My Pakistani Person of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

Well, it feels like as if I were writing a single post for the free speech hero and this one. But believe it or not, this has been the impact of Qandeel Baloch on the Pakistani society, in my opinion. She offered Pakistanis the necessary shockwave that was needed to break their convenient slumber of socially conservative morality. It was a much needed first shock needed to a population that is a bit too uptight about its sexuality while tolerating all sorts of perversions under the cover.

To her credit, model and liberal social media icon Qandeel Baloch single-handedly cleared up that suffocation a little. With a little help from earlier stars such as Mathira. A heroic model who appeared in a much-needed ad for a much-needed commodity in Pakistan. Condoms. Of course, the ad was banned. But condoms are not. More power to her.

Qandeel Baloch, alias Fauzia Azeem, started as an apparently cheap social media sensation, and slowly started gaining the sort of following that no one could ever anticipate. Her fame was further catapulted by the local media because, let’s face it, her unusually bold glamor sold like anything in a market thirsting for it. But little did her clueless audience realize that she was making statements that went beyond just fun and games.

Now, I wish I knew more about her. I wish I had followed her more and had not dismissed her in the way most ordinary Pakistanis had. I hardly ever followed her videos. I wish I had paid more attention to the buzz about her in the local media, but I knew what was largely going on about her person. At least I cannot accuse myself of ever condemning and rejecting her. At least morally and politically, I always found a supporter of her in myself.

When writing this post, I simply cannot put into words what Qandeel Baloch has really accomplished. She has been dubbed the Pakistani Kim Kardashian, a reality icon widely mocked for her superficially extravagant lifestyle and social media selfies. Imagine how big a reality star she would have become had she appeared in Bigg Boss on Indian TV.

Qandeel’s own lifestyle had become something similar from her humble beginnings, though nowhere near extravagant as that of the Hollywood superstar who never had to face any such odds in her life. Qandeel Baloch came from a much more difficult background and never ever really enjoyed the “privilege” you could accuse her of enjoying. Well, being a woman in Pakistan is enough to explain it, for that matter.

Now I hear that double Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has made a film on her life. Even though I was considering her to be the nominee for this title of mine this year, but even if she were to win three straight Oscars in a row, she would never have been able to pull off what Qandeel Baloch did. Perhaps no one could, short of a Pakistani Larry Flynt. Hell, not even such a character. And yes, a part of it is being a woman.

Qandeel Baloch’s sense of self-righteousness and of being morally upright came from a mix of the modern urban Pakistani liberalism, as well as the social conservative background of her roots in South Punjab. In an interview with Sohail Warraich recorded just before her death, you would hear her being a snob toward the “vulgar” mujra dancers. Being pro-mujra, that slightly offended me.

No, these women are not prostitutes. And yes, prostitutes are honorable women too. But I leave aversion to mujra as a personal aesthetic preference, as opposed to being a matter of making cultural judgments.

Unfortunately, she was accused herself of vulgarity by people from her ranks and from the less liberal sections of the more progressive Pakistani urban classes. You know, for twerking and not dressing up according to the standards ordained by the Sharia. Don’t believe me? Google for any of her videos and observe the titles from the socially conservative uploaders.

As I have often said, it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of what amounts to vulgar and what does not in Pakistan. I am not even sure what the word really means anymore.

And another thing that I like repeating is that it is easy to talk about feminist ideals. It is very hard to live them up in a society and industry dominated by men, who are going to attack you like a vicious pack of wolves from all directions and every chance they get. So it was obligatory for someone like me to defend her every chance I get. I have respect for what she did.

As I said, it is hard to articulate the impact of Qandeel Baloch. Through her bold antics, she proved how confined and captivated the Pakistani women really are. Through her outspokenness, she proved how tolerant our society really is. She basically demonstrated how free women are in our society and how hypocritical we are about our sexuality in public. She also proved how easily our men are willing to put our women to death for “honor.”

She was a resounding slap in the face of every woman-hating man rejecting the notion that Pakistan is not a society dominated by men.

She helped expose how disgusting religious clerics can be when it comes to women and in ways nobody could even imagine before.

She tested and questioned our moral compass in a complicated world in which we take it for granted, and exposed our hypocrisy harmlessly.

She showed how easy it was to kill in Pakistan, and for what reasons.

She made us feel immensely proud of being a Pakistani and made us feel immensely ashamed at the same time.

In that sense, she has been an iconoclast of the revolutionary proportions in her individual capacity. Nobody even comes close.

I learned about the news of her murder while I was on a shoot in Karachi this year’s July, right when I was in the middle of people in front of who I had to defend Qandeel Baloch. On that day, it seemed I really had no other substantial purpose to my existence. Not that there would be any otherwise. But when her brother and former husband are found involved in her murder, it is hard not to feel disappointed.

And the government also did not take her requests for security seriously.

