The murder of the outspoken Pakistani social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, has left millions of people enraged and shocked within the country as well as the diaspora. Baloch first rose to popularity when she auditioned for Pakistan Idol in 2013. Her dramatic reaction for not qualifying was brought to the attention of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis through the internet. Shortly and unsurprisingly after that, Baloch became one of the top 10 most searched people in the country. Subscribers to her Facebook page — over 775,000 likes — could be roughly divided into two camps: there were those who loved her and those who loathed her. Both teams, however, were amused by her. And both teams were undeniably afraid; more than aiming to please, Baloch worked on unsettling her audience.
Baloch seemed to have understood and wielded the power of social media in a muzzled social context where, increasingly, the majority of dissent, particularly over gender, is often issued online for safety among other reasons. Prior to opining on the subjects of womanhood, autonomy, sexuality, marriage, conservative backlash and the duplicity of male-dominated establishment in her own fashion, Baloch was what many Pakistanis would consider “time-pass” — a shughal to crack yourself up with, throw a Facebook reaction at and eventually forget like other ‘provocateurs’ such as Veena and Mathira — but she hooked herself uncomfortably deep inside the national male consciousness with her questions and statements. Whether it was poking fun at the clergy or daring “haters” to show themselves, Baloch used the virtual medium to express objection. That’s when she became less of a shughal and more of a masla. A problem.
She was also understandably imperfect; she ascribed to respectability politics when she showed contempt for another Pakistani media celebrity, Mathira, who has faced her own share of attacks from followers. But it can be said without doubt that this instance of her double standard pales drastically when placed next to the hypocrisy of both conservative and liberal men in the country. Vocal in her lampooning of Pakistani sanctimoniousness, Baloch highlighted how, on one hand, there was a burgeoning demand for her to be banned from Facebook. On the other hand, ratings and revenue depended on her appearance on prime time television where she was regularly invited. She was wanted by society in the most unwanted manner possible. She was consumable without being acceptable.
Unfortunately, it bears repeating that misogyny is not a uniquely Pakistani problem neither does Islam maintain a monopoly over patriarchal violence. But in a post-9/11 world where the global imagination involving Muslim female sexuality is either hopelessly riddled with an orientalist and imperial savior complex or fatally chained to orthodox male hegemony, it is more than necessary to shed light on the neglected and underreported aspects of such a murder. The narrative on Baloch’s death has been automatically tied to the notion of honor killing whereas developing details prove to be more complicated than that.
While a sense of safeguarding his reputation led Baloch’s brother to end her life, constant rumors of conflict over finances between brother and sister remain crucial to factor into reportage. Saadia Toor, author of The State of Islam and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at CUNY, cautions against knee-jerk reactions to limit Baloch’s death to a case of honor and pride: “We need to ask ourselves why it is that this narrative and framing is so readily available and so easily reached for by everyone from the media to ‘civil society activists’ to label every instance of a (Muslim) woman being killed by a family member in Pakistan. This is too convenient a label, and the more uncritically and reflexively it is trotted out, the easier it is for murderers to use it as an excuse or cover for their crime.” Similarly Madiha Tahir, co-founder of socio-political magazine Tanqeed, emphasizes on the need to remember Baloch’s class origin. “She wasn’t rich. She was a working class woman who dared to be exactly herself.”
It is clear that Qandeel met the fate of women who have said no to socially-sanctioned obedience and faced the grim and grisly side of masculinity. Women like Lisa Trubnikova, Lakeeya Walker, Raeylnn Vincent, Andrea Farrington, Paris Sashay, Caroline Nosal and countless others would empathize with Baloch over a pandemic disease that plagues girls and women without respect to geographical borders, race, religious affiliations and other arbitrary differences.
The ‘our’ in our fear of women like Qandeel Baloch is the world that snarls like a rabid dog when a forthright woman chooses to act on her own volition. This ‘our’ consists of a nexus between a masculinity so frail that its survival seeks constant and violent regulation of women’s freedom and gatekeepers who shield this masculinity. Although it is too premature to say anything of a shift in society’s paradigm, a strong number of Pakistani activists, students, public figures and religious clerics have stepped forward to condemn Baloch’s murder. Civil society is demanding that her alleged killer be put on trial. It is evident that thousands and thousands are infuriated and heartbroken over the loss of a woman who did what many of us will never be able to do in our lives: be herself, unequivocally.