What the “honour killing” of celebrity feminist Qandeel Baloch reveals about Pakistani liberals

The cultural icon, known as “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian”, was killed by her brother, in a country where more than 1,000 such murders occur per year.

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Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother at her residence early Saturday morning, in the most high-profile of the over 1,000 honour killings that take place in the country on average annually.

Qandeel, whose official Facebook page has 783,667 likes, gathered her huge following through her social media posts that had, over the past year or so, evolved from eccentric trolling of Pakistan’s patriarchal tendencies to a powerful feminist rallying cry.

Whether it was through her attire or words, Qandeel’s unambiguous message to Pakistani women was to own their sexuality and take charge of their bodies. This attitude – in a place where both traditional genders resist liberating female body ownership from the “men in charge” – meant that the charge of “dishonouring the nation” was regularly slashed on her forehead.

It is with this backdrop that the country, where three women on average are killed over so-called honour every day, has been jolted by Qandeel’s murder. The killing of the woman, who famously promised to strip if Pakistan beat India in a cricket match, has left Pakistani society naked.        

Qandeel’s stripteases kept many of the “honourable” Pakistani men glued to her videos, who ensured that they substantiated their slut-shaming by consuming every single second of screen-time. But little did anyone know that all the while appearing to unclothe herself, Qandeel was actually exposing her detractors.

Whether it was men’s double standards over morality, her fellow women’s internalised misogyny, or the twisted idea of honour, Qandeel stripped away layers of hypocrisy, one after the other. It was the latter that became the motive of her murder, finally laying bare the scars hidden beneath Pakistani society’s delusions of moral grandeur.

It is through exposing these same wounds that Pakistan’s only Oscar-winning director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, earned similar accolades.

A day after exhibiting pride over the act, Qandeel’s murderer confessed that it was his sister’s selfies with a renowned local cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi – another exposé of Pakistani clergy – that instigated her killing. Qavi is now being investigated over the murder, with money also being explored as an alternative motive.

While the investigation continues, the murderer’s confession to killing over “honour” remains – at the very least – the pretext for the murder. And this stated motive handed over to him by the overwhelming majority of the 783,667 people on Qandeel’s Facebook page, who were criticising her actions.

The realisation that Qandeel’s murderer made the same accusations as her social media attackers should have sent shockwaves through most societies. But many of the aforementioned detractors seem to be rejoicing at their apparent partnership in the crime. Even many of those seemingly condemning the murder appear to simultaneously distance themselves from the woman who “was no role model”.

It is the twisted “honour” of a society whose liberals are feeling the need to qualify their protest of a bare-faced murder, and whose conservatives range from victim-blaming to genuine ecstasy, which Qandeel’s murderer has dutifully shielded. A society where exhibiting one’s sexuality reduces a human being’s worth in the eyes of “progressives” and the orthodox alike.

While we debate whether such honour killings should be called as such or not, without factoring in – and effectively challenging – the offender and their apologists’ idea of honour, Qandeel Baloch might have solved the puzzle for one of the most prevalent acts of crime in Pakistan.

The term “honour” is now synonymous with taking away women’s freedom. The female body is reduced to a man’s marked territory, who then obsesses over covering it up. The “owner” ensures that his property gives up on both her body and her individuality, with “honour” being the exchange currency, when the property changes hands.

And so, any Pakistani who believes that the extent to which a woman covers her body, or expresses her individuality through sexual manifestations, is somehow reflective of her worth is a willing accomplice in violence against women. For anyone who thinks like that, look no further than Qandeel Baloch’s Facebook page.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist. He is the editor (online) at The Nation and a correspondent at The Diplomat. He also reports for The Friday Times and Newsline Magazine. He tweets @khuldune.