Rafia Zakaria | Longreads | December 2018 | 13 minutes (3,450 words)
It happened in July, amid the sweltering summer heat of the plains of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. It was one of those days when sweat flows in streams, the beads of depleted moisture dripping down backs and armpits and foreheads as people walk and talk and complain about the heat as if it were a newcomer among them.
The murdered woman was Qandeel Baloch, a 26-year-old Pakistani YouTube sensation, whose risqué videos, laden with erotic subtext, had so angered her brother that he strangled her to death. The deed was done late on the night of July 15th. It was late in the morning of the 16th when the first reporter from Pakistan’s rapacious 24-hour news media arrived in the neighborhood.
That journalist was Arif Nizami. After receiving an anonymous tip, he raced to the area and demanded of passersby that he be taken to the “Karachi Hotel.” “This is Karachi-Hotel,” some sympathetic soul finally told him, “the whole neighborhood is Karachi-Hotel.” The comic absurdity of this moment, while an apt metaphor for a country bewildered by looking at itself — especially in the new ways made possible by the internet, ways at which Qandeel Baloch excelled — is a contrast to the tragic scenes that were to follow, all painstakingly recreated in Pakistani journalist Sanam Maher’s book The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch. The book tells an extraordinary story: Qandeel Baloch’s internet fame was built almost entirely from suggestive innuendo-laden videos, shot and shared late at night when millions of Pakistani men go online in search of sexual satisfaction. Qandeel knew that this audience was out there, and in speaking directly to them she captured their erotic imagination.
Tragically for Qandeel Baloch, what Pakistani men love to love in private, they love to excoriate in public. Sexual fantasies, or the women who are part of them, must be shamed with the same ferocity with which their bodies are lusted after. It was this truth which led to Qandeel’s death that summer day, a grisly mix of rage and misogyny ending with her brother’s hands around her neck. In the hours after Arif Nizami arrived at the scene, a sweaty mob of media men crowded before the door of the house where Qandeel lay dead, her body already swollen from heat and decay as the temperature rose. The male gaze, lust-laden in life, had turned voyeuristic in death, the journalists, most of them men, clamoring and pushing and shoving to get a shot of her corpse.
The honor killing tag, once attached, tends to produce a sort of investigatory tunnel vision, the exotic filial element of the crime overshadowing other essential facts with its inherent moral decrepitude.
They would get to see her. When, after many hours, the policemen who had come to investigate carried her body out, they “forgot” to cover it with the standard white shroud afforded the dead. This small courtesy was denied a dishonorable woman of the web. Qandeel Baloch’s body was hidden only by the flowered sheet in which she had once slept. En route, it slipped away from her face, and everyone gathered was able to gawk at the dead woman, grab pictures and videos of her sordid end. Many of these crude recordings live on online, accessible with a simple Google search.
The other videos, those of the living Qandeel offering a striptease to a Pakistani cricketer, sitting in the lap of a religious cleric, and other provocations, are also still online. She had recorded many of them on hot nights just like the one of July 15, 2016. She had trouble sleeping, she would confess to her viewers, as she lay titillatingly sprawled on her bed or sofa. Her heavily made-up face and her outfit would accord with whomever or whatever she was playing that night: the little girl, the sultry siren, the robe-wrapped tease and many more. In a country where women never talk about sex in a public medium, Qandeel reveled and delighted in doing so, using erotic subtext and inventive innuendo to own her sexuality in a way that was quite unprecedented. This she had the savvy to attach to what she knew Pakistani men loved most after sex — sports. In a video made before the Pakistan national team played a crucial match against New Zealand, she promised Shahid Afridi, the team’s star player, a striptease dedicated to him if he wins.
There wasn’t actually a striptease, not on YouTube anyway, but the suggestion of one openly promised by a Pakistani woman was enough to make the video go viral. While millions of Pakistani girls, minded by ever watchful fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins, remain absorbed in maintaining their respectability, Qandeel Baloch insisted on crossing the line without apology. She was a young woman uninterested in pretending to be a good girl, hoping to nab a suitable marriage prospect; she was a woman who loved being a bad girl, and Pakistan did not seem to know what to do with her.
