Moment that mattered: Qandeel Baloch is murdered
It was a shocking admission: “Yes, of course, I strangled her.” At a press conference in Multan, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Muhammad Waseem, 25, confessed to murdering his sister, Fouzia Azeem, better known as Qandeel Baloch. Holding a microphone up with cuffed hands, he told a rowdy press corps about the killing.
“She was on the ground floor while our parents were asleep… It was around 11:30pm when I gave her a tablet… and then killed her,” he said. “Girls are born only to stay at home to bring honour to the family by following family traditions but Qandeel had never done that.” He added: “I am a drug addict but I was in my senses when I murdered her and I accept it with pride. Now everybody will remember me with honour.”
Saad Zuberi was at home in Karachi when he heard the news of the death of 26-year-old social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. “I was incredibly sad but not shocked,” the documentary maker says. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve become accustomed to such horrible things. I’ve seen a lot of death and suffering over the past few years and it no longer surprises me what people will do for power over women or ill-founded notions of honour.”
Baloch’s murder itself was sadly far from exceptional. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has said that in 2015 alone, 1,096 women and 88 men were killed because their relatives thought they had brought shame on the family – for reasons including marrying ‘unsuitable’ partners for love, conducting extramarital affairs and asking for a divorce. Many honour killings go unreported, and in the majority of cases perpetrators walk free without a trial due to a clause in sharia law which allows victims’ families to forgive the killer and absolve them from legal prosecution. While this clause can be applied in all murders, it is overwhelmingly used in honour killings because the perpetrator is usually related to the victim and the family does not want another of its members to die.
But due to her fame the fallout from Baloch’s murder was unprecedented. “It took less than a day for her to transform from a seemingly desperate social media starlet into a symbol of Pakistani women’s empowerment and liberation,” says Zuberi.
Often referred to as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, Baloch was an unlikely celebrity. She grew up with her nine siblings in the small, conservative village of Shah Sadar Din, where poverty is endemic and women play virtually no role in public life. Baloch got her first taste of fame in 2013 when footage of her throwing a tantrum after a failed audition on Pakistan Idol went viral. After that, she took to social media where she’d post photos and videos of herself – often in revealing clothes and suggestive poses – and slowly gathered a following that had reached hundreds of thousands before she died.
In March 2016, Baloch drew media attention when she promised in a video to do an online striptease if Pakistan won an upcoming cricket match against India. But her most controversial move was on 20th June, when she posted a series of selfies on her Instagram account with mufti Abdul Qavi, one of Pakistan’s highest Islamic clerics, taken in his hotel room. Baloch claimed on live TV that the mufti had invited her up and had broken his Ramadan fast with her. Qavi denied there was anything untoward about the meeting and said he had agreed to meet Baloch to try to bring her to “the right path”. Waseem would later say that the photos were one of the reasons for which he decided to kill his sister.
In the immediate aftermath of Baloch’s death, protesters took to the streets in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. “I was surprised to see how the news of her death was received by the public,” Zuberi recalls. “Even those who vilified her when she was still alive were enraged by her murder. There was a lot of shock, grief and anger. Most of the anger was directed at our lawmakers, who’ve failed to address the high incidence of honour killings in Pakistan.”
Baloch’s father started a battle to hold her killer accountable by lodging an official complaint with police. “He is a really brave man,” says Zuberi, who has met with the family several times while making a documentary on the killing. “He’s old, he recently lost his leg after being hit by a car. And he is still adamant he wants his son to get the strictest punishment even when he faced a lot of pressure to forgive the crime.”
“It look less than a day for her to transform from a seemingly desperate social media starlet into a symbol of Pakistani women’s liberation”
Social pressure to choose forgiveness over prosecution for honour killings is commonplace. Zuberi insists that this is not a reflection of the acceptance of honour killings. “The clause was added in sharia because the spiritual rewards of forgiving even the most heinous crimes in Islam are much higher than the worldly pleasure derived from revenge,” he explains. “There are people who openly support the idea of killing for ‘honour’, but it’s the one percent. One of the people pleading with Baloch’s father to forgive her killer was her mother. It’s an incredibly difficult situation to be in. She just lost one of her children – should she take action which might result in another one of them dying by capital punishment?”
On 6th October, Pakistan’s national assembly passed a bill on honour killings which dictates a life sentence for perpetrators. “I’m a little sceptical of its efficacy,” Zuberi says. One flaw he highlights is that because the law applies specifically to honour crimes, perpetrators can deny that their crime was committed for ‘honour’ and can walk free if the family forgives them. Still, adds Zuberi, “It’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.”
When the honour killing bill was initially introduced in 2015, a vote was postponed
indefinitely after religious leaders said that dropping the forgiveness clause was un-Islamic. Zuberi thinks that Baloch’s death played an instrumental role in getting Pakistan’s lawmakers to act. “The condemnation from local as well as international journalists, filmmakers, activists, actors and even politicians in response made it impossible for the authorities to not acknowledge her death and the underlying issue of honour killings,” he says.
“It would be wrong to discount the efforts of all the activists who’ve worked tirelessly for years to compel lawmakers to amend the anti-honour killings laws, but Baloch’s death definitely served as the tipping point. Finally, everyone has come together and said: ‘You know what, we’ve had enough’.”
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