The Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch

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The Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch

What one woman’s social media activism — and her murder by her own brother — means for Pakistan.

The Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch
Credit: Instagram/ Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s first female social media celebrity, who belonged to a working class rural family from the province of Punjab and had over 750,000 followers on Facebook alone, was strangled to death by her brother in what the police described as an “honor killing” last week.

Baloch’s exponential rise to fame began with her posting narcissistic selfies and videos in which she asks viewers how she is looking; she then entered the national consciousness by promising internationally acclaimed cricketer Shahid Afridi a striptease if he defeated India in a regional tournament. For Baloch, things took a dangerous turn when last month she dabbled in the political realm by exposing the religious clergy’s sexual perversions, which resulted in her receiving numerous death threats.

In the week proceeding Baloch’s murder if one glanced at Pakistan’s print and online media, it could be seen that while her life impacted the country in abstract ways, her subsequent death affected Pakistan in a potentially tangible manner.

While alive, Baloch celebrated her sexuality in a manner that was unprecedented for Pakistan — her impact stemmed from the fact that Baloch’s videos and selfies, and declarations of love and female desire made the country “uncomfortable.”

“Qandeel represented a deep paradox in our society because we want to control and regulate women’s bodies but at the same time we want to consume them,” explains Sarah Suhail, a doctoral student in women and gender studies at Arizona State University, to The Diplomat. “So the same people who judged and abused her simultaneously derived pleasure from her videos, and the same talk show anchors that vilified her, used her for their ratings,” said Suhail.

Baloch’s death may be long remembered by those fighting for justice in “honor killing” cases because in the wake of her death the government has, yet again, promised stricter laws regarding “honor killings.”

Additionally, the fact that Baloch’s murder is being investigated by a female police officer is no mean feat. Before the murder, Attiya Jaffri, the 52-year-old policewomen in charge of Baloch’s case, had never headed a homicide investigation.

“It’s common for the Central Police Officer to put at least one or two policewomen in the team that investigates ‘honor killings,’” said Jaffri to The Diplomat. “Because in honor- related cases we often need to engage with the mothers or sisters of the victims. But I’ve never before been made the Investigating Officer of a murder case.”

In her opinion she was trusted with this duty because currently her team has the best record of solving murder crimes in the district of Multan. She then adds that “this is no ordinary case. Baloch was a female celebrity murdered in a gruesome way and her killing has created a national wave of sorts, so maybe those in charge thought it best that a women head the case.”

The Life of Qandeel Baloch

Baloch, born with the name Fauzia Azeem, hailed from Shah Saddardin — a little-known village that only entered the national imagination after Baloch was buried there. By her own admission, and that of her parents, she belonged to a conservative family, that she herself supported. In the last year alone, Baloch bought her parents a house in Multan (the same house in which her brother drugged her and her parents and then strangled her while she slept), and financed a younger sister’s wedding.

The fact that Baloch did not come from privilege is one of the reasons she stands out. “Qandeel is a feminist in the original sense,” says academic Suhail. She explains that according to Baloch’s own narrative, in which she was a victim of an abusive marriage that she walked away from without any financial or emotional support, it can be seen that throughout her life Baloch had to fight the systems of patriarchy that prevented her from achieving her goal of “standing on her own two feet.”

Baloch’s feminism was also novel because she reclaimed online spaces for Pakistani women in an unprecedented manner.

“One of our missions is to teach females that a mobile phone is a tool and it can be used to destroy patriarchy,” says Nighat Daad, a lawyer and the founder of Digital Rights Foundation. “Qandeel did exactly that; she used her mobile phone to celebrate her sexuality.”

It should be noted that Baloch was not the only Pakistani woman to be deemed as “bold” by the media. There have been others before her: Mathira, Meera, Veena Malik, to name a few. But Baloch was different in that she was unapologetic and unabashed by people calling her out.

In a television interview earlier this year, a TV host asked Baloch why she “resorted to being vulgar.” She did not shy away from the question. “You need to watch my videos again,” Baloch challenged. “I don’t see any vulgarity in my videos. I think I look hot. And sexy.”

What Does It Mean to be Killed for Honor in Pakistan?

On the surface, it appears that it was this very celebration of sexuality that got Baloch killed. After all, her brother confessed that he committed the murder because Baloch brought “dishonor” and “disrepute” to the family.

Moreover, if the case does make it to court, it will be dealt with as a case of “murder in the name or pretext of honor.”

But researchers such as Suhail and Nabiha Meher, the founder of Pakistan Feminist Watch, who have been observing patterns of gender based violence in Pakistan, urge that this line of argument is too simplistic.

In Pakistan, and much of the neighboring region, gender based violence becomes (legally and culturally) palatable when put under the umbrella of crimes related to honor. “Society has created a justifiable category [honor killing] to place violence against women,” said Suhail.

