. The rejection of India as a female divine motherly figure brings into question the loyalty of Muslims in terms of both patriotism and respect towards a female figure.

Population Jihad

A biologically essentialist female imagery of nationhood is imposed on the “national women” which constitutes of Hindu women. As such, a competitive reproductive race is assumed wherein the “national women” must out-reproduce the non-national women ie the Muslim women. The cries of population explosion are not new and are accompanied with calls on Hindu women to reproduce more kids. The tribe of the nation, ie, the nationalists must grow. A discussion on reproductive capacities would inadvertently lead to the sexualisation of all women and the reduction of women to their anatomy. Muslim women are portrayed as voiceless baby-producing-machines actively committed to the task of increasing the population while their men trap Hindu women and recruit them for the same cause of “population jihad”. The question of Muslim women’s fertility has always been such a hot topic that it occupies a good space in the Sachar report as well. Finally, the consensus arises that if the fertility of Muslim women cannot be reined then efforts must be made to channelize the fertility towards contribution of the “national” population (instead of the Muslim population). This forms the backdrop of calls for abduction of Muslim women, graphic fantasies of rape and forced marriages. In a Mahapanchayat held at Pataudi in early July,Jamia shooter Rambhakt Gopal was heard calling for mass abduction of muslim women. The speakers were heard advocating the usage of “iphones and lambi gaadiyan” to trap muslim women.

The excuse behind the calls is the underlying anxieties of not just Muslim women’s fertility but of Muslim men carrying out similar operations against Hindu women.

Love Jihad anxieties

The dogwhistle of love jihad is not merely a call for communal separation and purity of gene-pool. Muslim men are believed to be actively conniving to trap Hindu women, not simply with the purpose of “taking” Hindu women but also to humiliate Hindu men and use “their” women to produce Muslim babies. As far back as 1920s Arya Samaj raised the question of abduction of Hindu women by Muslim men in order to make them produce Muslim children. The lines between love jihad , population jihad , gendered Islamophobia, sexualisation of nation itself are increasingly blurred and arising from the same sentiment of hyper-nationalism. A tract published in 1924 from Kanpur and titled Humara Bhishan Haas dwelt on the catastrophic decline of Hindus due to increasing conversions of Hindu women to Islam. It claimed that a number of Aryan women were entering the homes of yavanas and mlecchas , reading Nikah with them, producing gaubhakshak (cow-killers) children, and increasing Muslim numbers

Muslim men’s hyper-sexualisation

It would be a folly to believe the sexualisation of bigotry affects only the Muslim women. Muslim men have been equally sexualised and for as long as Muslim women. When a community faces questions in its sexual behaviours it is natural for all genders to be sexually stereotyped. For instance, it wasn’t merely black women who were fetishised as sexually available and morally “loose” but black men were (are) stereotyped as hypersexual creatures with caricatures about their genitalia size. While black men were hypermasculanised, Asian male immigrants to the US were feminised and seen as not “manly” enough for heterosexual women. The jokes about small sizes of Asian men’s genitalia further popularised during Vietnam war. The stereotypes persist to this day. Likewise, Muslim men in India have been subjected to a myriad of sexual sterotypes. It is necessary to see these sexualisations not in terms of women vs men binary where only the former are the victims of the latter at large. Instead, this sexualisation stems from a jingoistic , racist attitude that objectifies the Muslim community instead of just the women. In words of Lila Abu Lughod, Muslim women in orientalist Muslim men are depicted as philanderers, liscentious corrupts who cannot rein their libido. This is intricately spun propaganda as Bhanwar Meghwanshi , a former RSS worker writes in his book “I Could Not Be a Hindu”. He writes that his colleagues in Shakhas often discussed the crisis of Love Jihad, the impact of non-vegetarian food on Muslim men’s libido, the effect of circumcision on sexual performance and the need to trap Muslim girls.However, this is not a new discussion. In the words of Charu Gupta, “Even noted Hindi writers like Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-85), Pratap Narain Misra (1856-94) and Radha Charan Goswami (1859-1923) often por trayed medieval Muslim rule as a chronicle of rape and abduction of Hindu women.

Need to contextualise

There can be no denying that any conflict has gendered repercussions for women who are singled out for sexual violences. However, it is incredibly myopic to merely see incidents like Sulli deals in isolation from the larger narrative that is set around the community. The narrative of Love jihad, population jihad,Triple Talaq controversy, sexual stereotypes of both men and women , the question of Muslim community’s patriotism etc form the backdrop of objectification of the “Other” women. In the words of Frantz Fanon as written in “Algeria Unveiled”, the French decided, “ If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance , we must first of all conquer the women”. Sara K Harris reaffirms the statement by dissecting how Muslim women are given the role of “Trojan Horses” that must infiltrate the community and “fix” the men aka de-islamise the community or must be held at ransom to make the community behave.

There is a need to contextualise such narratives and put the same into perspective by analysing historical precedents throughout the globe. By focusing merely on the direct attack and objectification and attack made by the right wing, we not only dwarf the issue but also fail to see the larger narratives that form the backdrop of such attacks.