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Qandeel Baloch and the silencing of desi women

18 Jul 2016

Yesterday, whilst scrolling through Twitter, I came to learn that Qandeel Baloch, a prominent social media star in Pakistan, was killed. Specifically, she was murdered by her brother in their family home.

My first, and only real encounter with Qandeel on social media was when her Pakistan Idol audition went viral. Her tantrum over not qualifying definitely seemed staged, yet it was memorable and brought the show masses of attention. After some research I found Qandeel’s social media presence didn’t stop at the infamous audition, but continued with frequent videos containing details about her daily life, proposals to cricket players and singing with a slightly sexual nature to them. I couldn’t really understand much of the fuss considering there was no nudity, yet her videos enraged conservative Pakistanis due to their apparent “provocative” nature which violated social norms (specifically regarding a video in which she offered to striptease if Pakistan won a match against India).

Qandeel’s brother – and murderer – said he accepted his actions “with pride” because “girls are born to stay at home and to bring honour to the family”. He claims he has “brought relief to his parents and brothers who were suffering for the last two decades because of her”. But why is it a women’s job to bring “honour”? It is a deep-rooted ideology embedded in the South Asian mindset – Partition itself showed us that men would rather kill their mothers, wives and sisters than see them “dishonoured” through rape.

Yet it is not just her brother who killed her, but the patriarchy in Pakistan, the internal misogyny that serves as a backbone in South Asian communities. The thousands of people involved in the policing of her body and actions with their every view, share and comment. Even after her death there are attempts for justification for “she knew what she was doing was wrong”. Even more worryingly, there are talks of her death “serving as a warning” to women who overstep their mark.

I have never seen a woman be so brave on South Asian media. In her videos Qandeel Baloch was being sexy, sassy and outspoken all whilst pushing social boundaries. This, I realised, is what the conservatives found “provocative” – her demands to be seen and heard. And it is not like Qandeel did not receive hate mail, abuse and threats. She did. And she refused to adhere to attempts to police her actions and body, which to me is pretty heroic. As a South Asian woman I can only begin to list the ways in which my body and actions have been policed. Through the places I go, the company I keep, the clothes I wear and the things I am told my community makes me all too aware of my “responsibility” to “maintain my family’s honour” by being a “good girl”. So I can only imagine the scale of abuse Qandeel received for being outspoken in a place where a woman being outspoken is a political, social and cultural statement. Over 1,000 women were killed in honour-related incidents (according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), and I can only wonder how much more this number will rise before things change.

It’s a frustration I’ve written about before and will continue to write about, because this deep misogyny results in brown women being abused, tortured and murdered by their own family. We need more women like Qandeel, to normalise women in places where they are told to be silent. To show they can be silly, sexy, sassy, confident, outspoken, loud, unashamed, breadwinners. To show they are allowed to live their lives on their terms. To show they do not have to fit others standards of morality. Yet, in the same breath I wonder if we will have another woman like her, because we have seen what happens to those who overstep the boundaries placed upon them. Womanhood, we have been shown, is conditional, and we need women like Qandeel Baloch to push, be free, and live unashamedly.