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Excerpt: Do We Not Bleed? by Mehr Tarar

This edited excerpt from Mehr Tarar’s new book on contemporary Pakistan looks at the honour killing of the self-proclaimed selfie queen

books Updated: Feb 09, 2018 17:29 IST
Pakistani social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch arrives for a press conference in Lahore on June 28, 2016. She was murdered by her younger brother less than a month later.
Pakistani social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch arrives for a press conference in Lahore on June 28, 2016. She was murdered by her younger brother less than a month later. (AFP)

On 15 July 2016, Qandeel Baloch was killed in Multan, south Punjab, Pakistan.

A coldness starts curling upwards in my body, from my toes to the roots of my hair. Her face expands and becomes the only picture in my mind. Why? Why was she killed? What made anyone strangle her? Who killed Qandeel Baloch?

Qandeel Baloch, the enfant terrible of Pakistan’s social media, the self-proclaimed selfie queen of risqué poses in various shades of pink and all hues of Lycra, the much-followed social media celebrity who made no bones about her sexuality, or minced no words to say how ‘out of control’ she was, and the reckless young woman who picked fights on national television with the self-righteous brigade who appeared in the form of anchors on talk shows or their smug panellists who thought she was a toy to play with flippantly, while millions of people flipped through channels yawning and muttering how low quality talk shows are in Pakistan.

I saw her on television a few days ago. Since March 2013, I’d stopped watching television, and notwithstanding the turmoil on all levels — personal, national, regional and international — TV viewing is something that is as scarce in my life as sleeping is for a lifelong insomniac. But that day I watched Qandeel, on national TV, getting embroiled in an altercation with a man whose words enunciated his power to lure his gullible audience to revere the halo around his holy head. Qandeel Baloch versus Mufti Abdul Qavi.

It was fascinating to watch her strip the mufti of his cloak of piety, her ‘naughty’ selfies with the staid mufti of moon-sighting fame, peeling layers off his patina of self-righteousness, and her girly giggles landing like well-placed lobs in a game played between two unevenly matched players. And it was a bit infuriating to see her use a national platform to play out her ‘petty’ agenda of maligning a man without any real proof of what went on inside the four walls of that hotel room in Karachi that one, now fateful, day. That exchange set in motion a series of events that very quickly — without much ado, but with a great deal of outrage aimed at both Qandeel and Qavi — ended on 15 July when news of Qandeel’s murder flashed on the television, and appeared on thousands of timelines on social media.

Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother Wasim on the pretext of family ‘honour’. Allegedly, he had drugged her, and then strangled her. As the brother murdered his older sister in her house, their parents slept on the rooftop, oblivious to the horror being unleashed on their beloved daughter downstairs.

Following his arrest by the police, Wasim, with no tinge of remorse in his voice on being asked if he was ashamed, told the media that he was not. Ashamed. That he belonged to a Baloch tribe, and to him his sister’s controversial videos and scandals had become unendurable.

Pakistani cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi after his release from the central jail in Multan on November 14, 2017. Mufti Abdul Qavi, who was arrested over his alleged role in the murder of Qandeel Baloch, which reignited calls for action against 'honour killings', was granted bail by a Pakistani court. (AFP)

As Qandeel posed in ‘impious’ proximity to Qavi, donned his traditional cap in the next one, or posed with her mouth open in a suggestive come-hither, the selfies became a national topic on prime time television. In a country where there are so many issues of importance, it was almost farcical to see this much significance given to the selfie exposé of a self-proclaimed female rebel and an innuendo-won’t-leave-my-mouth religious scholar. It was TRPs galore, gratuitous dumbing down of journalism in a clumsy attempt to glamorize the staid discourse of mundane debates and cyclical fights on nightly talk shows. This one was Jerry Springer material, a young starlet batting her eyelids, fixing her sexy top and repudiating every solemn Astaghfirullah emanating from Qavi’s mouth.

The clergy is revered in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and more so because religion is truly important to people. Most people.

…Qandeel defied it all. Qandeel locked horns — her ‘devil’ horns with the ‘saintly’ clergy. Qandeel, in that one fight played out in all its sleazy extravaganza, unwittingly walked into a field laden with moral IEDs. Qandeel became the woman who insulted the mullah. Qandeel crossed the line that marks the dark parameter: her against him. The bad against the good. The ‘whore’ against the ‘saint’.

It was the media that provided the forum, turned it into a mudwrestling ring and watched in glee, rubbing sweaty palms, adrenaline in overdrive, mouths puckered to tsk-tsk. Qandeel walked in, pouty and sexy, wisecracks in abundance, her hair perfectly styled, prepared to blow to smithereens all claims of piety the mullah solemnly mouthed. Superimposed with sneering misogyny and platitudes on good behaviour, the talk show anchors turned Qandeel into a freak show as the audience watched in dismay as all codes of journalistic ethics withered away. In her effort to expose the hypocrisy of those who chanted Allah’s name and lived a lie, she became a two-minute headline of mediocre talk shows. Qandeel became a scintillating ticker. And what increased along with the TRPs was only her ‘infamy’.

Watching the televised debacle, I had an uneasy thought: this woman is treading a dangerous path. Not for the pictures she had posted—I had nothing to say about that—but about her open altercation with Mufti Qavi, a member of the Ruet-e-Hilal, the official moon-sighting organization, and a respected member of that huge entity known as religious scholars in Pakistan. The talk show hosts in their mad race for the highest TRPs pitted the twenty-six-year-old social media celebrity with Mufti Qavi who had legions of followers — invisible, intolerant, malleable and very easy to provoke into violence.

Mehr Tarar (Courtesy Aleph)

It did not take long. Qandeel was killed in her own house by her younger brother. Pakistan went into a noisy shock. Most Pakistanis may not have liked her, but her brutal death stunned everyone. Most of them derided her, but in her death, she became just another young woman to fall victim to methodical misogyny in the guise of honour. Most of them abused her using filthy words and wished her dead, but in death she evoked an emotion that some of them were unable to reconcile with. A tad too late, a life cut too short.

… More than 500,000 followers on Facebook, one of the top ten googled names in Pakistan, Qandeel before her death summed herself up: ‘I’m a [sic] girl power.’ Her confidence, her willingness to make mistakes, her ability to adapt, her acceptance of her flaws, her plans to take it all up a notch, all these were an integral part of her. She was now living life on her own terms. Raunchy, blatant, sexy and very, very unapologetic. Her last video, ‘Ban’, shot during the month of Ramadan, showed her in tiny hints of dresses, stockings with runs down the length; the twerking of her taut butt was so bad it made Miley Cyrus’s moves look as elegant as Fred Astaire’s ballroom dancing. But as the 38,33,224 views on YouTube show, Qandeel was watched. Reviled, mocked, tsk-tsked at, lusted after, sighed at in forbidden desire, Qandeel in ‘Ban’ twerked and thumako-ed her way into more lurid headlines and Facebook likes that most other self-made celebrities, mostly limited to social media, could only dream of. As she rated her video 10/10, she outlined her plan to make a better video soon, her own work. She was killed before that could happen.

Read more: I was drawn into a vicious campaign: Mehr Tarar

…After her death, on a quiet July morning, when I clicked on one of her tweets to read a Facebook status, I discovered, without much surprise, that her Facebook page had been removed. Just like her website. The efforts to erase Qandeel Baloch continue even after she was buried in a little known village near Dera Ghazi Khan. Soon, everything about her will be forgotten, much like an old painting covered in mouldy plastic in a dusty attic.