ONCE upon a time in Pakistan, all women were thought to be liars. On the occasion of contested, differing accounts — where it was a man’s word against a woman’s — the former always prevailed. Truth did not, could not, belong to women. Men owned and made it up; if one could not decide what that was, they conferred with other men. Together, all the men kept the ‘truth’ in check, made sure it served their purposes, ensured their supremacy. If half the country was left out, peeved, discredited and demeaned, it was not their problem.
Luckily, nothing lasts forever, and even the fortunes of Pakistani men were subject to this ruthless premise allotted by destiny. Change arrived in the discovery of a new virtual realm, where interaction was no longer physical and hence control no longer entirely possible. Entry to this virtual realm could not be limited to men and was easily and cheaply available. Like all that is new, the possibilities and promise of this new realm sparkled and shone; everyone wanted them and men took them. On the screens and through the cameras of their mobile phones they could gaze and glare at even more women, glamorous and faraway. It felt not like an abridgement of their control, but an imaginary extension of it. They thought they would continue to exert their exclusive hold over the truth.
They were wrong. Little by little, access to the virtual realm expanded and women snuck in, and so began a battle that rages today. Truth — which belonged exclusively to Pakistani men — stands contested by Pakistani women and it is a conflict that is exacting casualties. The death of Qandeel Baloch is just one among them.
In the virtual world, women are exerting the sort of independence and equality that is denied to them in the real Pakistan.
Avowedly self-made and outspoken, Qandeel Baloch represented the Pakistani woman of the post-internet age; her boldness a provocation to the premise that what is right, true and real can belong only to men. Unafraid and unabashed, she challenged notions that a woman’s ‘belonging’ to a man is crucial or necessary, that a divorcee must be degraded into non-existence, that female sexuality is locked away for lack of male ownership. Qandeel Baloch did not belong to a man; in being a free agent — unafraid of controversy and unthreatened by the usual inflictions of shame — she was a challenge to the male dominion over truth. Her battlefield was the virtual realm, where she put up real truths against shaky presumptions.
Openly, visibly and often humorously, she mocked men, their glib supremacy, and their necrotic hypocrisy. The most recent incident involved a religious cleric, Mufti Abdul Qavi, who appears, lascivious and hatless, in selfies posted by Qandeel on social media. Here is a man of faith without his mask of piety; eager to embrace the sexuality considered so sinful and derided with such fervour in public. But one instance with one woman can be discarded as a small, easily forgotten scandal. One bad cleric, it may be said, must not discredit the many millions who hold moral dominion over the country.
In Pakistan, however, the collection of widely proliferated images meant more than that. Here was a lecherous cleric, a visible flirtation, his cap on her head, their pictures everywhere and for everyone to see. This was not simply a scandal; it was a displacement, an exposition of the private perversions of a man made suddenly visible by a woman. Truth, moulded and distorted, which once belonged only to men for their purposes, was now in the hands of a woman — a woman named Qandeel Baloch.
The visible lasciviousness of one man, some could conclude, stood for the secret truths of so many men: the bosses behind doors, the colleagues behind shop counters, the uncles who visit, the cousins who covet. All of these men, whose secret sins have never been considered truths, were threatened by the possibility of exposure. How many more women would take cameras to the men that torment them, the men that control the truth, the men who think women cannot, will not, must not tell?
It was more than the men of Pakistan could take; one shamed man was one too many for the millions of men that now stood to be exposed by women armed with selfies, recordings and screen-grabs. In the boiling summer months, the bogus beatitudes that masked the lechery of our ‘holy’ men fell away. Unsurprisingly, Qandeel began to receive death threats not long after the incident. In reports that have been released after her death, she asked the government for security against these threats. She did not receive it.
Qandeel actual killer was her brother. The reason he gave was ‘dishonour’, accrued to the family owing to Qandeel’s risqué and bold social media posts, particularly those with Mufti Qavi. In reality, however, Qandeel Baloch has millions of killers: they are the men, and at times the women, who cannot stand the possibility of truth, and hence power, being displaced from the realm of men into the hands of women. These millions are everywhere, continuing to exact and enact the shaming that has already killed the thousands of other women, but whose appetite remains insatiable and eager for more deaths. Their war is not only against Qandeel Baloch, it is against the possibility that, in the virtual world, at least, women can and are starting to exert the sort of independence and equality that is denied to them in the real and actual Pakistan.
“We are enraged,” said a post by the Digital Rights Foundation, which champions the rights of Pakistani women in the digital realm, following Qandeel’s murder. It is an apt summary; the Pakistani woman’s battle over truth and power in the virtual world is real, and Qandeel Baloch may be dead but she is most certainly not defeated.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2016