A look at the role of ethics in commercialised mainstream media and how society reacts to women who transgress norms.
It has been over two weeks since social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother and cousin as she slept in her parents’ home in Multan, on July 15, 2016.
In the days after her death there has been much debate about the role of the media in this murder, with many laying the blame of her death squarely on the shoulders of the media, which tirelessly covered her titillating public stunts during her short public life.
Qandeel shot to fame in 2014, when she released a video proposing suggestively to politician and cricket legend Imran Khan. That video went viral and a social media star was born.
Emboldened by the response from a conservative nation, Qandeel moved onto more provocative promises such as ‘strip dancing’ for the Pakistani cricket team if they won against India. The girl from a lower middle-class family from Dera Ghazi Khan soon developed a big following with an audience, that may not have approved of her, but which waited eagerly for the next titillating offering from her.
She displayed rare media savvy in the way she released videos that were destined to go viral from the moment they were uploaded on social media. In an environment where the lines between Pakistan’s mainstream and sensationalist media seem to have been irretrievably blurred, Qandeel was soon invited to popular talk shows and even shows that discussed current affairs on a regular basis.
It is still unclear whether Qandeel’s death qualifies as honour killing. Her murder could well have been the result of a squabble with her drug-addicted brother Waseem Azeem — who she was supporting — over money. However if we were to take her brother’s confession to the police at face value, it raises several questions about the narrative that the mainstream media had shaped for Qandeel Baloch.
Widely portrayed during her short public life as a promiscuous, salacious woman, Qandeel’s provocative proposal to Imran Khan, her promises to ‘strip dance’ and her rendezvous with government cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi, were covered tirelessly by the mainstream media, infuriating many, including allegedly her own brother.
She got used to a jeering crowd that attacked her callously on social media, even releasing a video asking her haters to unfollow her.
To be fair, Qandeel basked in the attention the mainstream lavished on her. It was a symbiotic relationship where she provided the latest controversy and the media fed and fuelled it, in order to strengthen the other symbiotic relationship it shared with its consumers, that is, you and me.
Unfortunately, the jibes did not stop, even when things took what should have registered as a serious turn. In the days before her death, the media dug out Qandeel’s ex-husband to further milk her notoriety and to fill up air time with TRP-worthy fodder.
Despite going on air and talking about receiving death threats after the Mufti Abdul Qavi episode and talking about being physically abused during a short-lived marriage, the media preferred to turn a blind eye and busy itself with propagating the narrative it had fashioned for her, by asking her husband pointed questions designed to malign her and to pat itself on the back for yanking out a skeleton from her closet.
With Qandeel dead, it is time to ask whether the media can really take the moral high ground by saying that they are merely supplying what we are demanding? We may not approve of Qandeel’s ‘rendezvous’ with Mufti Abdul Qavi, but we were eagerly lapping it up when the ‘news’ broke on TV and the controversy ran ad-nauseam across our screens.
The Qandeel-Mufti rendezvous was god-sent for the media, as it strengthened the popular narrative it had created about her, adding several hundred thousand eyeballs and more points to the TV channel’s TRPs.
Will Qandeel’s death change anything? In the past the media has been blamed for the death of other celebrities, such as Princess Diana. But little has been done to curb the sensationalism it broadcasts so unthinkingly and carelessly. If anything, since Princess Diana’s death and despite much introspection by the media back then, the tabloid business around the world has only grown.
A scroll down the average social media newsfeed and it becomes hard to tell the difference between the mainstream and tabloid media. Also the media’s largely self-serving stance on public figures becomes obvious.
Will channel heads and editors accept that they encouraged unchecked coverage of Qandeel while she lived? Will they accept that they milked the public’s fascination with her against their better judgment?
With Qandeel gone, not only is it time to talk about outdated feudal customs that she may have fallen victim to, it is also time to question the media’s role in creating a frenzy and appetite around her, her death and the events leading up to it.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 7th, 2016
by Mansoor Raza
The murder of Qandeel Baloch, allegedly for the sake of male honour, is symptomatic of a wider trend in Pakistan. Violence against women — or at least of its reporting — is on the rise. Be it the case of young Sumaira of Karachi or the social media star Fouzia Azeem alias Qandeel Baloch of Multan, there is an emerging pattern: violence will be used to deny three basic rights of women and indicators of empowerment — what to study, where to work and with whom to marry.
