Being increasingly targeted because of their religious identity has begun to exact a mental toll on many Indian Muslims.
For Sania Ahmad, a journalist and activist based in India’s capital New Delhi, the very first day of 2022 turned out to be horrible. She was shocked to find her name on an application, Bulli Bai, where hundreds of outspoken Muslim women were being auctioned online.
“To function everyday, and try and live a normal life requires superhuman effort, considering the fact that you are having to deal with hate every single day. It has taken every ounce of strength to stand up, despite knowing that society hates you,” she told TRT World.
However, this was not the first time Ahmad was the target of online harassment.
Just a few months earlier, her name also appeared on another application posted on the same Github platform, ‘Sulli Deals’, where right-wing trolls posted pictures of Muslim women and auctioned them online.
Such incidents have taken a toll on Ahmad’s mental health. “Mental distress is definitely becoming more acute,” she explained. “We have seen how the fringe and hate towards the Muslim community has become mainstream.”
What Ahmad or other Muslim women who have popped up in ‘Sulli Deals’ or ‘Bulli Bai’ feel about their mental health is something that has been on a rise because of the general ‘othering’ of the Muslim community.
In a research paper published in the Journal of Health Sciences, it was found that Muslims were at a higher risk of anxiety in India compared to Hindus. The paper also found that factors like age, education, media exposure, and gender are also significantly associated with mental health problems.
Pooja Priyamvada, a mental health researcher and suicide prevention activist based in New Delhi, also explained how factors like gender, class, and religion play a major role in determining the mental health of an individual.
She believes that mistrust between Hindus and Muslims, together which make up nearly 94 percent of the country’s population, has grown so much now that it can even be felt in personal interactions.
“During the pandemic, mistrust had peaked because the pandemic took place right after the Shaheen Bagh movement and the riots in Delhi. These events exacerbated the mistrust between the communities and this then reflected in how they reached out and accessed healthcare,” Priyamvada told TRT World.
She further added that many of her Muslim friends feel that while they are targeted primarily because of their identity, they also need to deal with rising hatred on a daily basis. “For them, it is like their identity has been stamped on them, from where there is no escape. It is Nazi-esque.”
The alleged role of mainstream media and the government in spreading hate has been highlighted in particular by rights activists in India.
“This, in turn, leads to a deepening of mental distress,” Sharjeel Usmani, a Muslim student activist from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, explained. Usmani further added that the problem of mental distress is so complex among the Muslim community that many people don’t even realise how acutely they are being affected by things around them.
“I have had many people come up to me and say they don’t feel anything anymore. No emotions whatsoever. I would ask them if they were experiencing some kind of mental health problems, and almost half would say yes. The other half would confess they are confused. That is the extent of the problem,” Usmani told TRT World.
Talking about his own mental health, Usmani explained how, with crimes against Muslims becoming an almost everyday occurrence in India, reaching out to the families of victims has become bureaucratic work. “We go to victims of hate crimes, gather details, and try to figure out how we can help them. I feel like a stone, without emotions.”
The experiences are similar for Aiman Khan, a Muslim woman activist whose name appeared in the ‘Bulli Bai’ case. As her work involves talking to survivors of hate crimes and recording their testimonies, it has become impossible to insulate herself from the trauma it causes.
“I have been taking therapy, but I feel that therapy also comes with its own limitations. Most of the trauma is so deep-rooted that you don’t even know the many ways in which it affects you in your daily lives,” she told TRT World.
“When hate becomes so deep-rooted, how do you even explain it to the therapist?”
From the lived experiences of Sania Ahmad, Sharjeel Usmani, or Aiman Khan, it becomes clear that their identity of being ‘Muslim’ and vocal about their issues are the main reason behind them being on the receiving end of trauma. This has also become a reason behind a deepening trust deficit, with many Muslims preferring only Muslim psychologists while talking about their mental health.
Sadaf Vidha, founder and therapist at Guftagu Therapy based in Mumbai, says that issues of trust gain primacy when one seeks mental therapy.
“This is similar to women reaching out to female doctors or therapists while talking about their issues as they feel they will be more sympathetic,” she explained. “People feel like consulting a Muslim therapist since they feel that an upper-caste Hindu might not be able to understand their position, and might not understand how big this problem is.”
“Such a situation might arise even though many Hindus act as Muslims’ allies in today’s political climate. Many people from the Hindu community also try and understand the pain that the Muslim community is going through,” she told TRT World.
Sadaf also blames debates aired on mainstream news channels in India, where blatant Islamophobic themes have been highlighted by rights activists.
“We are at a time in life when there is a lot of uncertainty, job loss, the youth is feeling disillusioned, and such TV programmes give them hate instead of answers to pressing survival problems,” she added.
According to data shared by Equality Labs, a digital human rights group, the word #CoronaJihad, a term referring to the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat that were accused of spreading Covid-19 in India during the first lockdown in March 2020, appeared nearly 300,000 times and was seen by 165 million people on Twitter.
Although the veracity of the statistics can be debated, such incidents clearly show how the use of such terms can provoke political tensions and promote enmity against a particular community, especially during the time when the whole world is going through a pandemic.
Another effect of such Islamophobic content being spread through various mediums is the impact it has on Muslim teenagers, as they are also exposed to such content and the hate it brings.
“Teenagers today are much more aware of their identity than what we were when we were teens, simply because teenagers today have the whole world on their screens,” Aiman said. “They thus get exposed to such obnoxious levels of hatred much, much earlier than when we did.”
The effect of violence and hatred on children was pointed out in particular by Priyamvada, who observed an increase in mental distress, especially anxiety and sleeplessness among children immediately after the Delhi riots of February 2020.
“Trauma can also end up manifesting itself physically, as we saw how children who had no history of stammering developed a stammer, and we also had a few cases of children who began wetting their beds,” she said.
The “mainstreaming of hate” as described by Sania Ahmad, has also affected older members of the Muslim community.
“Our parents are now seeing the people who they grew up with endorsing the ideology which seeks their extermination. Their trust has been shattered. Imagine what they must be going through,” she said.