THE ASIAN VOICE

Qandeel Baloch's murder and selective feminism in Pakistan: Dawn columnist

Pakistani people hold placards at a protest against honour killings in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 18, 2016.
Pakistani people hold placards at a protest against honour killings in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 18, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

KARACHI - Isn't the murder of Qandeel Baloch, one of Pakistan's social media stars, as 'un-Islamic' as Zeenat Bibi's (the 17-year old who was buried alive for marrying a man of her choice) ?

When the rock band Bumbu Sauce wrote an anthem to Qandeel Baloch, its members probably did not think it would soon be a lament. In a recent interview with the BBC, band frontman Masterjee Bumbu explained the Qandeel Baloch phenomenon, saying that she's a "badly behaved woman" who uses the internet to communicate: "those are two things Pakistan does not deal well with as a society: the internet and badly behaved women." His words were prescient. Pakistan's inability to deal with Qandeel Baloch's behaviour drove, allegedly, her brothers to murder her last week.

Owing to her brothers' involvement, Qandeel Baloch's murder has been termed an 'honour' killing. Framed as such, people feel comfortable pointing to her 'bayghairat' behaviour to justify her brothers' heinous action. Many tweeted in support of her killing, describing her as a disgrace to Pakistan. She had received death threats during her lifetime, and comments under her social media posts frequently called for her murder. Three weeks ago, she contacted the authorities to ask for security.

Few will be surprised, then, that her death has not been met with the universal outpouring of shock and horror that we saw a few weeks ago for Amjad Sabri, who was shot dead for essentially the same reason — a perceived transgression. The fact is, we rarely see any public dismay each time a woman is killed for allegedly speaking to the wrong man, choosing who to marry or otherwise acting against her family's wishes.

How could we? There are around a thousand such murders reported in Pakistan each year, and our society is already too brutalised to mourn each one. Moreover, because such murders are categorised as 'honour' killings, there is a sense that the tragedy is somehow different, explicable and thus palatable.

At the time of writing on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had not reacted to news of Qandeel Baloch's murder. I looked for his public statement because in February he announced that his government would amend laws that allow murderers who kill in the name of honour to escape punishment. No fresh legislation has been passed since then.

In June, Zeenat Bibi from Lahore was burned alive by her mother for marrying a man of her choice. After her death, Sharif ordered an investigation into her killing, describing it as 'un-Islamic.' The prime minister was happy to speak in defence of Zeenat Bibi, whose anonymity and circumstances together evoked a perception of vulnerability and oppression. 

It would indicate an admirable level of consistency if Sharif rose to the defence of Qandeel Baloch, who was provocative, sensual, and responsible for taking selfies damning enough to get Mufti Abdul Qavi suspended from the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee. After all, isn't her murder equally un-Islamic?

More importantly, why must we deploy a religious lens to comment on such killings? Qandeel Baloch and Zeenat Bibi were murdered. We should term and condemn their killings as such and punish the perpetrators accordingly.

Sadly, when women are murdered, the authorities and public at large tend to make sense of the violence — and thus mitigate its horror — by pointing to some aspect of the women's behaviour that warranted attack. Qandeel flouted social mores and took suggestive selfies; Sabeen Mahmud (a Pakistani human rights activist who was shot dead last year) organised events on Balochistan and promoted tolerance; Perween Rahman (a Pakistani social activist who was murdered in 2013) asked too many questions about land ownership in Karachi. With these caveats, we imply that there are certain things women should not do, certain boundaries beyond which they should not transgress.

With each murder, new parameters are defined, and the space for women shrinks. Much worse, cold-blooded is recast as a punitive act, making it acceptable when it should, instead, be deemed far more offensive to human decency and our values than anything the women could have done in the first place.

Qandeel Baloch's murder is the latest reminder that we live in an era of selective feminism. When it is convenient, people are happy to promote women's rights: female entrepreneurship, which contributes to the economy; girls' education, which keeps international aid money flowing to state coffers; the election of female parliamentarians, who toe the party line and help boost Pakistan in gender equality indexes.

But there is little progress on issues that pertain to the security and sanctity of women themselves, from domestic violence to reproductive rights. Why hasn't the government kept its promise of reviewing legislation that lets murderers who invoke 'honour' go free? Why did it take a documentary that won international acclaim to prod the prime minister's conscience on this matter? Aren't the hundreds of corpses each year enough?

Qandeel Baloch's father has mourned the loss of his 'brave' daughter and named his sons, who may not go scot-free, in the FIR. One hopes we all realise that the son's violent act — and not the daughter's suggestive selfies — is Pakistan's true shame.