The Tragedy of Qandeel Baloch

The Pakistani social media star gave voice to a generation of women.

Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch.

Screenshot via BBC

The first time I ever spoke to Qandeel Baloch, she told me to fuck off.

This was in March. Qandeel had pledged to perform a striptease online if Pakistan’s cricket team won a match against India. Leading up to the match, Baloch began to post teasers of her strip show on Facebook. Low-res and clumsily shot, the videos showed her dressed in a swimsuit under a loosely tied bathrobe. She gyrated awkwardly, exposing large swaths of skin barely ever seen in mainstream Pakistani TV, cinema, or public life: a pale thigh untouched by the sun, the tops of her breasts.

That striptease never happened: Pakistan lost to India. But the mere suggestion sent Baloch’s popularity—and notoriety—skyrocketing. To date, she amassed almost 750,000 Facebook followers.

And on Friday she was murdered by her brother Waseem, who said he was “proud” that he had done so.

These videos were more risqué than anything Baloch, whose real name was Fouzia Azeem, had offered up since launching her social media efforts in January 2014.* It also represented a turning point for this young Pakistani social media sensation. Before this, Baloch’s attention was mostly focused inward, her sole subject herself. “How I’m looking?” she’d ask her audience. Or she’d post a selfie and cryptically title it “In anger.”

By addressing Pakistan’s cricket team, Baloch launched herself into the center of some of Pakistan’s hottest debates: on nationalism and sports, on religious conservatism and false morality, on women and their place in the public sphere. And the mainstream media, which had until that point treated her as an amusing blip on Pakistan’s entertainment scene, sat up and took notice.

This is the context within which I reached out to Baloch—as part of that mainstream media. I’m also, as Baloch was, a young Pakistani woman.

When Baloch hung up on me, I’d been working in Pakistan as culture editor for one of the country’s largest news websites for about a year. I’d begun the job with every intention to quit within a few months. I’d recently returned to Pakistan after a brief, invigorating stint in the publishing industry in New York City, and I intended to climb back into that world the first chance I got. I merely wanted to get back on my feet after suffering a personal loss. At least that’s what I told myself.

I didn’t account for how I would find myself drawn into the complex, fascinating, and, of late, dangerous culture war emerging in Pakistan. I didn’t account for how this conflict would lock a young social media sensation like Qandeel Baloch, and a young journalist like myself, into a complicated struggle to control and direct the narratives that shaped our worlds.

I didn’t account for how, soon after Baloch and I began to communicate, tentatively and through proxies—she would become a victim of this war.

* * *

In 2012, when I left Pakistan for New York City, the country produced only a handful of feature films. By the time I returned in 2015, over a dozen films were set to be released that year alone. Pakistani television too was experiencing something of a renaissance, and actors who launched their careers on TV were crossing over to the silver screen and, more crucially, to neighboring Bollywood. Pakistan’s relatively young media, privatized and liberalized in 2002, gave birth to a fresh crop of journalists whose notoriety rose parallel to their celebrity subjects’ profiles.

Right now, about 60 percent of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 25. Ripe with ambition, up-to-date with global trends in pop culture, these young Pakistanis are flocking to join the media and entertainment industry in growing numbers. The payoff? Fame, money and the ability to live life on one’s own terms. And these industries, once closed and dynastic, are opening their doors.

At the same time, the very ease of access that allows Zayn Malik or Salman Khan to trend in Pakistan also allows frustrated youth to ally themselves with groups that preach religious fundamentalism and social conservatism. The same Pakistan that birthed activists like Malala Yousafzai and ambitious, outspoken actresses like Mawra Hocane has also produced self-confessed killers who target progressives, like Saad Aziz who, along with five others, killed 45 people on a bus.

This is the era that birthed Qandeel Baloch.

Very little was actually known about Baloch despite her presence online. She unabashedly displayed her body online but was tightly guarded about her personal life. She mostly refused to grant interviews, using her own social media platforms to respond to criticism.

But we knew some facts. A few days before her death, she spoke to our culture desk and revealed that she belonged to a conservative family she supported through her earnings. She claimed she was married to a man she did not like against her will in her late teens, a man with whom she had a child. She said she walked away from that marriage following abuse and sought to make something of herself alone.

Pakistan remains a deeply conservative, classist, patriarchal society, and Baloch, by choosing an unconventional, controversial path to stardom, was held at a remove by, well, mostly everyone. Conservatives considered her godless. They judged her character, deemed it loose, and felt it was perfectly acceptable to say she should be silenced. Many in the upper class who considered themselves progressives found her naked ambition tawdry and dismissed her outright.

And me?

I’d barely paid attention to fashion or entertainment journalism in the past, but now, I attended fashion shows and watched as models strode down runways clad in outfits embroidered by male artisans—who’d likely never allow their wives to wear the sleeveless dress they’d labored over.

I read copy from journalists who described low-income male cinemagoers, pleasure-seekers with few outlets, as “riff raff.” I moderated comments that called popular actresses whores and sluts.

