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The dishonourable killing of a Pakistani social media celebrity

Qandeel Baloch’s murder fuelled the debate over women’s sexuality, their lives, and their deaths. Her ‘honour’ killing could bring about changes in Pakistan’s legal structure.


Qandeel Baloch. Credit: Qandeel Baloch, promotional image.

Fauzia Azeem, who was better known as Qandeel Baloch, was killed on July 15, 2016. This was the first time that a social media celebrity - or celebrity of any kind - became the victim of an ‘honour’ killing in Pakistan.

Barely two months have passed since her brother drugged and then strangled her as she slept. Why he did this has a sinister answer: her brother could no longer handle criticism from people around him. His sister was popular for her sexually charged videos and pictures. She was owning her sexuality and using it to her advantage. Pakistan cannot handle strong-headed women, and here was one who went a step further and took her body back too. 

 Qandeel Baloch is Pakistan’s first iconic social media celebrity - I say ‘is’ because her death has done little to dampen her fire. It is a fire that may engulf the tradition of honour killing itself. After her death, we discovered the level of threat she had faced: her Facebook page showed the barrage of insults and abuse that were hurled at her. In response to a tweet in which she celebrates Malala  just days before her death, she is told. “If you get shot on head and die, we will celebrate #QandeelDay too. I promise!” writes one twitter user.

“Don’t compare yourself with normal or intellectual women...” writes another.

 “I’m your biggest fan do you like me I’m a good guy and I like bad bitches” writes one more.

From sexual solicitation to outright threats and abuses. Every single thing she’s posted on social media is full of this, some of it in Urdu. We received the same treatment after we began tweeting about the hurt and the heartbreak caused by the senseless violence that had resulted in her death. Here are a couple of examples of the abuse I received on social media:

The barrage of abuse I got, and continue to get, from digital quarters left me rattled and worried. I felt like shutting myself out from social media. How Qandeel managed to wade through all the hate is beyond the people who are now rallying to her cause. She came from humble beginnings. While she may have begun by posting videos and selfies just to get attention, of late her words were finding their story. She was a feminist and proud. She was all about women taking control. And Pakistani feminists like myself couldn’t get enough of her. However, the general public couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just shut up and be content to be a sex object? Qandeel had gone from someone who was posting saucy selfies seemingly just for entertainment to someone who said “this is me, I’m taking control of my sexuality. I have a life, I have dreams and I’ll do what I want.” When she began talking about her rights as a woman, she was deemed to have gone too far.  Her murder shook the country, but many simply shrugged and said she had it coming. Others who condemned the death were quick to point out that they weren’t defending her actions, just her death.

Waseem Azeem, brother of Qandeel Baloch, July 17 2016. Credit: PA Images / Asim Tanveer

However, to say that Pakistan has a unique problem with honour killing would be inaccurate. Women are being killed  all over the world because of patriarchy. The labelling is different but Qandeel was not killed for Islam, or property, or any reason apart from the ego of her brother. The same ego was not hurt when she was providing for the family - just when the clerics got involved. That seemed to be the turning point. A month or so before her death, Qandeel posted selfies and a video with a well known cleric Mufti Qavi. Pictures of Qandeel wearing his religious cap went viral instantly. When the mufti insisted he had only met Qandeel at her insistence she hit back by saying he was in love with her. The cleric was ridiculed on a national level subsequent to the controversy. The events led to his suspension from the Ruet-e-Hilal committee and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.  It was only after this controversy that Qandeel began to fear for her life. It is not yet known whether he did play a role in her death, but he is being investigated in her murder inquiry.

The question is: what is Pakistan going to do about this? Qandeel’s death has triggered a debate over further provisions against honour killings in the country.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2005 tried to address honour crimes in Pakistan. It introduced a clause that addressed “offences in the name or on the pretext of honour”. While the move was lauded, the issue of honour killings did not die down because of it. The amendment has been criticised for being too vague, and has been easily manipulated in favour of the murderers and not the victims. The law holds that someone who murders in the name of honour will be sentenced to a term not less than ten years or life imprisonment or death. However, a loophole within the law allows heirs of a victim to forgive murderers sometimes in exchange for blood money and other times because they will not punish the son for the daughters, sisters and mothers lost.  In Qandeel’s case, the state made itself party to the case so that her family would not be able to forgive the son for the murder although her father did accuse his son of murder in the First Information Report (FIR) that was submitted to the police. A popular argument for forgiving such killers is that a person has already lost one daughter, why should they lose another by condemning their son.

Qandeel Baloch at a press conference in Lahore, Pakistan, June 28, 2016. Credit: PA Images / M Jameel

In Pakistan, men acting out against women get sympathy when they argue that they were protecting their honour. Their friends and families do not abandon them, and in some cases they are revered as heroes of their own stories.  Honour killings continue to be seen as normal practice in Pakistan. So much so that in many cases when a woman is murdered the motives aren’t even questioned before the label is added. Upon further inquiry we find that the dispute may have been related to a number of different things from property to a second marriage, but we are quick to say that the women were killed for honour instead. A kind of absurd legitimacy is associated with honour crimes. People in such instances may say that women did not deserve to die, but there’s also an underlying tone that they may have deserved to.  What makes matters worse is that it’s easier to get out of a murder charge with honour killings because of the current flawed legal system. You can make laws, but you cannot force policemen to intervene and implement them and you cannot force people to use them.

The culture of attacking women must change, the culture of storing a man’s ego and honour within a woman’s body must change, and we must stop expecting women to transform or live their lives according to the fragile male egos that surround them. Interestingly, the Council of Islamic Ideology (which has previously decreed child marriages to be within the ambit of Islam) has declared that honour killings are un-Islamic. Perhaps change is finally coming. Now, a new Anti-Honour Killings Bill is sitting in the Pakistani Senate looking to improve on the 2005 amendment by revoking the right of the victims’ family to forgive the murderer.

Pakistan continues to be poorly served by laws that exist, and implementation that doesn’t. So while we are all hopeful for a law that addresses honour killings, and wish with all our hearts that it will provoke change - unless the mindset surrounding honour killings is changed, nothing will.

About the author

Nighat Dad is the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation. She was one of Time Magazine's Next Generation Leaders in 2015, and in 2016 became the second Pakistani to win the Atlantic Council Freedom Award. Her work revolves around digital rights, minorities, and women empowerment. She is the mastermind behind the Hamara Internet Campaign. She tweets @nighatdad


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