I know a lot of people believe that a lot more people were so much more important to Pakistan this terrible year. But honestly, I don’t have time to think about those self-proclaimed saviors of this country. Because seriously nobody did this much for the Pakistani society for decades. Nobody in the history of this country ever promised a striptease for a Pakistani cricket star.

Qandeel Baloch is the star of the age of social media. I know she came into prominence from a Pakistan Idol audition, but it was social media that really took her voice to the people. So in many ways, in the transformation of the Pakistani society to more liberal and open ideas, social media is as much a star as are the people whose voices it is empowering.

And don’t let me forget. She is not my Pakistani Person of the Year because she was killed. Far from it. You know a lot of people died in 2016, including Edhi. It was not the death of Qandeel Baloch that made her special, but her life. It is her impact on the society that has outlived her, and it is our responsibility as citizens to carry it forward and fight ignorance, illiberalism, and obscurantism.

All I can say is that as a Pakistani citizen, I salute Qandeel Baloch and applaud her for her courage to express her sexuality. She is and must be an inspiration to all of us. Shame on us for not valuing her enough.

Farewell, and rest in peace, you brave, beautiful soul.

Read about my Pakistani person of the last year here.

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Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2016: Qandeel Baloch

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

Source: Qandeel Baloch Official Facebook

She made a statement by expressing her sexuality in a society where it is considered an abomination. She was predictably accused of vulgarity in a society that has probably even forgotten the meaning of this vague expression.

Forsaken by the liberal media, in the words of feminist academic Nabiha Meher Sheikh, when she needed them the most and condemned by a society of self-righteous savages, model and internet sensation Qandeel Baloch tested the morality of our standards of morality.

Her selfie clip with Maulana Abdul Qavi pretty much realized my dream of watching Mathira and Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman do the tango on TV.

The shockwave that it caused not only resulted in his removal from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, an insignificant body that performs the significant function of sighting the moon but also leading to the murder of Qandeel at the hands of her own brother because she had offended his honor. Qandeel’s former husband was also said to be involved. To no effect, or without much substance, Mufti Abdul Qavi’s name was included in the investigation of her murder for provoking it on the complaint of her parents.

Yep, death comes that cheap in Pakistan. Or is it life?

Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Nighat Dad – Source: Human Rights Tulip Twitter

Shout outs also go to some other free speech heroes in Pakistan, who are continuing their struggle in the face of brutal opposition. Heartiest congratulations and salute to internet privacy and digital rights activist Nighat Dad who won the 2016 Human Rights Tulip Award from the Dutch government. She has used the prize to establish the first cyber harassment helpline for the people of Pakistan.

A mention of publisher and social activist Abdul Wahid Baloch is also due, who was briefly abducted by unknown entities following his activism to find the whereabouts of the Baloch missing persons. These individuals have been the victim of the crackdown on the Baloch insurgency.  Thankfully, he is safely home.

Journalist Cyril Almeida became the victim of undue state scrutiny, following the daring release of an exclusive news story that revealed that the civilian government of the Sharif brothers had reprimanded the military leadership for inaction against religious terrorists. Almeida was briefly put on the Exit Control List by the Federal Ministry of the Interior following the government’s and the military’s repeated stern denials of his story. Too much fuss about nothing, of course.

Source: pakistantv.tv

Shaan Taseer – Source: pakistantv.tv

Another great Pakistani free speech hero remains to be Shaan Taseer, the son of the slain Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who was a free speech hero in his own right. Shaan Taseer is continuing the fight against the draconian blasphemy law and for the rights of the minority religious communities in Pakistan.

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Source: Sunni Youth Parliament/Shaan Taseer facebook

Qandeel’s antics may not sound serious to some of you, but the fatwa issued by Sunni clerics against Shaan Taseer, which he publicized on his facebook page, is no joke. If only this evidence was enough to convince people how much dangerous people we are dealing with here.

In the guise of peace and love, these religious zealots ensure that no one is safe from their venom. I can only commend people like Shaan Taseer for really taking them on in his bold and fearless manner. Now, I can’t do that for one, and the image of the “legal opinion” I posted above can be considered a death threat to Taseer.

All of these free speech heroes are important. Freedom of Press is important. Fighting for religious minority rights is important. But perhaps nothing is more important than a woman challenging the norms of a society that collectively hates women and is abusive to them. Pakistan remains to be one of the countries collectively abusive to women in the name of culture and religion, and apart from my own hometown of Rawalpindi, I have seen glimpses of that in various parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, such as Swat and Lower Dir. So, I am pretty sure of what I am talking about here.

For that reason alone, Qandeel Baloch is my Pakistani free speech hero for the year 2016.

As Nighat Dad herself said, every time a woman stands for herself somewhere, she is standing for all the women.

Read about the last year’s Pakistani free speech hero, Sabeen Mahmud, here.