In this picture taken on 28 June 28 2016, Pakistani fashion model and social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch speaks during a press conference in Lahore, Pakistan. Photograph: M Jameel/AP
Qandeel Baloch was failed by Pakistan society at every step. The same nation that topped Google searches for pornography strangles women like her to death
News broke on Saturday of Pakistani social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, being strangled by her own brother. Since then, I have spoken to many fellow Pakistani women who were inspired by her acts and took courage from her bold rejection of a society where all of us are expected to walk a tightrope of moral standards reserved solely for women.
Qandeel Baloch was a woman our society failed at every step. Her parents married her off at 17, to a man much older than her – a practice so common that Unicef estimates 21% of girls are married off before the age of 18 in Pakistan. She spoke of the abuse in this marriage, saying he behaved like “an animal” towards her, but her family refused to support her if she decided to leave him.
In a society where often even privileged women have difficulty walking away from abusive husbands, the extraordinary courage of this working-class girl was inspirational. She left this abusive marriage, lived in a women’s refuge, and had then put herself through secondary school and college by working several jobs. She financially supported her family and had bought them the house in Multan where her brother first drugged, then strangled her because, he said: “Girls are born only to stay at home.”
In public, Qandeel led a life that many Pakistani women lead in private. Her decision to be public and stay public, despite threats, was a bold move. In a society where many female celebrities find fame by playing coy, submissive heroines in Urdu drama serials, her social media posts were everything but. She shot to fame with her provocative pictures and videos on Facebook, gained notoriety and many thousands of followers this year when she offered to do a striptease if Pakistan beat India in a game of cricket. She was a personal hero of mine. Every time someone posted a video laughing at her, I cringed. To me, she was anything but laughable. Her every act was defiant of a deeply misogynist and, ultimately, violent society.
More recently, news media outlets in the country conducted a frenzied witch-hunt after she posted pictures with cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi that led to his suspension from one of Pakistan’s religious committees. They released her birth name and details about her marriage and child, details that Qandeel had always kept private, presumably owing to security concerns. After her murder, the same cleric brazenly issued a threat on live television saying the way Qandeel’s life ended should serve as warning to anyone who tries to malign righteous people like clergymen.
This threat is not surprising in a country where nearly a thousand women are reported killed in the name of ‘honour’ each year, with rights organisations estimating that a huge number still go unreported. Where there is news of such cold-blooded murder, usually at the hands of family members, there is a society that is so dehumanised to violence against women that assertions are made to mitigate the murderer’s brutality, making it seem that the victim’s behaviour somehow made the murder explicable, even deserved.
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Victim blaming is, in fact, such a part of the narrative that even so-called liberals in the country, while condemning her murder, have – in the same breath, tweet or Facebook post – also distanced themselves from her behaviour.
Moral outrage was expressed by many towards Qandeel, but hundreds of thousands also liked her official Facebook page. This is behavior typical of suppressed societies that condone such hypocrisy as a way of life and encourage a complete disconnection between the public and private lives of people. The same nation that has topped Google searches for pornography strangles women like Qandeel to death.
Let us be very clear that at the core of this violence against women is a society that sanctions it. Any time we pass moral judgment on women, we are crossing the line from bystander to accessory. At the heart of killing in the name of honour is a kind of moral policing that is reserved solely for women and a pervasive, toxic misogyny that expects women to be subservient to men and the patriarchal order. Any time a woman steps “out of line” by wearing what she desires, doing what she wants or even just by saying what she thinks – people are outraged.
But the real outrage lies in the fact that a legal loophole allows perpetrators of ‘honour’ crimes to go free. By law, murder victims’ family members can pardon the perpetrator. In ‘honour’ crimes, where the killer is usually a brother, father, son, husband or uncle, the woman’s murder goes unpunished.
For women who are victims of these crimes, it is this lethal combination of a law that allows perpetrators to roam free and of a society that clearly sanctions this behaviour by first policing the women, then blaming the victims and ultimately staying silent on cold-blooded murder. Qandeel’s father has said he will not forgive her brutal murder. Society failed her, let’s hope the legal system does not.
To me, Qandeel Baloch was a trailblazer, a working-class, modern-day Pakistani feminist. She believed we must stand up for ourselves as women, we must stand up for each other as women, and we must stand up for justice. At the time of writing, an online petition had more than 2,000 signatures demanding justice for her. But Qandeel also called herself a #OneWomanArmy, perhaps conscious a society that sanctions such violence against women may never stand up for her.
Vale, Qandeel, I wish we were all as brave as you.