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Qandeel Baloch: An unlikely political icon for Pakistan Open in fullscreen

Farhad Mirza

Qandeel Baloch: An unlikely political icon for Pakistan

Qandeel's murder cannot be separated from the wider issue of gender politics in Pakistan [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 July, 2016

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Comment: When a society violently inscribes its morals and values on a woman's body, the active renunciation of chastity is a highly political, dangerous and risky endeavour, writes Farhad Mirza.
On July 15, a 26-year-old social media star who had become a household name in Pakistan for her sexually bold, and unapologetic videos, was strangled to death by her brother 'for honor'.

Qandeel Baloch - whose real name was Fouzia Azeem - had reinvented herself as a subversive starlet after fleeing the violent provincialism of a life shared by countless women of similar modest background.

Reincarnated as the carefree Qandeel, Fouzia entertained and titillated an audience that publicly condemned her for her eccentric and supposedly "immoral" provocations. Despite having a million strong fan-base, her murder has failed to inspire the unconditional sympathy of the public.

The conservative response has been predictable: Her death is supposed to be a warning to women who stray too far from the prescribed religious path. Others have accused her of being a traitor, in charge of defiling Pakistan's "Muslim" culture at the behest of Indian agents.

Even the liberal elite has disowned her as a feminist, creating a discursive distance between what they define as real feminism, and Qandeel's "illiterate exhibitionism".

It would be gravely naive to say that Qandeel became a national sensation due to her racy videos, or the scandalous selfies she took to expose the sleaze of the patriarchal clergy. When a society violently inscribes its morals and values on a woman's body, the active renunciation of chastity is a highly political, dangerous and risky endeavor - one that Qandeel took with pride and daring.

She was no stranger to online abuse and judging by the statements she made, it was obvious that she saw her audience for what it truly was - a club of sexually frustrated zealots and upper-class prudes.

The CII told husbands that they were allowed to administer "light beatings" to their wives, should they act in defiance of their wishes

Still, one wonders if online stardom duped her into thinking that those who made her the secret object of their fascination would at least bid her farewell with heavy hearts. Instead, they rejoiced - relieved that this unpredictable confidante would no longer be able to expose them with her candid outspokenness.

Qandeel did not believe in keeping secrets. She stirred up a huge controversy when she posed for selfies with an Islamic cleric who had been hounding her, claiming he wanted to 'rescue' her from eternal hellfire by exorcising the evil spirits nestled deep inside her.

Perched next to the excitable figure, she balanced his hat on her head, making light of the fact that the sanctimonious power of the clergy was nothing more than a costume drama. Later on, she accused the cleric of making suggestive advances towards her. Whether this was true or not, she made one thing very clear: The moralising power of patriarchy could not touch her without getting burnt.

The reasons behind Qandeel's murder cannot be separated from the wider issue of gender politics in Pakistan. This murder took place against the backdrop of a country still debating the despicable recommendations published earlier this year by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a non-legislative religious body that monitors government legislation, admonishing deviations from religious legal doctrines when its clerics deem it necessary.

Feminism is almost always viewed in Pakistan through the lens of western debates

In response to Pakistan's Women's Protection Bill, a piece of legislation that aims to give greater rights to victims of domestic abuse, the CII told husbands that they were allowed to administer "light beatings" to their wives, should they act in defiance of their wishes.

It defined "light beating" as any use of force that does not leave a bruise or break a bone, but it leaves the definition of "defiance" to the judgment of husbands: This symbolic violence is the right of every self-respecting man.

Qandeel's brother, Waseem Azeem - a thief and drug addict - says he has "no regrets" in killing his sister. She had violated the family's honor by her provocative social media posts.

Qandeel forces us to think of feminism in a different context, in more immediate terms

Conservatives, including Maulvi Qava, the above-mentioned cleric who lost his job due to his exorcist obsessions, might have denounced the killing, but they condemned Qandeel for her ambitions and provocations, implying that though her brother had gone too far, Qandeel had brought this on herself. Waseem's violent addiction was not enough to earn him national scowls, but Qandeel's racy pictures apparently were.

Conservatives are yet to reflect upon the fact that their own fire-and-brimstone sermons about a woman's place in society might have created an environment in which her death was almost inevitable. When the ratings-hungry media revealed her true identity, refusing to acknowledge her as the person she wanted to be, the hounds of hell were released after her.

If not the "dishonored" brother, a trigger-happy nationalist, a jilted lover, or a vengeful zealot would have been all too happy to cut her breath short.

Since Qandeel's death, many Pakistani men - irrespective of their political orientation - have busied themselves trying to define feminism as something extrinsic to what Qandeel represented. Part of it has to do with the fact that feminism is almost always viewed in Pakistan through the lens of western debates.

The world ought to remember her as a brave feminist who defied every label imposed upon her

For conservatives, it is a menace, a false liberation that sexualises women beyond the natural order. Liberals tend to judge the actions of feminists by measuring consent, or how effectively they avoid the trap of capitalist commodification. The natural constituency of their feminism is not the working class, but the lecture halls of their universities where "real" is conceptualised.

Qandeel forces us to think of feminism in a different context, in more immediate terms. She might not have known herself, and might have been oblivious to what she represented, but there is no doubt that she sparked an important debate and paid a heavy price for it.

For that reason alone, the world ought to remember her as a brave feminist who defied every label imposed upon her, exposed patriarchal hypocrisy where she saw it, and made choices that her critics cannot even begin to fathom.


Farhad Mirza is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. He writes for various publications about social justice, migration and urban culture. Follow him on Twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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