And I observed how the striking, youthful model wearing the strappy dress that could barely ever be worn in public was earning thousands of rupees for her service, money she would use to pay her rent and live independently. The oft–politically incorrect journalist was a hard worker who wanted to do better. For every dozen sexist comments I moderated, there was at least one that offered a considered opinion.

Things were bad, but there was hope. I clung to this hope. I believe it was this hope for transformation that propelled Baloch forward, too.

* * *

At work, my all-female team and I tried to take baby steps to push progressive narratives on Pakistani culture and entertainment. These baby steps were not viewed as such.

When we published an article titled “Dear Pakistani men, this is how you talk about periods,” a reader wrote to say it was “against the social norms and values of our society.” It wasn’t only readers who were ruffled: When I used the word ‘mansplaining’ in a headline, members of the journalistic community criticized me for compromising my objectivity by deploying an overtly feminist word.

We were not lone crusaders. While much of mainstream Pakistani media does remain sensationalist and sexist—very much a boy’s club—smaller, English-language websites in Pakistan picked up on popular narratives trending internationally, and articles about body-shaming, LGBT rights, and gender roles worked their way into the mainstream press. I felt proud to be part of a vital movement in Pakistani media.

And right in the middle of all this was Qandeel Baloch.

I admit, my first impression of her was of a slightly sad, attention-seeking young woman whose exhibitionism and mode of presentation—thickly lashed eyes opened wide, exaggerated cleavage—played to the patriarchy. If I ever criticized her, I did so with same arguments I might’ve used to claim Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies are not the epitome of empowerment.

But then I observed how, about the time she began granting interviews, she pushed back against her haters with the intent to expose their hypocrisy. She framed her social media presence in the language of body-positivity and female empowerment, saying she loved herself and had as much right as any man did to express her opinions online.

Even more than what she said, her very presence was a significant political statement.

In a country where women’s visibility is strictly policed by conservativism, for a young woman like Baloch to defend her choices on TV and make no apologies for flaunting her body was quite radical.

So I commissioned a piece that questioned why Pakistan hated her so. I featured her on the website frequently. I spoke of her often, so often that a friend asked me if was obsessed with her. Like most of Pakistan, I kind of was. She was such an enigma.

* * *

Baloch’s brother confessed to his crime: He said he drugged her and then strangled her because her pictures and videos “brought dishonor to the Baloch name.” And just like that, Qandeel Baloch became one of thousands of women murdered in Pakistan in the name of honor.

About 10 days before she was murdered, Baloch released a music video—her most provocative shoot to date. In her last interview with us, she said: “I wasn’t so satisfied with my performance. I wasn’t satisfied with the outfits. … But look at my confidence.”

When news of her death broke, my colleagues and I were shocked. More shocked than we should’ve been, perhaps, given that Pakistan’s culture war had recently claimed another artist’s life. In June, celebrated classical singer Amjad Sabri was killed in Karachi, and a faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, allegedly because his music contradicted Islamic teachings. Before that, popular TV actor Hamza Ali Abbasi was vilified and threatened by conservatives when he spoke up to defend religious minorities, so much so that many feared he’d be gunned down.

The past year has made clear that the war between conservatism and liberal values, one that was previously waged in the political arena, has found its way to the arts.

But for some reason, right until the end, we thought she would escape that fate. And maybe that’s evidence of how this culture war has warped even us: It let us view Baloch as a symbol for what we thought she might represent rather than a young woman in danger.

And in fact, the media, both liberal and conservative, has come under fire for “promoting” Baloch and therefore, exposing her to harm. It is never that simple, but on some level, everyone connected to her is culpable.

In the days that have passed since her death, I’ve questioned myself and my work over and over. Previously, I thought I was in control of some fraction of a slowly changing narrative in Pakistan. I felt I’d seen evidence to support that opinion. But Baloch’s death showed me, showed us all, that we were no closer to winning this battle than we had been before.

* * *

To me, Qandeel Baloch was more than a persona who could teach us something valuable about a woman’s place in the world. She represented a burgeoning optimism and faith in the future, the likes of which Pakistan has rarely seen before.

And for that, maybe more than any other reason, I identified with her.

Pakistan is a deeply fatalistic nation. People eschew contraception because it is widely believed that if God sees fit to grant you a child, God will also grant you the means to provide for it—that sort of thing. This is also why classism is so entrenched. People are used to accepting the fact that, as a general rule, you die in the class you were born to.

Qandeel Baloch was a direct counterpoint to this view.

As she recently revealed, her beginnings were extremely humble. She grew up poor. By 20, she was divorced. She could claim no privilege or patronage. And yet, she believed destiny was in her own hands. In this way, her optimism was profoundly American.

She had dreams and she had faith they’d come true. She believed in reinvention. Until the end, she believed she had the power to change the narrative of her life.

Correction, July 19, 2016: In an earlier version of this article, Fouzia Azeem’s first name was misspelled. (Return.)