Here, then, is the story of a culture that avows to love only good girls but finds itself irrepressibly fascinated by a bad girl, a poor girl, an unapologetic girl. It doesn’t end well for the girl, but it reveals much about a culture in flux, where the mores of a shame society obsessed with keeping an eye on everyone else are being challenged by the anonymity and ubiquity of internet technology, 3G connections in far-flung areas, and mobile phones cheaper than a couple days’ worth of meals. The internet has changed Pakistani society in all sorts of unusual and unexpected ways. Camel owners in the sprawling Thar desert, for instance, used to put bells around their camels’ necks, the sound of which could be easily heard no matter how far a camel had wandered in the quiet desert nights; now, the camels bear their owner’s mobile phone number instead. Where matchmakers once toted around worn photographs of young girls and boys, they now arrange video chats on WhatsApp. Food delivery services, even abortion services, are now accessible via Smartphones, as was the world of lust and sexual fantasy offered up by Qandeel Baloch.
Maher’s book points to Qandeel’s murder at the hands of her enraged brother Waseem as a possible honor killing. This classification was doggedly adhered to and pushed by Pakistani and foreign media in the days after Qandeel’s death, when the case was grabbing headlines around the world. It is true that Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother Waseem; he owned up to the fact in a televised confession, justifying his crime by venting about his disapproval of the things she had done online and the dishonor she had brought on their family.
The honor killing tag, once attached, tends to produce a sort of investigatory tunnel vision, the exotic filial element of the crime overshadowing other essential facts with its inherent moral decrepitude. So too, perhaps, in the case of the murder of Qandeel Baloch. While honor killing in some ways might be an accurate description of what was done to her, the burgeoning culture of what we could call “incels” within Pakistan — millions of men with smartphones and raging libidos caught in a perceived feedback loop of unemployment and wifelessness — may have also played a role. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, a virulent mix of misogyny and lust and entitlement is coming to a head online; the internet is turning out to be a perfect storm of hate in a patriarchal society obsessed with shame over appearances but, concurrently, little or no guilt over wrongdoing when it is carried out in secret.
A woman’s economic empowerment can be anything from an existential threat to an inconvenience, but in any case men believe they are entitled to stop it by stopping her life.
This obsessive shame was, Qandeel’s brother attested, instrumental in catalyzing his murderous rage. So, too, could have been the shame of his own emasculation in the face of his sister’s growing fame and financial success, independent of how it was begotten. “Qandeel was not my daughter but she was my son. She provided us financial and emotional support,” her father Azeem lamented after her death, condemning his sons, Waseem and another brother-accomplice, whom he believed had murdered her. Qandeel had made it and Waseem had not, and this did not look good. In a family whose members had migrated to nearby Multan and even farther away to Islamabad, the (mostly) rural bugbear of family honor was unlikely to have held the same sort of sway on their lives as the shame of taking money from a woman. Indeed, honor killing itself is often just a cover story for male family members’ desire to stop a woman from inheriting property. After the killing, Qandeel’s father alleged that her brothers had murdered Qandeel for her money; and according to police reports, when the assailants fled the scene of the crime, they took Qandeel’s money and jewelry with them. A woman’s economic empowerment can be anything from an existential threat to an inconvenience, but in any case men believe they are entitled to stop it by stopping her life.
Before she became a rebel, Qandeel Baloch was just an ordinary little girl growing up in a poor family made up of mainly men. As Sanam Maher reports in her book, Qandeel, whose real name was Fouzia Azeem, regretted not being born a boy. For a time, she put on her brother’s clothes and played in the streets with the other boys, getting rowdy and dirty. All this was brought to a stop with apparent alacrity after she hit puberty. In her late teens, Qandeel was married off to a maternal cousin. Not knowing any men other than her father and brother, she thought he was “the one,” writing the man long letters during the duo’s engagement. A wedding was soon held and she was handed off to her new guardian, a man entitled to control her every move.
He did just that. After a short and fitful honeymoon period, Baloch’s husband grew tempestuous and abusive, and her body was soon covered in bruises and burn marks where he puts out cigarettes on her body. When she complained to her mother, she was not believed. The man was, after all, her husband. In due course, Qandeel became pregnant and gave birth, even as the abusive tenor of her situation rose to a crescendo.
The marriage did not end with any sort of empathic parental intervention, but with the intrepid Qandeel running off with her baby son to a government-run domestic violence shelter in Multan. The Darul Aman shelters (the name of several women’s shelters throughout Pakistan) are full of women who have nowhere to go and no money to go anywhere. The shelters’ dismal, Dickensian reality includes rapist guards who are rumored to pimp their charges to rich men in the city, and the constant grim chaos of women and children clamoring for meager provisions in the windowless darkness, which is deemed necessary to keep their presence secret. Not long after arriving, Qandeel left, handing over her baby son to her husband and his relatives. “I want to make my own life,” she confessed to the shelter administrator. “Whatever I want to do, I cannot do it with a child hanging on to me. I will become helpless.” She disappeared from the shelter the next day.
