As Pakistan mourns model Qandeel Baloch, a call to curb 'honor killings'

A Pakistani model and social media icon who spoke out about women’s equality was reportedly killed by her brother.

M. Jameel/AP
Pakistani fashion model Qandeel Baloch speaks during a press conference in Lahore, Pakistan last month. Ms. Baloch, who recently stirred controversy by posting pictures of herself with a Muslim cleric on social media, was murdered by her brother, police said Saturday, July 16, 2016.

Pakistan authorities announced Saturday that social media icon and fashion model Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother in their family home in Multan, a city in central Pakistan.

Ms. Baloch was a rising star and a voice for women's freedom of expression in Pakistan. The 26-year-old model had catapulted herself to the spotlight by posting videos and selfies to her social media accounts, which have hundreds of thousands of followers. Baloch, who described herself as a proponent of “girl power” and who spoke of changing "the typical orthodox mindset" of Pakistani society, challenged conservative sensibilities with poses and outfits that some Pakistanis criticized as too sexual.

Yet while she pushed against social norms, her death was reportedly the product of a traditional form of reactionary violence, the so-called “honor killing.” These murders, monitored by human rights groups, typically involve a family member killing a woman who is perceived to have dishonored her family. While the term is often linked to Islam, the practice has been seen across cultures and religions.

More than 1,000 women were murdered in the name of “honor” last year in Pakistan, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a number that has been increasing over the past three years and only includes reported cases. The highly public nature of Baloch’s murder has led some to hope that this will help further the conversation about the status of women in Pakistan.

Already in the hours since authorities announced Baloch’s death, a petition has been circulated and signed by activists condemning the death and calling out the media and government for failing to protect Baloch – who had received death threats – against the “dangerously sexist conditions in this country.”

A vigil and protest were called to be held in Karachi and Lahore, although their occurrence and turn-out Saturday evening is unconfirmed.

Pakistani authorities said that her parents reportedly told police that one of her brothers was responsible for her death.

On Thursday, Baloch, whose real name is Fauzia Azeem, posted on her Facebook page:

“I believe I am a modern day feminist. I believe in equality. I need not to choose what type of women should be. I don’t think there is any need to label ourselves just for sake of society.”

She recently raised controversy and attention by posting photos of herself with a Muslim cleric and publicly speaking out about being forced to marry at age 17, a practice she said was common “in small villages.” She was later able to get a divorce.

“She symbolizes women’s agency, women’s self and sexual expression and was a challenge to sexual respectability politics,” says Sara Haq, a Pakistani-American doctoral candidate at University of Maryland’s Women’s Studies program who focuses on Sufism and sexuality. Those things made her a target, Ms. Haq suggests, while noting that the full story of her death remains to be investigated.

Baloch’s death has been met in Pakistan by an outpouring of grief and outrage on social media. Yet some messages are tempered with critique of the celebrity.

This points to a double standard that needs to be addressed if violence against women is to be stopped, says Haq.

“Women’s bodies hold this sort of value system, we are the measure of value, the yard stick for men’s respectability and men’s pride, and until that discontinues, I don’t know how to get around this,” says Haq.

These issues have to be addressed at the family and community levels: “It has to do with everything from marriage, the way a woman dresses, sex – it’s all under the umbrella of policing a woman’s sexuality,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Haq says that the tragedy, and Baloch’s celebrity, could bring conversations that have been happening within the country about respect for women and their self-expression “to the forefront.”

Along with social progress, activists have been calling for legislative action, like a long-sought "Anti Honor Killing Bill." As it currently stands, these types of crimes are not always punished: Pakistani law currently allows the family of the victim to forgive the murderer in lieu of state action.

Legislation was passed this past February in Punjab, the country’s largest province, criminalizing all forms of violence against women. At that time, mainstream Islamic political parties and 30 religious groups threatened to launch protests if the law was not repealed, the BBC reported.

There has been recent talk of stricter national laws, reportedly sparked by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Oscar-winning documentary about these so-called honor killings. After seeing the documentary, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reportedly said he would tighten the laws, a promise that was reiterated by Zahid Hamid, the law minister, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

While it remains to be seen whether new legal steps will be taken, Qandeel Baloch's killing has already sparked a new wave of conversation, or as one Twitter user said: “#QandeelBaloch is trending for one last time. In your death you have slapped our society like nothing else. #RIP.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Sara Haq. She said that Qandeel Baloch challenged "sexual respectability politics," not "sexual representation politics." 

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