“As women we must stand up for ourselves…As women we must stand up for each other…As women we must stand up for justice.” Qandeel Baloch, known to the international media as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, wrote that in a Facebook post on July 15. Later that day, she was killed in the name of “honor” by her brother.
In Pakistan’s traditionally patriarchal society, conditions for women are often harsh, and increasingly their voices are being silenced. The mainstream press has paid little attention to their plight.
Still, the ease with which Qandeel Baloch – Pakistan’s most popular internet celebrity – was killed was stunning. It raises a disturbing question: How can Pakistani women who are not celebrities possibly feel safe?
Qandeel Baloch often said that her life was in danger. She had indicated that for her own security she would soon be leaving Pakistan together with her parents. The authorities ignored her concerns, which is disturbing. “Qandeel’s murder wasn’t because she was a controversial celebrity. It was because she was a woman choosing to express her opinions and view on a public platform, that was social media,” said Nighat Dad, Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), while talking to The Diplomat. She added: “History will testify that Pakistan has been home to many more controversial and vile individuals who have been protected by their social influence and patriarchal privileges.”
Due to her popularity, however, Baloch often appeared on Pakistani TV. She also famously met a Pakistani cleric called Mufti Abdul Qawi in Karachi in a hotel room during the holy month of Ramazan. Thereafter, she drew nationwide attention for a video with Mufti Qawi, in which she was seen sitting wearing her cap and sitting on the arm of his chair while taking selfies with him. With that revelation, Mufti Qawi faced a storm of criticism from the country’s right wing, had his membership of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, a party led by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, suspended, and was dropped by a religious panel.
Following this controversy, Qandeel’s brother Waseem Azeem reportedly said pressure against his family increased, and that he felt Qandeel had brought dishonor to the family. He subsequently confessed to drugging her and then strangling her to death.
“I’ve heard people talk about Qandeel was murdered because she was a dishonorable person – if this is the case then why are there so many more dishonorable individuals who only go on gather more influence and power with every passing day. It is because they choose not to share their truth with the public, and because more often than not they are men harassing those who choose to share their truth,” observed Nighat Dad.
Mufti Qawi lashed out at Baloch after her death, warning: “I have a message for women, for people, that they should keep this lady’s fate in mind and shouldn’t say things that insult religious scholars”. Still, he also condemned her killing.
Shezad Baloch, an independent journalist and commentator, told The Diplomat: “Pakistani media’s coverage of Qandeel’s death and of video clips showing her with a religious ceric was neither constructive nor helpful. Discussion of Qadeel’s role as a trailblazer and victim of so-called honor was left to international media.” He added, “There were no in-depth stories, and no discussion of whether Mufti Qawi would be held responsible for his role. Instead, we got a competition for ratings. Criticism of a religious cleric, even one suspected of wrongdoing, was a high risky undertaking. The tragic incident of Qandeel was just another example of the different treatments meted out to women in Pakistan.”
According to Shezad Balch, Qandeel “bravely discussed taboo topics like sexuality on social media, and made fun of morally corrupt religious clerics. In Pakistan, when it comes to religious issues, the people are very sensitive. And it is easy for a young man to feel justified in killing in the name of religion. But, remember, the people publicly hated Qandeel and used derogatory remarks against her, but secretly they, I am pretty sure, enjoyed watching her videos, which is why I call it a double standard.”
He added, “Qandeel Baloch knew that her life was in danger but perhaps not that, as with most so-called ‘honor killings,’ the greatest danger lurked within from her own family. However, it is sad to know that the interior minister of Pakistan Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ignored her request for protection following her threats from extremists and self-proclaimed moral police. Clearly, Pakistan’s religiously conservative society is not ready for an outspoken woman like Qandeel.”
A Lahore based feminist who did not wish to be named told The Diplomat: “Though Qandeel Baloch has been called Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, she is more than that. The reason: she belonged to a poor family; she stood up for women’s rights and empowerment in the country; she raised her voice against male dominancy; she was outspoken, as well as against the norms of society.” She also said that women in the country have to stand alone for their rights, and when they speak up on TV for women empowerment and rights they are maligned by conservatives, while they (conservatives) themselves oppose and deter anything which is said about women’s empowerment and rights. “
Qandeel Baloch was source of inspiration for many women in Pakistan, regularly speaking up for their rights. In her last music video, called “Ban,” Baloch featured the restrictions women in Pakistan face. She would also oppose conservatives in television appearances.
Baloch also posted in favor of the world’s youngest ever Noble laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who has been criticized by Pakistani conservatives for selling out to the West. On Malala Day, Baloch wrote on her Facebook wall: “#MalalaDay Why? Because one female can make a difference.” To which the official account for Malalal Yousafzai responded, “Thank you for your support! #YesAllGirls.
A Frequent Occurrence
Honor killings are a frequent occurrence in Pakistan, and usually attract little media attention. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body, more than 1000 women have been victims of honor killings in Pakistan in the last year alone. In many cases, when brothers kill their sisters, the brothers are then pardoned by their families. This practice seems only to encourage the crime. Thankfully, in recent cases, including Qandeel Baloch’s, the state itself has become the complainant, which prevents the family from pardoning the killer. That, at least, is a good step in the right direction.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for her documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness about honor based violence. She also came in for scathing criticism from Pakistan’s conservatives, who claimed she was giving Pakistan a bad name by drawing attention to honor killings. Undaunted, Obaid-Chinoy spoke out about Qandeel Baloch’s killing: “I really feel that no woman is safe in this country, until we start making examples of people, until we start sending men who kill women to jail, unless we literally say there will be no more killing and those who dare will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.”
Following Baloch’s killing, a leader from Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) called for the national assembly to pass an anti-honor killing bill. Meanwhile, after watching the documentary, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also vowed to toughen the government’s position on honor killings in Pakistan. Few are optimistic, however, believing that Sharif will not want to clash with conservatives, who can pressure the prime minister with street protests.
There concerns seem well placed. In recent months, the Punjab Assembly passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, which contained remedies for victims of violence, criminalized all forms of violence against women, and provided them with special centers that removed the usual red tape that complicates a woman’s quest for justice. The bill was denounced by Pakistani conservatives, who claimed it was passed to further a Western agenda, and dubbed it “un-Islamic.” Sharif buckled under the pressure, and said he would amend the bill.
Clearly, it is well past time for legislation tackling the scourge of honor killing to be taken up by the National Assembly. If a popular celebrity like Qandeel Baloch can be killed in the name of so-called honor, then what chance do ordinary women have? The government must act.