As many of you know by now, tragically, Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was recently murdered by her brother. Inna lillahi wa inna illaihi rajaioon (to God we belong and to God we return). I hadn’t followed her but I had known of her. Even without following her I knew she was a big deal in Pakistan when I heard her name being dropped in Pakistani political shows. Seen as a feminist hero, she was followed by almost a million people on Facebook (her account, along with her Instagram account have now been deleted), where she posted sexually provocative pictures of herself, but also messages of support for women. She was unapologetic for her views and confident in her own expressions. In Pakistan she was loved by many and hated by many. She was such a popular and polarizing figure in Pakistan that the Pakistani band Bumbu Sauce wrote a song in her honour. It was a shock when I heard of her murder.
So much has been written about Qandeel Baloch, her murder, and what it all means since her death last week. It has been reported that Baloch was strangled to death by her brother in, what is being called, an “honour killing.” Her brother has said that he drugged her and then strangled her, his reasoning being the dishonour he felt due to her very sexual online persona. In addition to drugging her, he had also drugged their parents so they would be unable to save her. Her parents, as would be expected, are devastated, as is clear in this heartbreaking interview. They want justice for their daughter. Qandeel, whose real name was Fawzia Azeem, had been supporting her parents and her brothers, including the one who killed her.
As vigils were held for her in Karachi and Lahore, others were busy being happy about her death. She’s being judged and shamed in death as she was in life. But much has also been written in the media, including in Pakistan (where there is also a lot of anger over her death), critically highlighting the circumstances which lead to her murder and the context in which (Muslim) women live, in general, and in which Qandeel Baloch lived. Qandeel Baloch self-identified as a feminist and from the pieces written about her since her death, there seems to be a lot of evidence to support her feminism.
Qandeel Taught Owning Sexuality and Importance of Consent
In the Pakistani paper Dawn, Reem Wasay explains the role Baloch played in bringing to light the issue of Pakistani women’s sexual autonomy and independence in a country not used to talking about such things as openly as Qandeel expressed them, nor used to the concepts themselves. Although I am uncomfortable with the way Wasay dismisses Qandeel’s feminism, the links Wasay makes between Baloch’s messages and women’s sexual autonomy seem spot on. About Baloch, Wasay writes:
“She manned her own mission and cast off her detractors with the disdain of the damned. Yes, she could be crass, loudmouthed and overtly sexual, yes she could literally be the ‘woman on top’ and she did it by ‘manning up’ in our putrid practices of patriarchy.
She had questionable taste and she openly mocked our outrage but she made a lot of us root for her because she was so unbelievable we almost thought she was invincible.
She de-sensitised a lot of us by riling up our sensitivities, she preached in the language of a more liberal outlook towards sex, the female body and how to use it but we hung on to her every move because we have become so tired of this assembly line of misplaced morality, exhausted by the controlled coitus between sanctity and shame, piety and perversity.
However she did it, she made it alright for women to have a sexual voice in this country and for us, that really is a first.”
Wasay also explains how Baloch gave Pakistani women “ideas” about their own sexual expression and challenged men and their patriarchal desires to control women’s bodies. Baloch, Wasay argues, presented many lessons on sexuality and consent, having learned from her own experiences.
“The very first step is dismissing the dregs of traditions past and cultures best left forgotten. Women need to own their own sexuality and regulate their own bodies in their own homes before they can go out into the big bad world of men.
They need to know when to say ‘no’, believe that consent is an integral part of when they say ‘yes’ and express who they are, whilst shrugging off the residue of a suffocating patriarchy bent on preventing women from doing all of the above.
Qandeel was married off at 17 in a marriage she did not want. Like many before and after her, she was made to spread a welcome mat between her legs for a man she did not want, she had a child she wasn’t ready for, desperate economic inevitabilities and a future ready to be spent in pathological frustration because of the path cemented for her by the men in her family.
What made her different was the fact that she said ‘sod off’ and told the whole country just as much.
What she did was give other women ‘ideas’.”
Supporting this idea, Amal Zaman writes:
“The life Qandeel lived was brave and dangerous because she made us feel, for the most fleeting of moments, that there was a space for us in our own homes. That we didn’t have to be virginal and silent to exist in our own culture. I cannot emphasize enough the radical nature of her public performance of her sexuality and what that meant to so many girls who could never openly acknowledge the existence of such a thing. Her murder may not be a novel occurrence, but her life most certainly was.”
Also in Dawn, Hamna Zubair argues that Baloch was killed for being a woman who did not conform to Pakistani society’s expectations of women. Zubair writes:
“From the comments that appeared under her posts, young men wanted to be with her; they also wanted to snuff her out. Young women were horrified by her ‘immodesty’; they also lauded her for doing exactly as she pleased.
By the end of 2015, via frequent Facebook and Instagram posts, Qandeel had firmly established her place in Pakistan’s burgeoning celebrity landscape. Of course, she wasn’t the first young woman to be crowned the nation’s ‘boldest’ entertainer. Before her, we’ve had Meera, Veena, Mathira and more.
But while they coyly tiptoe around questions of their sexuality, their motivations and their attachments — Qandeel set herself apart by being unabashed about her desire to be a screen siren, somebody who provokes. On a TV show, she proclaimed Sunny Leone was one of her role models. On Instagram, she had no qualms about saying she was sexy.
