I’d never heard of Qandeel Baloch until someone forwarded me a link to one of her Facebook videos. In it, the young Pakistani woman dressed in bombshell red, delivered a plaintive complaint against those who wanted Valentine’s Day to be banned. She wished everyone a happy Valentine’s day, then urged everyone to have fun, railing against politicians who supported a ban. “Why not?” she asked, in her flawed, working-class-aspiring-to-English-medium accent. “They can stop people to go out, but they can’t stop people to love. Only disgusting and idiotic politicans do this. I hate… Let there be love.”
She pronounced “love” as “lowe”, and pouted her way through the short clip, for which there were one million views. Her voice was bubblegum sweet and high-pitched, and she spoke in that sing-song way that millions of Pakistani men find incredibly alluring. Then she ended her video with a plea to Imran Khan to be her Valentine and professed her love for the cricketer-cum-politician.
This was five months ago. I remember laughing at the silliness of this young woman, who was willing to make a fool of herself in public, in order to gain the fleeting fame of the social media age. Undoubtedly she’d been hungry for it in the same way that Kim Kardashian and others have hungered for it, and thought that she could promote herself in somewhat the same way, with “intimate” videos, selfies, and statements to the press about her struggle to be an independent woman who listens to nobody.
But this is Pakistan. And in Pakistan, freedom is never free. It comes with a price.
She kept popping up on the radar, here and there, with a new video or selfie every couple of weeks. I didn’t pay her much attention, but she provoked reactions: amusement, shock, outrage, titillation. She got some notoriety in the local media and was filmed for the BBC as a woman who wasn’t afraid to court controversy in order to “achieve her dreams,” although I couldn’t be quite sure what those dreams were.
Perhaps one of her dreams was just the ability to express herself freely in a closed and conservative society. This included her sexuality, which she never bothered to hide, as is prescribed for all Pakistani women regardless of their religion. She was never linked to any man, eschewing relationships or affairs in the spotlight with powerful men who might advance her in the film or music industry. The only man she claimed to truly love was Imran Khan, but she admitted that he was unattainable for her, which somehow made him a safe target for her affections.
But this is Pakistan. And in Pakistan, safety for women is only an illusion, dependent on the men around you – father, brother, husband, uncle, son – who are willing to indulge you, perhaps letting you out of your cage to fly around a little, but not too far.
There were some who were excited by Baloch’s feminist statements. These were some of the things she said, mixed in with more superficial concerns about her looks, and her melancholy at being alone. As we found out just today, she had escaped a violent marriage and had a small child, fact that were kept hidden because she worked under a pseudonym.
“I am an inspiration to those ladies who are treated badly by society. I will keep on achieving and I know you will keep on hating.”
“No matter how many times I will be pushed down under but I am fighter I will bounce back. Qandeel Baloch is ‘One Women Army’.”
“At least international media can see how I am trying to change the typical orthodox mindset of people who don’t want to come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices.”
“I want to give those girls a positive message who have been forcefully married, who continue to sacrifice.”
“I will fight for right. I will not give up. I will reach my goal and absolutely nothing will stop me.”
“Love me or hate me both are in my favour. If you love me I will always be in your heart and if you hate me I will be in your mind.”
“As a woman, we must stand up for ourselves. As a woman, we must stand up for each other.”
I wasn’t able to think of her as a role model or as much of a feminist icon. She was reminding me too much of today’s pop stars who mistake narcissism for feminism and declare all their actions as feminist, even the most navel-gazing of them. But her boldness spoke to some girls and young women, who thought she was brave for her words and her work. I don’t believe in condemning anyone for perceived slights to morality or society. Everyone should be able to choose their own way in life, and let it be between themselves and their conscience.
The last I heard of Qandeel Baloch, she’d appeared on a young Pakistani rapper’s video called “Ban.” In it, she twerked atrociously while the rapper whined, “Don’t do it again… baby don’t do it again.” Her hotpants were tight and short, her neckline low. Perhaps she was hoping this would be her big breakthrough into film or music. People didn’t know what to make of her or the video. I certainly didn’t know what to make of it. It left me a little nauseous, but that was only because the twerking was so poorly executed, the entire video a paean to poor taste.
But this is Pakistan, where we are not indulgent of such things. And we don’t think young women deserve the space to discover themselves, nor are we patient enough to wait until they’ve grown older and can publicly stage a religious conversion after having experienced all the vices the world has to offer.
Today Qandeel Baloch is dead, strangled by her own brother for reasons that aren’t yet clear, because he killed the 25-year old Internet star and then ran away. Her father has filed an FIR (First Information Report) against his two sons, who reportedly also were interested in the money she had earned in her short career.
Baloch had also gotten involved in a scandal with a religious scholar, and it’s yet to be seen whether he had anything to do with her murder. In the aftermath of the scandal, the local media found out her real name and published details of her family. Perhaps this was the move that made her brothers decide their family had been shamed and their honor need to be avenged.
In Pakistan, a woman’s body houses men’s honor.
Is Qandeel Baloch’s death a failure of the Punjab Women’s Protection Act, brought about with so much fanfare? Or is it an exposure of the government’s unwillingness to actually outlaw honor crimes and jail and punish perpetrators with the full strength of the law? We will all ask ourselves these questions in the days to come.
There’s so much that the government could do here. Catch the culprits and try them in an anti-terrorist court. Take the place of Baloch’s father as the chief complainant so that “forgiveness” is not an option for the murderers. Arrest and fine anyone who threatens women on air, or on any social media platform. The steps are easy but the resolve is so weak.
But we must also examine that shadow inside all of us that wants to see a young woman annihilated for breaking the norms of society. We must examine the lust she provoked in us, the jealousy, the outrage. We must understand why so many young women the same age as her called her names and expressed the desire that she should burn in hell. We should look at the people who are lauding her murder and saying that it was an exemplary act.
Goodbye, Qandeel Baloch. I hope that where you’ve gone, you finally found love.