That was not, of course, to be the end of either her trials or her troubles. Not much was heard of Qandeel Baloch in the interim years, between when she ran off from the shelter early in the second decade of the new millennium and when she began to make her YouTube videos. Maher’s book tries to piece together this gray portion of Qandeel’s life. Somewhere in there is a thankless low paying gig working as a hostess on a bus-service whose mostly male customers expect to paw at the hostesses who serve them sandwiches. Then there are the modeling gigs, which promise much yet deliver little to the hundreds of earnest girls, most newly arrived from villages all over Pakistan, eager to shed their rustic edges and become glamorous.
But Qandeel Baloch does become glamorous; she also snags the coveted position of being the favorite of an event promoter. The man, named Mec, adores her. She too seems to like him; whether it is for the career leg up that he provides her or something more is anyone’s guess. Her first taste of real fame happens in 2013, when, clad in pink tights and a dress, she auditions for a show called Pakistan Idol (a remake of the American version) in Multan. She makes it, not in the sense of winning a spot on the show, but in garnering notoriety. The clip featuring her, in her bright and crazy get-up, goes viral. The judges reject her, saying that they find her voice too thin and high. She is devastated for the camera, but it doesn’t matter, because, while she may not have become a contestant, she has become famous. Between 2013’s Pakistan Idol audition and 2016, when she was killed, she would make appearances in music videos, in fashion shows, on television programs and of course in her many YouTube videos.
Qandeel had gone too far this time; not in exposing herself, but in exposing everyone else.
The YouTube video that was the beginning of the end wasn’t made until June of 2016; when Qandeel decided to share it, as well as several accompanying selfies on Twitter, it was as if she had set a clock counting down to her death the following month. The video’s genesis was seemingly innocuous. Qandeel, who had by now amassed enough fame to become a near regular on one or another of Pakistan’s many talk shows, was invited to be a guest on one of them. Another guest was a cleric named Mufti Qavi, whose selection completed a crude moral juxtaposition between the man of faith and the naughty girl of YouTube. A provocative discussion, friendly to the ratings, was the goal, and it was delivered.
The two, goaded by the loaded inquiries and allegations of the interviewer, soon began yelling at each other and talking over each other. The cleric who had gleaned his own fame by positioning himself as the gentle chider of models and actresses, refused to pass a religious edict (fatwa) on Qandeel Baloch to mend her naughty ways. Then he went even further than that, telling Qandeel on-air that he was headed to Karachi soon and that he would love to meet her.
The meeting, which, in Maher’s telling, Qandeel tried to avoid, took place at a Karachi hotel during the month of Ramadan, with all its attendant injunctions against debauchery and fervent exhibitions of public piety. The two shared cigarettes and food, the Mufti urging Qandeel on with the prescription that sharing increases the love between two people. Then Qandeel did what she always did; she began to take selfies of herself and Mufti Qazi, selfies that grow progressively more risqué. In one, they are seated on a couch; in another, she is on his lap, his clerical hat perched atop her head. A short video also showed the same thing.
The pictures and video went viral. Here was an exposure of a different sort, a direct jab at a culture in which men can pretend to be pious in public while keeping secret their lewd behavior with the same “loose” women whom they are happy to chide in public. The video made Qandeel an even bigger star, although now she was reviled as much as admired. Her shenanigans had seemed amusing earlier, but now they challenged the cherished and coddled double standard that permits private debauchery so long as the illusion of piety is publicly adhered to. If this woman’s wild sexuality could tempt a man of faith in this way, she was truly a threat to the pure lives everyone imagined themselves leading. Qandeel had gone too far this time; not in exposing herself, but in exposing everyone else.
Mufti Qavi was suspended from his position as a member of Pakistan’s official moon-sighting committee following the fiasco with Qandeel. It was a huge demotion from him; the committee, which declares when a new moon has been sighted and thus when the major Eid celebrations are to begin, has national importance and credibility, opening up opportunities for the committee’s members to appear on television shows and reap the rewards of national fame. In an interview Qandeel Baloch gave after the incident, she pointed out just this tendency: “He’s publicity-hungry. He took my number from the media organisation and contacted me, saying ‘I promised I would meet you’. He said ‘I’m coming on this date’ and then sent me his flight…number.”
