Women who step out of the ever-narrowing bounds of patriarchal norms often pay a heavy price

By Faiza Sultan Khan

Pakistan, as we were reminded with the sorrowful news of Qandeel Baloch’s murder a few weeks ago, is not a country that rewards women for taking an active role in their destiny. Few countries are, mind you, but Pakistan can be more brutal, more flagrant in its utter contempt for women than most. Feminism is still considered the preserve of women too plain to ‘snag’ husbands, or to people who give it more credit, a tool of the West to undermine the happy Muslim family unit. It is a testament to our low expectations of Pakistani men that the media reported with an air of pleasant surprise that Qandeel’s father actually wanted to see his son convicted for her murder.

With her public profile which continued to divide public opinion even after her death, Qandeel inspired, at least in the English press, an unprecedented reflection, the sorry state of women in Pakistan, and its unforgiving, patriarchal mindset where male egos are Aztec gods requiring regular human sacrifice.

There are so many instances of rage and brutality against women that the violence of the details in the ones that make it to the papers; maiming, torture, murder, is repeated too often to shock. We’re only reading the tip of the iceberg and still the occurrence is so frequent that it seems to sap rather than spur resolve for change — bringing on the lethargy of utter helplessness.

Qandeel’s death reminded me of another woman who didn’t let societal convention stand between her and the kind of life she wanted. Veena Malik, who posed allegedly nude (she insists her underwear was photoshopped out) on the cover of Indian FHM magazine in 2011. Numerous righteous Pakistanis bayed for her blood while also frantically googling her bosom. It is hard to say which activity accorded them greater pleasure. Scoffed at by an elite who sing a different tune when it’s a Hollywood star nude on the cover of Vanity Fair, Malik’s own father wanted to have her arrested, and in retrospect one considers that it’s quite good of him to at least abide by the letter of the law, flimsy as it is, and not just kill her himself.

In a moment of what would have been high comedy in a less sinister country, the then interior minister stepped in to decide what action was to be taken against her. It is her good fortune that she had the means to escape — means not available to Qandeel.

In Taliban-occupied Swat, it was the bullet-ridden body of the dancer Shabana displayed in Mingora’s central square that quashed any signs of defiance Swat’s citizenry may have considered showing. Shabana was killed for ignoring warnings from the Taliban to give up her sole means of supporting herself; through dance performances at private gatherings. It is hard to say whether Shabana’s death would have elicited a similar amount of horror had she been shot not by the Taliban but by a male relative.

Women who step out of the ever-narrowing bounds of propriety aren’t often accorded such wholehearted sympathy. Certainly not dancers and other such purveyors of temptation who might give people ideas. To be the unwilling recipient of sexualised attention is to be expected and born without complaint, but to wield feminine wiles knowingly is unacceptable. One keeps reading that Pakistan is at war with the Taliban, only it’s just hard to tell who’s who sometimes.

While the line between ‘conservative’ Pakistanis and militants seems to be just a matter of facial hair and firearms, Pakistani liberals too aren’t quite what you’d hope. As has often been remarked, the term liberal has been usurped, along with much else in the country, by an elite who confuse being progressive with the ownership of a cocktail shaker and a social life involving women in body-con dresses.

This is the same liberal elite who routinely police women in their own circle, beat their wives, set as a condition of love a woman’s complete submission to their interests and priorities, and find in sexism and body shaming (while themselves settling into the comfort of obesity) the fodder for loud, thigh-slapping humour. They’re happy to extend unqualified sympathy to the female victims of jirgas, who could never aspire in any way to undermine their power, but their own ex-girlfriends are still stupid sluts and when a friend’s wife leaves alleging cruelty and domestic abuse, we’re told there are “two sides to the story.”