Yet despite all pressures women are actually increasingly claiming more space for those critical decisions of their lives. The causes of this change are interesting and even more interesting are the indicators of the evolving status of women of Pakistan.
Let us have a look at what some of these indicators are telling us.
As per various census reports of the Federal Bureau of Statistics (FBS), around 48 million women were added between 1951 and 1998 (the census years). In 1951 the women population was recorded at 15.6 million where as in 1998 the women head count was approximately 63.5 million.
Between the two census periods of 1981 and 1998, 23.5 million women were added to Pakistan’s population, a number that is greater than the actual female population reported in 1961: 20 million.
Though the per annum growth rate is slowing down, women’s share in the total population has increased from 46.22 per cent in 1951 to 48.05 per cent in 1998.
The population of young females (between the ages of 15 and 24) has increased from 6.8 million to 12 million between 1981 and 1998, a growth of almost 78 per cent between the two censuses. This gigantic addition obviously requires adjustments in policies of state, a task which is yet to be accomplished.
Female literacy rates have also shown a tremendous increase. There were 4.2 million literate women in 1981 while in 1998 the number of literate women had risen to 13.8 million, an addition of 9.6 million literate women, which translates into a per annum growth rate (PAGR) of over 14 per cent. The percentage of female literates 10 years or older rose from 15.60 per cent in 1981 to 32.60 per cent in 1998.
What these statistics reveal is that the achievements of women in educational attainment (enrolment from class one to university) over the last 47 years (from 1947 to 1998) showed remarkable improvement. There were only 1,335 girls enrolled in universities in 1951, while in 1998 the figure had gone up to 25,469.
In 1998, women comprised almost 28 per cent of university students. This indicates a demand for better utilisation of educated females in the economic spheres as it can help reduce the dependency ratio. Of course, it also indicates a change in the entire socio-political fabric of the Pakistani society.
There has been a sharp decline in the percentage of married women. The percentage of married women with respect to the total women population of 15 years and above dropped by 4.2 points between 1981 and 1998.
This decline was even more pronounced in the urban areas, where the percentage declined by almost 12 points.
The average age of marriage for women has also risen, with more women choosing to marry later, completing their education being the most often cited reason.
In 1981 there were 78,731 divorced women while in 1998 the figure rose to 154,343, an addition of 75,612 divorced women. The PAGR of divorce in women was observed as 4.04 per cent while in males it was 1.48 per cent.
Divorce also appears to be more of an urban phenomenon in women, since the PAGR is 6.62 per cent in urban females as compared to 3.20 in rural females. Interestingly, despite false claims, divorce rates have actually declined since 1972.
The transition from a feudal culture — with its reliance on an agricultural modes of production, a barter system, dependence on landholdings and the responsibility on male members to feed the entire family, with primitive skills — to service capitalism puts more economic pressures on women to work and become earning partners.
As a result, a high growth rate (in absolute numbers) is observed in the female labour force as compared to the male population.
In 1981 women’s share in the total labour force was only 2.14 per cent. By 1999-2000, although the overall percentage of the civilian labour force has gone down, female participation has gone up to 6.68 per cent of the total population of 10 and above. This shows more involvement of women in public spheres in order to earn a livelihood.
How do we interpret these statistics? Taken together, these changes in demographic indicators show that the actual transition that is taking place is in the priorities of the female population of Pakistan. The desire for job security is slowly replacing the earlier concept of security associated with marriage.
Aspiration for mere literacy has been replaced, overwhelmingly, by the desire for higher achievements in the educational field. Attire has changed, vocabulary has transformed and the gender interaction has morphed.
Women have become increasingly more assertive about their ambitions, far more than their preceding generation.
Stuck in residual feudal norms, the traditional mindset — with the help of the orthodox establishment — protests against the progress made by women but this is a failing proposition. Power is slipping away from them.
One can think of it as the flailing, desperate attempts of a crumbling order. Urban women through education and technology have developed cultural linkages with globalisation that continue to dictate their choices in life. They are unwilling to let go of whatever freedoms they have achieved and aspire for more.
The unanswered question is actually whether institutions are geared up to accommodate this sea change? If they are not, in the days to come we are likely to see more violence against women.
Figures worked out by the writer from census reports of FBS
Mansoor Raza is a freelance researcher and a visiting faculty member at SZABIST. His particular areas of interest are social change, minorities, demography and discriminatory laws. He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 7th, 2016
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