Though she wasn’t exactly an open book, she was honest about her ambitions.
And as has been proved today, if you’re a woman in Pakistan, ambition can get you killed.”
What is clear from this piece, and the many others written about her, Baloch’s self-confidence came shining through. Although she was not the only woman in Pakistan openly expressing herself or openly declaring herself to be a feminist, the fact that she so confidently used her sexuality to do so, despite the backlash she faced, made her unique. Zubair explains:
“As her posts began to be viewed by more people and as she began to be covered by mainstream newspapers, I believe she became aware of her power to deliver certain messages about being female in Pakistan. Around this time, I began to see Qandeel as a burgeoning advocate for increasing women’s visibility in Pakistan.
And so, we ran pieces questioning why Pakistanis harboured so much hate for Qandeel. And I got a lot of flak for giving her so much coverage. A few days ago, one commentator asked me something along the lines of: ‘You’re covering Qandeel so much, what’s next, reporting from a brothel?’”
Patriarchy and Toxic Masculinity
Women owning their own sexuality and being unapologetic in their sexual self-expression are all so dangerous because we live in a patriarchal world that has created very rigid rules to control women’s bodies. And Qandeel Baloch challenged that very patriarchy, which told her, as it does with all women around the world, that her sexuality was not hers to own or express as she pleased.
Qandeel Baloch not only challenged patriarchy and patriarchal rules for women, she mocked them. In her piece in The Massachusetts Review, Amal Zaman says of Baloch:
“Her behavior was beyond bold, it was subversive. She employed her provocations to toy with and expose patriarchal authority. The panicked scramble following images she shared with Mufti Qavi made clear the farcical nature of the religious establishment. Her offering strip teases to the Indian cricket team highlighted the confused masculinity embedded in competitive sports culture and rivalry in South Asia. She parodied men – threw them into confusion because they simultaneously desired and felt threatened by her.”
In a petition titled No Country for Bold Women written by a Pakistani feminist collective to condemn Qandeel’s murder and demand justice, petition writers state:
“Qandeel was not Kim Kardashian, as some media accounts have erroneously noted. She was our Qandeel: a working class woman, a Third World feminist, a disrupter, and firebrand who dared to do as she pleased, despite threats to her life.
Qandeel was not killed for “honor.” She was killed because an inordinately fragile, male ego couldn’t handle her flame. She was killed because a pervasive misogynistic culture cultivates and protects a toxic masculinity. She was killed because patriarchal structures sustain unequal gender relations with both men and women believing that violence against women is unremarkable, ordinary, and even deserved.
In that context, women can be killed for economic gain, for ego or for any number of reasons, and all of it is justified because, in the final calculation, the female body count does not seem to matter.”
And this is true not only of Pakistan, but the entire world. Qandeel’s murder was not a reflection of Pakistani society. It was an ugly reflection of patriarchy. The same patriarchy found all over the world as women all over the world die at the hands of toxic masculinity.
When Imaan Sheikh claims that “We All Killed Qandeel” at Buzzfeed she is talking about about the patriarchal rules in place to control the lives, and sexualities, of women.
“Qandeel’s brother may have killed her to protect his honour, which has been polished to brilliance by the blood on his hands now, but we are complicit as a country.
Her brother may have strangled her, but the viewers who declared her worthy of a humiliating death every single day were his might. The scholars who incited violence against her on TV were his might. The internally misogynistic women who said she deserved to go to hell for destroying the image of Muslim women were his might.
All of us, tacit participants in the relentless policing of Pakistani women, were his might.
The laughing “moderately religious” person here is no less than a violent extremist. The silent moderate who won’t speak up about how she isn’t a national shame or a blow to Islam also shares the blame.
There, I said it. Fuck you.”
Thoughts of an Angry Hijabi mirrors Sheikh’s piece:
“We all killed Qandeel.
Every time we looked at a woman and judged her on her outfit,
Every time we told our daughters to cover up,
Every time we passed laws policing women’s attire,
Every time we disrespected women who owned their sexuality,
Every time we shamed women for their sexuality,
Every time we blamed a woman for getting raped because of what they were wearing,
we killed Qandeel.
Change will never come if we don’t start challenging and fighting the toxic belief that “sexy” women don’t deserve respect. Now, more than ever, Pakistan desperately needs a sexual revolution.”
Qandeel Baloch was a feminist who did not play by the rules set out by the men in society. Patriarchal societies everywhere seek to control women’s bodies and their sexualities; Pakistan is no exception. The sexual autonomy and self-determination of sexual expression that Qandeel Baloch represented disrupted the traditional narrative of the society in which she lived. Pakistani responses to her were by no means unanimous – she was both loved and hated. I have no doubt that Qandeel Baloch will go down in Pakistan feminist herstory as an icon and shero. As Amal Zaman writes:
“She was becoming more focused and vocal about her feminism. The work of mourning her includes refusal to let her voice and actions be forgotten with her. I have learnt the importance of visibility and how desperately women need to know there are others like them who fight the same battles every day; that our sexuality, our domestic abuse, our fight for independence is shared. Nearly every woman I know is a quiet revolution. Qandeel was a loud one – a siren calling out to the rest of us to join her.”