Most of us, who googled Qandeel Baloch’s name after learning of her gruesome honour killing, have been wondering how this outspoken young woman was allowed to live long enough to scandalise, titillate and create murderous rage in this subcontinent.
Born Fauzia Azeem, we learn she was one of 12 siblings from a traditional middle-class family in a small town in Pakistan Punjab. She had walked out of an abusive marriage, had a child and at the time of her death, according to her father, was supporting her entire family, including the brother who throttled her. Her father and brother could not have been unaware that her income, which sustained them, came from Qandeel marketing herself as a bold sex icon (with a following of a million on Facebook), and as a frequently-invited guest for sharply subversive discussions on TV and other social groupings.
In the male-dominated society of Pakistan, where (according to 2014 data released by the NGO, Aurat Fund), six women are abducted, four are murdered, another four are raped and three commit suicide each day, one wonders how could a semi-clad young woman, who posted videos on YouTube, offered herself to cricket stars, threatened politicians on both sides of Wagah, and uploaded a provocative selfie with a mufti, have lived to be 26?
According to data with the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, some 5,000 such murders take place worldwide. Of these, 1,000 each occur in India and Pakistan and the 12 in the UK takes place mostly among Indian and Pakistani-origin families. As per UN figures, one in five of the honour killings takes place in India but non-governmental organisations put the real tally at three times the reported figure.
For humans, sexuality can be a way of bonding, of giving and receiving pleasure, communicating emotion and discovering sameness. But in countries like ours, the question that is never asked is the one that would define sexuality from a truly feminine perspective: Who does what to whom and gets away with it? The answer: It is always the men who lay down the rules.
In our time, social media has emerged as the most popular arena where sexuality is socially constructed and exercised; as a subdivision of pornographic sites, it helps define women that men would desperately want to see and possess.
Perhaps Qandeel is a somewhat extreme example of a half-baked understanding of clever jumlas being increasingly used to provoke young girls into acting out male fantasies under the guise of “doing your own thing” and “my body is mine to do what I wish to do with it”. Like fish living in water, all women, in India, Pakistan or even in the West, must live surrounded by such visuals today, where women are being sexually objectified and defined to satisfy the male gaze.
Many women cope with this situation by receding into outright denial or fear. But some, like poor Qandeel, decide to meet the male standards and consider themselves successful by the degree to which they succeed in arousing male interest. Their strategy seems to be that by doing that before actually being told to do so, a woman may acquire a certain self respect and pride as a free agent and become a subversive media sensation. “It was I that chose to do it, so there!” they will say repeatedly; as though any woman on this subcontinent can have some meaningfully determining part in presenting her sex life publicly on a platform and attract eyeballs without turning into some kind of a universal dirty joke!
There are also more questions arising out of the so-called laws against violence, mostly sexual violence within homes, that is being perpetrated against women all over the subcontinent. Who crafts, amends, interprets and adjudicates over these family laws? Don’t family and kinship rules and sexual mores from Haryana (where a Dalit girl is raped by the same group of men twice) to Gaya (where a woman is stripped and paraded naked on charges of promiscuity) to Pakistan Punjab (where Qandeel was murdered ) or Sindh (where hundreds of raped women are jailed because their authority as a witness, even to their own humiliation, is half that of the perpetrator’s) eventually go on to guarantee reproductive ownership, sexual access and control to men as a group?
No society says that a sister must feed the entire family and still play moral games by tribal laws. But that is not necessary since most sisters would die rather than see their family starve. No law urges brothers to go and kill their sisters for bringing dishonour to the family but if the father says he forgives the perpetrator, charges are dropped.
A few weeks before she was killed, Qandeel had asked the government for protection; she was, of course, denied it. Even the proposed Bill for protecting women against violence, withholding family pardon that literally lets brothers and uncles of young women get away with murder, and asking men “to only beat their wives lightly”, is hanging fire in the state to which Qandeel belonged. The government-funded Council of Islamic Ideology has stoutly blocked it, saying that since according to the Islamic laws women must not speak to men other than those to whom they are related by blood, even their answering the phone must be forbidden. Members of khaps, caste panchayats and college principals in India, who have ruled that girls must not wear trousers, carry mobiles or step out of the house without a male chaperone, should be happy with Qandeel’s brother’s reply. He killed his sister, he said, because, “girls are born to stay at home”.