The notion is that the moment women cross a transparent line where they challenge societal norms, their life is endangered.

“Until she was sharing videos proposing to Imran Khan or Shahid Afridi and asking her fans how she looked, it was all fun and games, but when she challenged the religious clergy and exposed the Mufti Qavi for what he is, her life changed drastically,” says Daad. “All of a sudden her anonymity ended, and her past and personal life was splashed on television screens across the country.”

Meher agrees: “Her death threats began after the episode with Qavi, after she took on the extreme markers of religion in the country.”

On June 20, Baloch released videos and selfies of her and Qavi inside a hotel room in Karachi. Local news channels invited Qavi and Baloch to appear on television to ask them what transpired between them. Qavi’s non-responses strengthened Baloch’s claim that she has exposed the “dirty cleric for what he is.” Qavi’s fellow clergymen did not approve of this and he was suspended from his coveted position in Pakistan’s religions moon-sighting committee.

Media critics say that such talk shows put Baloch’s life is further danger.

“It seems that we are living in the twilight zone of journalism,” says Suhail. “The media simply has no ethics.”

Unfortunately, Suhail’s claim is hardly far from the truth. Two weeks ago when Abdul Sattar Edhi, an international icon of social welfare, passed away, a local TV reporter prepared a news package on Edhi’s funeral from inside Edhi’s freshly dug grave.

Daad also claims that describing this murder as an “honor killing” is unfair.

“This was a killing because of a hurt male ego,” says Daad. “A mix of incidents led to this unfortunate death: the media’s treatment of Qandeel; the clergy played a role, especially the Mufti episode; the government that didn’t provide her security; and lastly, we, as internet users who enjoyed her but didn’t protect her.”

A Posthumous Investigation

“Honor killings” are not exclusive to Pakistan, or even South Asia; according to the Honor Based Violence Awareness Network out of the 5,000 international “honor killings” every year, 1,000 can be ascribed to Pakistan.

It had been a longstanding demand of women’s rights groups for stricter laws to prevent such crimes. Hence the the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2005, which introduced “offenses in the name or on the pretext of honor” as a specific category of violence, was much lauded.

According to Asad Jamal, a lawyer engaged in drafting amendments to curb crimes committed in the name of honor, because of these amendments an “honor killing” must necessarily lead to a minimum punishment of 10 years of imprisonment or life imprisonment or death.

He tells The Diplomat that “the court has no option but to punish the offender and a waiver or compounding of the offense have no effect on the court’s decision.”

It appears, however, that lawyers, prosecutors, and even judges in the country do not understand the amendment. Many are critical of the government for not doing enough to bar heirs from from “forgiving” the perpetrators of “honor killings.” Even in Baloch’s case this fear is widespread.

“They might have lodged a case against him but it is likely that eventually they will forgive him and the court will allow the family to settle the matter privately,” said Advocate Sheikh Jamshed Hayat, the president of the Multan High Court, the court where Baloch’s case will be heard.

Even though Baloch’s father, in an interview with the BBC, states outright that his son should be categorically shot to death, Hayat is convinced that if “Baloch’s parents have already lost a daughter, why would they want to lose their son as well?”

Hayat insists that he has witnessed and dealt with scores of killings since 2005 that were committed due to honor and rarely has the law been able to punish perpetrators. “The amount of ‘honor crime’ suspects that make it behind bars is like a drop in the ocean,” he told The Diplomat.

Jaffri, the officer in charge of Baloch’s investigation, agrees with Hayat. “Most of such cases end in compromises. We do our job by finding the culprit but mostly the courts allow the family to reach a compromise,” says the policewoman.

This shows that despite the fact that in the case of “honor killings” the court has no option but to punish the offender, from police officers to advocates no one is able to recognize the law and hence the number of prosecutions remain negligible.

According to Jamal, this is because many do not understand the law. “Lawyers don’t know how to read the law in Urdu, much less in English. And the way the draft was written makes it very complicated for lawyers, judges and prosecutors to understand,” he said.

The second reason the amendment is not understood and hence not implemented by courts is because the Islamic laws of Qisas and Diyat are often conflated and confused with amendments in the country’s criminal codes.

Reema Omer, a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, adds that “unless there is reform of the entire framework of Qisas and Diyat, there is always a chance for more loopholes to emerge as a result of these piecemeal amendments.”

Such low rates of prosecution result in very little fear of retribution and hence suspects like Baloch’s brother fearlessly continue to take lives in the name of “honor.”

The national conversation Baloch’s murder began acted as a catalyst and just a few days after the killing the government announced that stricter “anti honor killing laws” would be implemented within weeks.

But it remains to be seen what good these rushed amendments would do. “It is time we stop resorting to knee-jerk measures and shortcuts in our pursuit of justice and confront the glaring flaws in our criminal justice system,” said Omer.

Maham Javaid is a journalist for The News on Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Refinery29, Timeline, and The Nation.