Starlet Qandeel Baloch, who became an internet sensation with a series of racy videos that shocked conservative Pakistanis, was murdered allegedly by her brother to protect the family’s pride, police said on Saturday.
The killing focussed attention on the phenomenon of “honour killings” that has claimed hundreds of lives across Pakistan. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has reported nearly 1,100 women were killed in 2015 by relatives who believed they had dishonoured their families.
Police said Qandeel’s brother Waseem Baloch allegedly strangled her to death after an argument at Multan in Punjab province . Waseem, who acted to “protect the family honour”, was on the run, police officials said.
The 25-year-old’s parents, who were also taken into custody, said she was strangled on Friday night. The body was found on Saturday morning, police official Azhar Akram said.
“Qandeel’s brothers had asked her to quit modelling,” a family source said.
The starlet had angered members of her family with her videos and suggestive social media posts, including a pledge to “strip dance” if Pakistan’s cricket team defeated arch-rival India in the ICC World T20 in March.
Qandeel recently said she had sought security after receiving death threats. Following a lukewarm response from the government, she announced that she planned to settle abroad. In her last interview, Qandeel told a newspaper, “I know I will not be provided security and I am not feeling secured here, so I have decided to move abroad with my parents after Eid-ul-Fitr.”
The murder reflected the increase in honour killings despite a commitment by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif earlier this year to fight the menace. The HRCP has said such killings have shot up by more than 20% this year and government inaction could lead to a further increase.
Zohra Yusuf of the HRCP said, “The government looks the other way and society treats murderers as heroes, and that is why honour killings in Pakistan continue to rise.”
Many victims are shot, the HRCP says, though acid attacks too are common. Though most victims are women, 88 men were also the targets of honour killings last year.
Qandeel had told the media she began receiving death threats after posting a set of selfies with a cleric, Mufti Abdul Qavi, who was part of the Ruet-e-Hilal (moon sighting) Committee and a member of the religious wing of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Imran Khan’s party.
Qavi lost both jobs after featuring in the selfies. He has also been nominated in the FIR regarding Qandeel’s murder.
Over the past two years, Qandeel’s videos and social media posts had made her a sensation. However, a number of people publicly stated that she was violating the honour of the Baloch people and one politician placed a bounty on her head.
Qandeel, whose real name was Fauzia Azeem, was once a contestant on the Pakistan Idol singing competition. She also acted and modelled.
A divorcee, Qandeel had a son from a failed marriage. She lived with her parents and kept her location a secret because of the growing anger against her in some quarters over her online activities.
Earlier this week, Ashiq Hussain of Kot Addu claimed in TV interviews he was once married to Qandeel. Soon after, Qandeel acknowledged the marriage had ended in divorce.
However, both sides gave conflicting accounts of the relationship. “My husband used to beat me up,” Qandeel told a news channel, adding she had a son with Hussain.
Qandeel said she was 17 when she married and the abusive union had ended in a year. “He tortured me day and night during the one year I was married to him,” she added.
“After a year, I ran away with my son and sought refuge in Darul Aman (a woman’s shelter),” she said, adding she planned to fight for custody of her son whom she had earlier given up because she could not afford his treatment when he fell sick.
In its 2015 annual report, the HRCP said 900 women suffered sexual violence and nearly 800 took, or tried to take, their own lives. In 2013, 869 women died in honour-related attacks while the figure for 2014 was about 1,000.
In February, Punjab, the country’s largest and most populous province, passed a landmark law criminalising all forms of violence against women. However, more than 30 religious groups, including all mainstream Islamic political parties, threatened to launch protests if the law was not repealed.
Religious groups have equated women’s rights campaigns with promotion of obscenity. They said the new Punjab law will lead to more divorces and destroy Pakistan’s traditional family system.
Among the most infamous cases of honour killings in Pakistan was the stoning to death of Farzana Parveen outside the Lahore high court in 2014. She had married against her family’s wishes. Her father, brother, cousin and former fiancé were all found guilty of murder.
Such killings have occurred in Pakistan for decades, usually carried out by the victims’ families to protect their honour if a woman is assumed to have had premarital or extramarital sex, married of her own will or refused a marriage arranged by her family.
Tahira Abdullah, a member of HRCP’s governing body, told the media that the cases reported to authorities were just the “tip of the real iceberg” as the vast majority of killings go unreported, especially in rural areas.
She blamed the persistence of honour killings on feudalism, tribalism and the continuing presence of councils of elders, especially in rural Pakistan. The councils allow families to settle cases of honour killing without any legal punishment. The victim’s family is usually given monetary compensation.
Abdullah said lack of education and independence among young women also contribute to the practice. She said removing the possibility of compromise, waiver and compensation between the victim’s family and the perpetrator would make the legal set-up stronger.
Settling cases through jirgas or tribal councils gives offenders a safe exit, she said. Human rights groups and women’s organisations too condemned the killing of Qandeel, saying the level of tolerance for such crimes is a cause of worry.