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We All Killed Qandeel: On South Asian Traditions Of Silencing Carefree Women

Once again, we've been shown what happens to women who dare live on their own terms. Again, we've been shown the tragic extreme of a culture that allows women's bodies and freedoms to be restricted constantly – at home, on the streets, on the internet.

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I noticed Qandeel Baloch for the first time in 2013 on an episode of Pakistan Idol, where she came to audition, and threw a baby fit when she didn't qualify. The whole thing was over-the-top, and seemed staged to build hype. Some were annoyed, others entertained. Either way, it was one of the most memorable auditions in the programme's history.

Then, last year, I saw a lot of people sharing parody videos featuring a girl with heavily kohled eyes and a spoilt, slow, bad gal accent. I looked into who was being mocked and found a familiar face. Qandeel Baloch was taking Facebook by storm with phone-shot dramatic videos talking about her daily life. Singing, being brazen and conceited, occasionally proposing to Pakistani cricketers.

Most people cringe-shared Qandeel's videos. But rest assured, everyone watched them.

Earlier in her career, she had slut-shamed another artist on live TV, which was why I side-eyed her for a long time. But the fact of the matter was: I'd never seen another woman be so bold on the Pakistani internet, without a man running her page or managing her. She was being sexy and sassy of her own volition, cell phone recording the whole thing, and uploading it for millions to see.

In a part of the world where girls are taught to be neither heard nor seen, here she was, demanding she be both.

Many described her videos as "shameless". She was called an "attention whore". And even the people who loved her didn't love her all the time.

But in a country where womanhood has long been defined by varying versions and degrees of enforced shame, her lack of it looked like a revolution.

In a world where family matters are supposed to be whispered about behind closed doors, Qandeel talked openly about how she was forcibly married at 17, and was tortured by her husband who even threatened to burn her face with acid. She escaped with her baby son, whose custody she lost, and took refuge at a welfare centre.

Even her horrifying domestic violence case was called "drama" and laughed at by hundreds of Pakistanis, some of whom I expected to know better.

She was already called a blemish on Pakistan's sparkling image, a national shame, a shame for the Muslim ummat, but after the recent release of a music video she starred in, the entitled and the self-righteous made it a mission to bring her down.

She was attacked viciously and constantly online, for the same brazenness that drew me to her.

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I am a Pakistani woman with liberal opinions and a Twitter account, which means that on a daily basis, I face a fair amount of abuse, trolling, and sexualised and gendered online harassment. Even on a small scale, it can be scary and silencing.

And Qandeel definitely didn't face it on a small scale. Her countrymen discussed frequently and at length in her own comments sections how much she deserved to die. How she should be raped. How deeply she should suffer for her crimes of boldness.

There aren't a lot of spaces in South Asia, physical or virtual, where a woman is allowed to be carefree.

Qandeel would often make videos where she complained about her commenters, and how much their words hurt her. She asked viewers to be nicer and to refrain from abusing her.

Yet, even when they didn't refrain, she didn't fall silent. I don't know if she meant to be making a political statement with her refusal to be silenced. More likely, she really was that brave, that carefree. And, in too many parts of the world, a woman being bold and loud still is a political statement, even if all she's doing is living her life.

There aren't a lot of spaces in South Asia, physical or virtual, where a woman is allowed to be carefree. In your living room, on the streets, at the mosque, on the internet – there are systems of policing everywhere.

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There is benevolent policing — aunties and grandmas telling us that, for our own safety, we should cover up, laugh softly, come home before sundown.

There is institutionalised and economic policing — literal boundaries placed to restrict what women can and cannot study, how we can and cannot earn.

There is cultural policing, never manifested explicitly, but enforced via centuries of conditioning – rigidly defined concepts like "ladylike" and "pretty" that we inherit and which then control us.

There is virtual policing – the kind Qandeel got in her comments, and which I will receive in my Twitter mentions after this is published.

And then, for the women like Qandeel who resist every single type of policing and insist on being carefree anyway, there are less gentle ways to rein them in.

Yesterday, Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her own brother for tarnishing the honour of the family.

Today, many honourable Pakistanis — men and women — are rejoicing at her death.

#QandeelBaloch shot dead by her own brother, and Pakistanis are happy. Shocking to see even women are rejoicing !!

These are ordinary people you'd meet in your muhalla, at the grocery store, or at Friday namaz.

“Girls are born only to stay at home and to bring honour to the family by following family traditions but Qandeel had never done that,” her brother said in a police press conference after his arrest. “Now everybody will remember me with honour.”

Qandeel's brother may have killed her to protect his honour, which has been polished to brilliance by the blood on his hands now, but we are complicit as a country.

Her brother may have strangled her, but the viewers who declared her worthy of a humiliating death every single day were his might. The scholars who incited violence against her on TV were his might. The internally misogynistic women who said she deserved to go to hell for destroying the image of Muslim women were his might.

All of us, tacit participants in the relentless policing of Pakistani women, were his might.

The laughing "moderately religious" person here is no less than a violent extremist. The silent moderate who won't speak up about how she isn't a national shame or a blow to Islam also shares the blame.

There, I said it. Fuck you.

We may never have another Qandeel Baloch, because we've been shown, again, what happens to Pakistani women who want to live on their own terms. 

We may never have another Qandeel Baloch, because we've been shown, again, what happens to Pakistani women who want to live on their own terms.

It is almost every day that you hear about women being murdered in Pakistan in the name of honour — by an uncle, a brother, a husband, or even a mother — for something egregious like talking to a boy on the phone.

Qandeel's is just the latest name scribbled on a long and growing list of dishonourable women Pakistan's self-righteous Muslim male guardians of honour are violently curating.

Even now, religious scholars are justifying her killing on TV, saying her death should "serve as a warning to women" who want to joke about Islamic scholars. Other influential Pakistanis are saying her family was right.

But Qandeel Baloch has always been a hero to me. And Qandeel Baloch is a hero to me now.

She normalised women's sexuality, and silliness, and boldness. In the face of a whole nation clamouring to shut her up, she remained loud as fuck. In a world where womanhood is defined more by restraint than freedom, she commanded an audience to tune in and watch her be free.

Fouzia "Qandeel Baloch" Azeem was a hero, just not one her country understood or deserved.

She may be gone, but the claws of honourable men continue to reach for the women of my country. The funny women. The sexy women. The ambitious women. The opinionated women. The goofy women. The loud women. The laughing women. The living women.

They claw and they claw, making our each day an involuntary act of rebellion.

It is a terrifying reality and, more than anything, I am scared.

I can't help but hope that one day, there are enough Qandeels to scare the entitled, bloodthirsty vultures in turn.

Until then, I will love and miss this one.



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