You should have seen the liberals take a swing at Zahra Haider, a girl who wrote a piece in Vice about the lack of sexual freedom in Pakistan saying, quite rightly, “if a woman from a middle-class family or underprivileged background is caught having premarital sex, serious shit goes down.” When she revealed that in spite of the rigors of the morality brigade she’d had a number of sexual partners in Pakistan, the same people who posit themselves as spirited defenders of women’s rights slammed this honest young girl as a “bad example” and “promiscuous”, a word which desperately needs to be retired, along with the people who use it.

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The only Pakistani woman I can think of who not just survived her deliciously scurrilous private life in the public sphere was the late great Malika-e-Tarannum, Noor Jehan. I don’t know if we were a different country then, or if she was pardoned the human impulse for desire on the basis of her phenomenal talent (it’s too much to ask for women to be musical geniuses to accord them the respect men get for free). I just always loved that of the women behemoths Umm Kulthum, Lata Mangeshkar and Noor Jehan, who were the beloved official voices of Egypt, India and Pakistan respectively, ours was the only one who was also a cheeky, irreverent, unapologetic sexpot. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d not believe it today.

The murder in Multan of social media celebrity known as Qandeel Baloch sent shockwaves through Pakistan, not only because the sudden death of any person at a young age is considered a tragedy but particularly because of the claimed motives of her alleged killer – her own younger brother — and what Qandeel Baloch’s public persona had come to represent, both positively and negatively, for people.

Much has been written about the as-yet murky circumstances of her murder, her obscured past, and the ambiguity within her poor family about her. But of one thing there is no doubt: Qandeel Baloch was a social phenomenon. Her life and her death both shine a light on wider trends in Pakistan’s social fabric.

In this Special Report, Images on Sunday takes a look at some of these aspects: the power of social media, how society reacts to women who transgress social norms, what the rise of ‘honour’ killings might mean, the seemingly contradictory context of women in public life and the role of ethics in commercialised mainstream media.

The Brave New World Of Pakistan’s Social Media

Transgressions of social norms are seeping from the digital realm into the real world

By Hasan Zaidi

Quite aside from the horrifying circumstances of Qandeel Baloch’s murder, those who don’t use social media or those not particularly familiar with it, might be forgiven for being baffled at the phenomenon that she was. Qandeel was probably the first true female internet celebrity in Pakistan, in that her celebrity had nothing to do with any achievement beyond her provocative presence on social media.

There have been other social media-aided celebrities — the ‘Eye To Eye’ singer Tahir Shah, the ‘One-Pound-Fish’ man Shahid Nazir, the camp self-promoter on YouTube from Sialkot Awais Lovely and the Twitter-braggart ‘Prince’ Affan bin Saqib, for example — but Qandeel was probably the first woman to achieve fame solely through social media.

Unlike other women who have used social media as a tool to advance their existing careers in film, television or music, Qandeel took the opposite route. She was reputedly a singer but her only known foray into singing was as a contestant on Pakistan’s Pop Idol programme where she was eliminated in the initial audition stages. She was also said to be a model but had never actually worked as a model in anything until she became famous through her Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

In fact, even her identity as ‘Qandeel Baloch’ was basically constructed through social media — which is why there was increasing scrutiny about her origins as her notoriety grew: what her real name was (Fouzia Azeem), whether she was even from a Baloch tribe (she apparently wasn’t) and her marital history (an apparently abusive, short-lived marriage that produced a child).

What set Qandeel apart from other internet sensations in Pakistan was that she was a flesh-and-blood woman, not simply a faceless, pretend-woman, of which there are, of course, plenty on social media. It was unfathomable to a lot of Pakistanis that a real woman could be as brazen or shameless about her sexuality publicly, because her entire persona was built around flaunting her body, talking about sex and being in-everyone’s face.

