I didn’t care about Qandeel Baloch when I first heard about her. I didn’t think she was a fashion icon, I found her selfies excessive, and I wasn’t interested in her, even if I found her funny and somewhat intriguing. It was hard not to pay attention to somebody who almost singlehandedly captured the national spotlight by making a name for herself online. Baloch exposed society’s repression and moral hypocrisies while also thriving off of it. At the time, I couldn’t tell if this was a good or bad thing.
Now, she’s dead, apparently at the hands of her own brother. As Rimmel Mohydin tweeted, “[Y]ou made a hero out of someone who until yesterday was a punchline.” And it’s true. Overnight, Baloch has gone from being a social media sensation – for all the good and the bad – to one of the many women killed by men in their families simply because she dared to create her own possibilities.
Qandeel Baloch has been compared to Kim Kardashian by media, but while her impact may be similar, there’s little comparison between the two women. Kim Kardashian never grew up in a village on the Saraiki belt, she never fled a forced and unhappy marriage and she never found herself in a women’s shelter where she was forced to give up her child because he fell ill.
She was a testament to the price that is paid in daring to be independent and free
Most importantly, Kim Kardashian never made herself out of nothing after her family discarded her and she found herself alone in a country where most women rely on their families and husbands for their livelihood. Kim Kardashian didn’t, but Qandeel Baloch did.
And it’s not just about Baloch becoming famous on Facebook, taking titillating selfies, or starring in provocative music videos, though all of that is important, because throughout it, Baloch was the agent of her own image. It’s about her working and getting paid. Baloch had the strength and guts to survive and live with dignity and independence, even after losing her family and child. She did this, when most women languish in shelters or fall into abusive relationships, where they are again forced to compromise who they are for the whims of other people. That is, if they don’t return to their original family or husband out of poverty and need, as so many do. Qandeel left, survived and made it in a society where women have been told they can’t live and even breathe on their own.
For all the media fame, exorbitant makeup and highfalutin claims of being a model, an actress, and a fashion icon, Baloch led a hard, gritty life. Right before she was killed, she told Dawn Images, “I did a marketing job, I worked as a bus hostess, I did a lot of jobs, I struggled a lot.” After that, she went into showbiz, where she faced exploitation from would-be employers. “You know how they try to misuse girls who are new to the industry.” She was a working woman, a rural woman, a hustling woman, who labored to set herself free.
In this sense, she was a testament to all of the women of Pakistan. She was a testament to our creative resistance, which lies on the margins, but without which society would die or be irrevocably changed.
She was a testament to our labor, cheapened as it is unacknowledged and unpaid, no different from maids who toil all day, cleaning homes, cooking food, and washing clothes, only to lose all of their hard-worn earnings to their husband sitting idle at home. And she was a testament to the price that is paid in daring to be independent and free.
While many fault this independence for causing Baloch’s death – the same people who say she brought it upon herself – independence is essential to living with self-respect and dignity. And perhaps it’s strange to think of Qandeel Baloch as ‘dignified’, because mainstream conceptions of dignity – and honor, for that matter – refuse to accommodate a woman who used her sexuality to enhance her identity, who wasn’t afraid of her gendered female body. But dignity is more than a cultural or societal norm—dignity is having the power to make your own choices and stand by them, regardless of what others think.
In this way, Baloch was dignified and deserving of respect. She was powerful. She sent money to her family and supported them, she paid for her sister’s wedding and her parents’ home, and she was reportedly finding a bride for the very same brother who strangled her to death. She did the work this society reveres as belonging to the son of the family. And she knew this. In the same interview, she said, “Today I am capable of taking on the burden of an entire household. But no one gives me credit for that.”
People often see an honor killing victim as just that – a victim – a faceless girl, usually from the dihaat (rural areas), whose name doesn’t appear in the news until she’s dead. But Baloch’s death has changed that narrative forever. It’s true she was a victim, but she was so much more than that. She was funny, defiant and vivacious, to the point where it was almost impossible to believe she was dead. She was a celebrity, but she was also a self-made woman from the village. She showed what would happen when a rural woman, restricted by her husband and family, but also barred by her class, would take her life into her own hands—and triumph.
Her death was the ultimate leveling factor. Just as it showed even the most famous and glamorous women aren’t safe from patriarchal violence in Pakistan, it sent out a clear message to girls and women, trapped in unhappy marriages and subjugated to the whims of men who disrupt their destinies. You too can live with independence and dignity. You too can defy the people who oppress you, even if it is for a short while.
Rest in power, Qandeel Baloch. You will be dearly missed.
Iman Sultan is a freelance writer, student and activist, dividing her time between Philadelphia and Karachi