World | Asia

July 19, 2016

The dishonourable killing of Qandeel Baloch

Likened to Kim Kardashian for her unapologetic sexuality, Pakistan’s first social media star was a high wire act. Her murder has divided the nation, and made her an unlikely political icon

Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered last week by her brother, was Pakistan’s first genuine social media star. Despite her fame – she had over 1 million followers on Facebook – 26-year-old Baloch was an unlikely star. Still less did she have the makings of the political and social icon that she has rapidly become in the four days since her death.

Baloch did not come from a wealthy, privileged background, as do many of Pakistan’s politically prominent women. Nor did she have the education and exposure of her compatriots who go on to become activists. One of 12 siblings, she was from a small town in a conservative, feudal district of the Punjab. Her first job was as a “bus hostess”. Her real name was Fouzia Azeem and she was married off – as many girls are in provincial Pakistan – in her late teens. She should, by rights, have had an unremarkable life marked by serial pregnancies, financial struggle and social oppression. That, after all, is the lot of most Fouzia Azeems. But this one was different. She was not willing to submit to a life of slow, steady suffocation. A year and a baby later, she walked out of the marriage she said had become abusive. And so it was that the provincial nobody, Fouzia Azeem, was laid to rest and Qandeel Baloch, the subversive social media sensation, was born.

She has been likened to Kim Kardashian in her brazen sexiness and her relentless self exposure. But unlike Kardashian, there was nothing slick about brand Baloch. There were no minders, no stylists, no publicists, no consultants. She was a one-woman show, operating out of her bedroom on a shoestring budget, posting grainy, homemade videos on YouTube. An early one shows her lolling about on her bed, dressed in a cleavage-exposing scarlet dress. Sliding the dress suggestively up her thigh, she pouts and purrs into the camera: “How I’m looking?” She would have verged on the comical had it not been for the context.

Earlier this year, the Punjab government tabled a bill for the protection of women against violence. Thirty religious groups, many of them mainstream political parties, rose in protest threatening to bring down the democratically elected government if the bill was not revoked. Giving women protective legal rights, they argued, was tantamount to the promotion of obscenity in society. The institution of family that hinged on modest, meek women would be undermined and social fabric would be in tatters. Pakistan’s government-funded Council of Islamic Ideology, made up largely of bearded clerics, also released an official statement permitting men to “lightly beat” their wives. It went on to opine that women were not allowed to speak to men who were not related to them by blood. Answering the telephone was therefore conduct that was unbecoming of a Muslim woman.

It may sound farcical, but it is no laughing matter. Violence against women is rampant in Pakistan. The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani NGO committed to women’s empowerment, conducted research in 2014 that found that, on any given day of the year, six women were abducted, four were murdered, four were raped and three committed suicide. Acute domestic violence and acid attacks were in addition to this daily catalogue of brutality. Perpetrators of violence against women are seldom – if ever – brought to justice. “Honour” killings – whereby a man kills his wife, sister, daughter or even mother for “transgressive” behaviour (anything from falling in love to laughing loudly in public) that he feels brings shame to him or his family – are considered a time-honoured custom. In such cases, when a brother kills his sister, a father usually “forgives” the culprit – as the law currently allows – and the case collapses.

In this environment, Baloch was a high-wire act. When I saw a video of her dancing in her bedroom, I was filled with admiration at her daring, but I would be lying if I said I did not also feel a pinprick of foreboding. It shows her on her bed, dressed in a short white terry robe, creamy thighs exposed. Her full lips are painted a vivid red and she pouts at the camera, while writhing suggestively. In another video, once again lolling on her chenille bedspread, she promised to “strip dance” for the nation if Pakistan beat India at a T20 cricket match. She made fun of the mullahs, too. Posting a selfie of herself snuggling up to Mufti Qavi, an august member of another government-funded religious committee, with his mullah’s hat perched at a jaunty angle on her own head, she exposed the hypocrisy of her greatest critics.

The public, titillated and scandalised in equal measure by this brazen, audacious woman, lapped it up. She was frequently invited as a guest on daytime talk shows, where male hosts baited her with probing questions laden with sexual innuendo. Gamely playing along while clearly struggling to respond in an appropriate manner, Baloch inadvertently exposed a vulnerability and naivety that would have been utterly alien to a Kardashian. Watching those interviews was enraging then – it is heartbreaking now. But despite the cruelty and ridicule – the upper classes sniggered at her broken English; “respectable” women denounced her as a vulgar slut – she continued to express her sexuality fearlessly. Her last video had her twerking to a song called Ban.

 As long as Baloch limited herself to making an entertaining, if salacious, spectacle of herself, she was just about tolerated, but it was when she started speaking of women’s rights that she crossed into truly dangerous territory. Then she became a threat to traditional power structures. All along she had been the target of hate-filled invective on social media, but when she started challenging the rules of patriarchy, the messages of hate turned to death threats. She was a shameless slut who was bringing dishonour to the whole nation. In one of her last interviews, she expressed genuine puzzlement to her (for once genuinely sympathetic) interviewer: “How can I threaten anyone’s honour when I have been told repeatedly that I have no honour?”

Citing the death threats, she asked the government for protection. But the threats were dismissed as insignificant. In the end, she was killed by her brother. He strangled her as she slept in their father’s house. When arrested for the murder, he was unrepentant. She had stained the family’s honour. In killing her, he had removed the stain. He had acted honourably.

Just as in her life she divided a nation, so in her death she has solidified those divisions. While the conservatives are jubilant – the shameless hussy got her just deserts – a small band of liberal supporters are mourning the death of an unlikely but genuine political icon.

Text by Guardian

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