India’s 2019 elections saw a record number of women politicians in the lower house of parliament: 78 were elected, or 14 percent of the legislative body. But it wasn’t progress across the board. The lower house’s representation of Muslim women went way down, from four before the May contest to just one, Sadja Ahmed.
One reason for that may be the staggering amount of harassment visited on female Muslim politicians. A new report from Amnesty International documented online trolling of India’s female politicians, and the news is grim for everyone. But not all female politicians are trolled equally.
Female Muslim politicians in India face nearly double the ethnic and religious slurs that other female politicians do.
The Amnesty International survey encompassed some 7 million tweets, between March and May 2019, mentioning 95 female politicians across India’s political spectrum. The results were not promising: While female politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. face a huge amount of trolling — Amnesty International research in 2017 found that a woman in politics was sent an abusive tweet every 30 seconds — about 7 percent of tweets sent to them were labeled abusive, while for Indian female politicians it was about double that. Women representing parties across the political spectrum were targeted with slurs insulting their race and gender and threatened with rape and murder. Volunteers analyzed the tweets from nine languages, explains Amnesty spokesperson Nazia Erum, and then sent each to be further analyzed by at least three experts before it was labeled abusive.
It was not just Muslim women who received significantly more abuse than their Hindu counterparts. Women from marginalized caste backgrounds and women from outside the ruling BJP saw far more abuse than the average.
“When it comes to trolling, they look at the vulnerabilities of the person,” says Aqsa Shaikh, a Muslim transgender activist. “If you are a woman, Muslim or from LGBTQ or marginalized castes, you are more vulnerable. They have more ammunition against you.” Islamophobia that has existed in the country over the years is just a part of this, Shaikh says, and its perpetuation via social media is no fluke. Political polarization in India has been widely promoted via social media in recent years, and disinformation spread via WhatsApp is estimated to have caused dozens of deaths in recent years. Before the 2019 election, the lower house of parliament had seen a slow but steady growth in the number of female MPs, with four Muslim women each in the two previous parliaments.
“Many women do not enter politics because of the price of constant online harassment,” Shazia Ilmi, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Amnesty researchers. Though the BJP has promoted Hindu nationalist policies, Ilmi — who worked as a journalist before entering politics — is Muslim. “Only 25 percent of what I get is based on the content of my politics,” she says. “Seventy-five to 80 percent is about being a woman and a Muslim woman.”
While all women faced slurs and harassment online, what Muslim female politicians encountered was significantly worse. Overall, they faced 55 percent more abuse than politicians of other religions, and 94 percent more ethnic and religious hatred. Similar studies have not been conducted on tweets to India’s male politicians.
This is also playing out in real life: India was recently roiled by protests after the BJP passed a citizenship bill that marginalized Muslim asylum-seekers. As the climate of online abuse has grown and normalized, so too have legislative solutions that exclude Muslims.
For some women, the climate of hatred might not take them out of politics — just off social media. Sadja Ahmed, the only Muslim female MP left in the lower house of parliament, has only tweeted 84 times, compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 25.9 thousand times. Meanwhile, when Hasiba Amin, a social media campaigner for the Indian National Congress party, got into the profession, she “was told that ‘I have no right to speak as a Muslim woman,’” she told Amnesty. She routinely received rape threats and was subject to insinuations about her sexual relationships with older men. Her way out was simple: “In 2019, I have considerably reduced my activity on Twitter.”