The comments on her Instagram feed — which had hundreds of thousands of ‘followers’ by the time of her death — were probably 30 per cent from voyeurs getting a kick out of this but were overwhelmingly from those attacking her for “being a disgrace to Pakistan and Islam.” What’s, of course, interesting is the fact that people would still follow her feeds or make the effort to come to her pages only to abuse her. Her persona was so unimaginable for a Pakistani (of course, they are used to such personas from the West or even from India) that there was even speculation about whether she was, in fact, originally a man who had undergone a sex change. For many, that would have explained everything.

What’s interesting, sociologically, for Pakistan is not that there are constructed personas on social media — very common phenomena around the world — but how transgressions of socially acceptable behaviour are seeping from the digital realm into the real world and influencing how they are viewed and debated.

This is all the more remarkable given that internet penetration in Pakistan is still estimated at below 18 per cent; more than 80 per cent of the country’s population does not even have access to social media platforms.

Certainly, much of Qandeel’s output on social media — pictures and videos of herself in various forms of undress, thoughts about sex and sexuality, commentary on the hypocrisy of well-known people — is still verboten on mainstream media or even in polite company. And yet, people were discussing her among themselves in private gatherings around the country and on social media itself; even television and the print media had been forced to acknowledge her.

Of course, TV and print referred to the content of her posts only obliquely, if at all. When they referred to her as ‘a model’ they never clarified what exactly people might have seen her in. Until, of course, the Mufti Qavi brouhaha, which allowed TV to run fairly sanitised photographs of her with the cleric and to peg her as the woman who brought Mufti Qavi down. Incidentally, in and of themselves, those photographs — whose ‘scandalous’ high point was Qandeel donning Mufti Qavi’s karakuli cap — would mean nothing, divorced from the context of Qandeel’s online persona.

There have always been transgressive people in society — people who flout traditional social norms — but they never had the ability to come into contact with the huge numbers of people that social media platforms now afford them. Had Qandeel Baloch existed in the pre-social media age, it is more than likely that most people would never even have heard about her.

Social media is transforming society and media in ways that have not been studied at all in Pakistan. Consider Qandeel’s origins and trajectory: a poor girl from a small village in the remote and largely feudal Dera Ghazi Khan area, who goes on to become a national and, to a certain extent, international sensation, purely on the basis of her force of will and ability to project herself.

Irrespective of the means employed to achieve fame, it shows the power of social media to cross class, linguistic and ethnic barriers in today’s Pakistan and its increasing ability to dictate what the mainstream media — and thus the larger national population — takes notice of.

It’s a brave new world and mainstream Pakistani media is mostly playing catch-up.

Hasan Zaidi is a journalist, filmmaker and cultural commentator


History tells us that wherever traditions hold sway, the onus of family morality falls on the woman

By Reema Abbasi

Can lives really be extinguished at the altar of choice? The recent ‘honour killing’ of Pakistani web sensation, Qandeel Baloch, has not only sparked public furor and stirred an unprecedented debate on the practice, but also slapped labels such as ‘No Country for Bold Women’ on Pakistan.

Shocking statistics say that perhaps the Oscar should belong to the nation’s blot on modernity. According to the Federal Ministry of Law, 933 cases of honour killings came to light in the past two years with 83 non-Muslim incidents and 602 in Sindh alone. The ministry’s human rights offices registered 456 in 2013 and 477 in 2014. Honour Based Violence Awareness Network cites 1,000 honour killings per year in both Pakistan and India.

Perhaps there’s more to these soaring figures than corpses. Aside from a patriarchal consensus on a woman’s body taking centre stage in a theatre of blood, it is possible that all does not boil down to heightened awareness or reportage. Numbers can point towards an all-out war against primitive social sanctions — the modern woman, caught between tradition and modernity, repression and liberty, is willing to risk her neck to find her feet.

More women, it seems, are opting for individualistic ways, creating intergenerational unease. Decisions ranging from marrying for love, chasing a career, leaving an oppressive marriage, eloping, or even opting for nuclear family structures, are reasons enough to taint family and community honour.

