I can’t stop thinking about Qandeel Baloch – the social media celebrity murdered by her brother in Pakistan in a so-called honour killing last week.
Qandeel is me. Qandeel is every woman I’ve met who worries about reactions to that sleeveless shirt Facebook picture or who faces narky comments on whether her hijab is too revealing. Her murder is an extreme version of the constant policing women everywhere face on their clothes, bodies and relationships which settles on the skin like a fine mist of shame, turning you inward, self censoring. Famous Muslim men like Muhammad Ali and Imran Khan are feted by scholars despite past indiscretions. Their sexuality never defines them in the same way it does for women, for whom punishment is swift for any aberration from moral norms.
Qandeel was working class and sexy and gauche and fabulous and wanted to be famous. The fact that any of those things is a qualifier in expressing sadness over her death, as seen in online reactions, is frankly terrifying to me. Twitter activist Mehlab Jameel links to a Facebook comment by Fauzia Kasuri, a supposed women’s rights activist in Pakistan who writes: “Whatever Qandeel Balouch did…it was wrong…but her brutal death shouldn’t have been her fate.”
The modern, popular culture, exhibitionist, selfie-style of female brazenness does not sit well with suffragette-style Muslim feminism which seeks greater freedoms without disturbing social norms. But women like Qandeel are no less deserving of our sympathy because she doesn’t fit a stereotype of piety. Respectability feminism works because it is strategic and seeks slow reform, but the provocative, angry and fiery also has its place in fighting sexism. As do social media displays – a natural rebellion for young women without power chafing against suffocating norms.
If your feminism has no room for women like Qandeel, for starlets and sex workers, hustlers and street sweepers, people with broken English from dysfunctional backgrounds trying to make a buck – it needs to be reassessed.
Qandeel never had the luxury of an education. Like so many working class people she was desperately aware of the currency she lacked to gain entry into a world she craved. Hers is a modern story of an insatiable quest for internet fame in the social media age as much as it is about female autonomy and the raw class struggle that threads itself through Pakistani society.
I wish we could live in a world where Qandeel was just another wannabe internet celebrity, and is not transformed into a martyr and revolutionary because of an intolerant society that is terrified of what it paradoxically represses and lusts after. For the mullahs and the village, the tension of Qandeel was too much. She could not exist because she represented the paradox of what they hated within themselves, the power she had over them and the need to control it. This threat is the undercurrent of all restrictions on female freedom – to move, travel, live, love and wear what we please.
Qandeel had escaped a bad marriage and was living away from her family on her own terms. A self-described feminist, she was more passionately articulate in her Facebook posts than a thousand academics, and more pointed in showing up the hypocrisy of the moral standard bearers. Her selfies with a besotted looking cleric in a hotel where she wears his cap and sits on his lap as he ‘schools her’ on religion reportedly had him stood down from various posts.
The struggle for women in developing countries is highly filtered through class. Women like Qandeel don’t have the education or feminist frameworks of the upper class, but they represent the lifeblood of a lived feminism, they are enmeshed in the struggle that poverty magnifies, and we need to salute that.
When I chatted to Bilquis Edhi, wife of the late great philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the Edhi foundation charity home in Karachi last year, she told me of the society ladies with big hair and make-up who came down to volunteer. They had little understanding of the lived realities of those they sought to assist, and hindered rather then helped the cause. “They have no idea,” she laughed, rolling her eyes.
It’s typical of the condescension even Pakistani liberal elites subconsciously harbour for the working poor. The ‘hordes’ that represent the worst of their society to the outside world but whose position is the result of being denied the power, education and resources to share in the privilege of the dominant classes.
Qandeel was the ultimate hustler and ultimate Pakistani. Like the hawkers selling knock-off perfumes on the street, using every trick in the book to get ahead, to get rich, to get her revenge at a society that seemed at every turn to militate against her. She lost the battle but her hustle will never be forgotten.