In the hours after Qandeel Baloch’s death, her father, Azeem, filed a First Information Report with the police. In the report, he blamed not only his two sons and her cousin Haq Nawaz, who he said colluded to asphyxiate Qandeel after adding tranquilizer to the family’s food, but also Mufti Qavi. Investigations into the murder case would back him up. They revealed that the taxicab used as a getaway car in the crime was driven by a relative of Mufti Qavi.
In the hours after the murder, Qandeel’s brother Waseem and his accomplice Haq Nawaz were both arrested. A questionnaire was sent to Mufti Qavi, in which he denied knowing anything at all about the murder or having anything to do with it. In the meantime, Qandeel Baloch’s other brothers all descended upon the little house in Multan that Qandeel had rented for her parents and tried to force them into “forgiving” their youngest brother. Laws related to blood money in Pakistan permit family members of the accused to forgive the perpetrator of crimes against them. In this case, it was all the case of one family.
It was more than a case of an angry brother punishing an errant sister; it was a conspiracy, a crime committed by a group of colluding men who found a powerful and unapologetic woman a danger and a threat to their masculinity.
Two and a half years have passed since Qandeel’s death, and her parents, who are living in abject poverty and have sometimes had to resort to begging for food in their ancestral village of Shah Sadar Din, continue to refuse to “forgive” her killers. (Although, when her parents retracted their accusation against one of the brothers, Aslam Shaheen, whom her father had initially claimed was the one who had incited Waseem to violence, the police claimed Aslam had bribed them.) Her father drapes her grave in the Pakistani flag and her mother still shows reporters, like Maher herself, the glitzy and glamorous clothes their daughter left behind.
In late November, the court hearing Qandeel Baloch’s murder case refused bail to her younger brother Waseem, who confessed to the killing prior to trial. However, Haq Nawaz, also one of the main accused in the case, who had allegedly helped execute the murder, was released pending trial. It is often the way of things in Pakistan that as public interest in a crime dies down, the accused are first freed on bail and then the case is dismissed entirely, with cryptic reasons given as to why. They range widely from a lack of evidence, to the forgiveness of the killer, to alleged false confessions and so on. With Waseem free, the pressure will once again be on the aged parents of the murdered Qandeel Baloch to forgive the son who killed her. Mufti Qavi’s role in the case seems to be fading away. That, too, is unsurprising. In the Pakistani logic of things, why should a bad woman’s death be permitted to ruin a good man’s life?
Qandeel Baloch knew that to sustain interest in herself, or in anything, in the age of likes and clicks and shares, she must constantly produce new content, up herself and reinvent herself. This is the reality for any internet star, including those who thrive on controversy. But Qandeel was self-made not just in the sense of having charted her own destiny; she was self-invented in her unique ability to satiate that very specific desire for fabricated authenticity that we thirst for in the virtual world — a place where all of us live out part of our lives, but one she chose to live in more fully and more honestly than most. Qandeel knew that the very truth of a woman alone, possessing an inner life and her own desires, was the most riveting spectacle of all. Her death should not be reduced to the sad but simple story of an honor killing in a small city in backward and barbaric Pakistan. This would neatly pin the blame on family and tradition, obscuring the fact that her murder was directly linked to the virtual world of virulent online misogyny, which is, everywhere it takes root, an outgrowth of men’s abhorrence of their own lust and their rage toward the women who are objects of it.
This, then, is the true story of the death of Qandeel Baloch. It was more than a case of an angry brother punishing an errant sister; it was a conspiracy, a crime committed by a group of colluding men who found a powerful and unapologetic woman a danger and a threat to their masculinity. In a society bound by moralizing constraints, where sexual lives and preferences must be kept covert, deviance and decrepitude flourish; a murder evolving from it should not come as a surprise. In the end, they wanted what they had always wanted: They wanted her body.
I fear that no one will ultimately be held responsible for the murder of Qandeel Baloch. Meanwhile, Qandeel herself can still be found, in hundreds of videos, smiling at the camera, thumbing her nose at her haters, making up a new life for herself as she goes.
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Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015) and Veil (2017). She is a columnist at Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper and writes the “Alienated” column for The Baffler.
Editor: Dana Snitzky