17 Feb 2020

The 'honour killing' of "Pakistan's Kim Kardashian"

From Afternoons, 3:08 pm on 17 February 2020

Fouzia Azeem grew up in poverty, fled an abusive marriage and went on to become Qandeel Baloch – Pakistan's first social media celebrity.

In 2016, when she was 26, one of Qandeel's brothers strangled her to death in a so-called 'honour killing'.

In the digital age, young Pakistanis feel connected to the world like never before, yet they remain rooted in a conservative, restrictive space, says journalist Sanam Maher.

She tells Qandeel Baloch's story in the new book A Woman Like Her.

Fouzia Azeem showed much courage in her too-short life, first by leaving her abusive husband and later by acting and speaking provocatively in conservative Pakistan, Maher tells Jesse Mulligan.

"It was a really bold step from somebody who came from that place to turn around and say 'I'm not just going to stay in my home and take care of my child and be married to this person who is abusive to me. I want to make a life for myself'"

Fouzia grew up wanting to be an entertainer and after her infamously bad audition for Pakistani Idol - as 'Pinky' - came to understand the workings of online celebrity, Maher says.

She created the provocative and compelling character Qandeel Baloch, who had well-publicised crushes on public figures like Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.

But as Qandeel's YouTube posts became more and more risque, people began to criticise and troll her online, Maher says.

When she ignored her critics, they were confused and angered.

"For them, it was a question of 'what kind of woman doesn't feel shame when she is scolded in this way?' or 'what kind of woman doesn't back down?'"

In July 2016, Qandeel was introduced to the prominent Islamic religious scholar Mufti Abdul Qavi on a TV talk show.

Later, they met at a hotel in Karachi and she posted pictures of herself wearing his hat and the two of them sitting close together.

After Abdul Qavileft left the hotel, Qandeel tweeted that he had behaved inappropriately with her.

Such an accusation against a high-profile cleric created a stir and Qandeel was viciously attacked for speaking out, Maher says.

"I think it was our first incident in the MeToo Movement where a woman turned around said 'do you believe me?' and [Pakistanis] turned around and said 'why would we believe a woman like you? Why should we believe anything you're saying?'"

In Pakistan, pointing the finger at a religious figure puts you in the spotlight in a completely different way, she says.

Qandeel brothers said it was the final straw, and days after she posted the pictures, Qandeel's brother Wasim strangled her to death while she slept in their parents' house.

Pakistani legislation at the time meant Qandeel and Wasim's parents could legally "forgive" him killing his sister to protect their family's 'honour'. 

After Qandeel was killed, the law changed and Wasim is now serving life in prison.

Although Maher doesn't like the term 'honour killing', it is applicable to Qandeel's death because of her brother's motivation, she says.

"For me, a murder is a murder - someone is killed. The reason why [that term] is useful to refer to this case as an 'honour killing' is because this is a murder that took place almost to serve as a warning … It's really a murder committed to send a signal to people, almost as if to say 'if you step out of line the way she did, this could happen to you'."

Maher takes no comfort in the idea that Qandeel Baloch's death served some purpose.

"[Pakistan] should be past that at this point. We should have been having this conversation [about Qandeel's right to safety] when she was being trolled or receiving a tremendous amount of hate after she accused the cleric … A newspaper over here published pictures of her passport and revealed her real name, revealed where she came from. That puts her life at risk … and I don't think we should get comfortable at any point [with] this.'"