As for the perpetrators, be it father, brother, husband, son or a male relative, let’s not underestimate a bruised ego. Jirgas and panchayats comprise men and stand by men who kill to preserve honour. Many activists say that such murders are conducted under the proud patronage of village elders. But the cause is not just a ‘wayward woman’.

Men often kill wives, sisters and daughters who, as breadwinners begin to ration cash flow; they also kill for dowry, conjugal discontent, to cut costs if a second marriage is on the horizon, if a family woman falls prey to rape, or simply to maintain old social orders.

The psychology of the crime stays — an honour killing is the most visible and public method of restoring fear, more than anyone’s honour.

Researchers also believe that murders in the name of honour are often premeditated and then covered up as suicides, mishaps and accidents and also abductions. But strangely, for some, the lines between honour crimes and crimes of passion have blurred. The latter do not have community sympathy, are spontaneous and most certainly caused by spite, jealousy and anger.

All said and done honour crimes have admittedly remained hard to curtail. General Ziaul Haq’s Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, 1980, was one of the dictator’s tools to fortify Islamisation. But its most brutal implementation has been in the incidents of honour killings as heirs of victims go scot-free and the rich and powerful can pay their way out. The aspect that the state can assume the status of heir has largely been treated as a footnote.

Nearly three and a half decades on, an escape from this requires the state to be heir, and an increased space to ta’azeer, to imprison executors of qatl-i-amd. The edict, it must be said, is all the more detrimental with badal-i-sulh — the mutually agreed upon, shariah-sanctioned payment by the felon or wali, “in cash or kind, or in the form of movable or immovable property.”

Although the newly tabled legislation on honour killings promises a formidable 25-year imprisonment even if heirs pardon the criminal, last week legal experts expressed concern. After slaying a relative in the name of honour, the perpetrator can then declare plain murder to substitute the prison term with a shorter one of 14 years.

Lawyers have therefore stressed on amendments to the law of evidence so the accused cannot use reasons, which lead to Section 302, Pakistan Penal Code and then to family pardon under Section 309.

Also, FIRs filed by families of victims do not merit blind applause — these are common practice as the kin are certain of ‘pardon’ or ‘blood money’.

Meanwhile, lethal panchayats find themselves safe in a scenario where politicians are hostage to the fact that solid vote banks imperative to power, too, lie in their hands. Voices must also rise to rein in village councils or jirgas, which propagate values that, in turn, endorse killings in the name of ‘family honour’. These have attained notoriety with diktats on dress codes and embargos on regular rights such as watching television, using mobiles, learning skills or attending school.

Even so, the path to a conclusion traverses roots of the malevolent custom in time. ‘Pride and Patriarchy’, a report in the Herald, begins with Babylon in 1780 BCE. It lived by the Code of Hammurabi — a “woman caught committing adultery be tied to her lover and cast into water to drown. Her husband could save her but must also save the lover.” In 17 BCE, Augustus of Rome introduced the Julian Law which allowed the male head of the family to legally kill his wife and daughter on the allegation of adultery.

Closer to home, the ritual of Sati emerged in 510 CE, encouraging widows to die in the flames of their husbands’ pyre. And in the 17th century, the Talpur rule brought Karo Kari.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq “passed a law that exempted men who kill their female relations to defend family honour.” Whereas, in Pakistan, The Criminal

Law (Amendment) Act, 2004 was introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code. “It prevents a person from availing provisions of pardon and blood money.” Finally, the Anti-Honour Killing Laws in 2014 addressed lacunae in their antecedent.

Hence, history is witness that wherever traditions hold sway, the onus of family morality falls on the woman; for she is the carrier of generations. Yet, the definitions of honour, ‘honour killing’ and who will define both, continue to elude.

As the dust settles on thousands of lives lost, we know that without clarity on the concept, no edict will be foolproof. Until then, a woman’s consolation will be her henna-imbued burial.

The writer is a journalist, commentator and author
Twitter @ReemaAbbasi

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016



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