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Pakistan: ’She feared no one’ - the life and death of Qandeel Baloch | Jon Boone

1 October

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The Guardian, 22 September 2017

She was known as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, a social media star who courted controversy. One year on, why has no one stood trial for her killing?

In April 2016, Qandeel Baloch was invited to appear on the comedy news show Ajeeb Saa. The format was a live debate with Abdul Qavi, a 50-year-old mullah frequently on television. Qavi joined via video link from Multan, the city in southern Punjab where he runs a religious school. Baloch, a 26-year-old social media celebrity dubbed “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian”, sat in a studio in Karachi.

It was a match made for controversy. The mullah was known for his Islamic erudition; Baloch for her revealing outfits, Instagram poses and pouting Facebook videos. Over the past two years, she had in turn amused and scandalised Pakistani society. She had also inspired thousands of young people, particularly women, who admired this “simple girl’s” transformation into one of the country’s biggest celebrities.

Ajeeb Saa’s presenter just needed to light the touchpaper and stand back. He asked Qavi what he thought of Baloch’s recent promise to perform a striptease, dedicated to the Pakistan cricket captain Shahid Afridi, if his team beat India in the World Twenty20 Cup. Would it help the effort to deradicalise Islamist militants, the presenter asked with deadpan seriousness? And might she also dedicate a striptease to Mullah Qavi?

The cleric stuck to his role of sober Islamic scholar, batting away the mischievous questions. He did, however, announce his desire to meet Baloch the next time he was in Karachi. It seemed a throwaway remark, but later, each would accuse the other of actively pursuing a meeting. Baloch said Qavi was in love with her. Qavi said she wanted to milk him for publicity.

Then, in June last year, Baloch published images of the pair meeting in a Karachi hotel room. In one, she poses with Qavi while wearing his lamb’s wool cap, her mouth gaping open in mock horror. In a short video shot by Baloch using a selfie stick, the mullah says he is happy to have been visited by the model, and hopes to offer her “guidance on issues related to religion”.

“I will be guiding Qandeel Baloch and I am hopeful she will listen to me,” Qavi declares.

The media storm that erupted was unlike anything Baloch had triggered before. Television stations obsessively reported the famous mullah and his flirtatious meeting with this “notorious model”. Qavi was sacked from his job on a prestigious “moonsighting” committee charged with calling the start of major Islamic holidays.

“She didn’t realise she was crossing the line,” says Shehryar Mufti, frontman of Pakistani rock group Bumbu Sauce, who became so fascinated by Baloch that he wrote a song about her. “It is one thing to challenge an abstract notion like society or patriarchy. It is another thing entirely to call a state-endorsed cleric out on being a complete sleaze.”

Baloch would later accuse Qavi of behaving even more inappropriately off camera, sharing a soft drink and cigarette with her, even though it was Ramadan. “He is a blot on the name of Islam,” she told AFP journalist Issam Ahmed. “Who is he to claim to be a guardian of the faith?”

Baloch with mullah Abdul Qavi in a Karachi hotel room. Photograph: YouTube/Dunya News

The furore prompted the press to uncover the “real Baloch” (she had always worked hard to conceal her identity, changing her name and lying about where she came from in interviews). In their filmed meeting, Qavi repeatedly alluded to the fact that they were both from Multan; a journalist there soon worked out who she was and revealed her true name to be Fauzia Azeem.

Now her entire family was exposed to the full weight of disapproval of their conservative rural community. Relatives are said to have started haranguing Waseem Azeem, the youngest of Baloch’s six brothers.

“No one knew [who] Qandeel Baloch [was] before the Mullah Qavi scandal,” Safdar Shah, her parents’ lawyer, says. “When she was revealed, the people of the area started tormenting her brother: ‘Your sister has violated our cultural and religious norms.’ They told him he had to do something.”

On 16 July, 18 days after her real name hit the press, Baloch was found dead by her mother in the family home. The following day, her brother Waseem was arrested for her murder.

Qandeel Baloch’s home town of Shah Sadar Din is little more than an outbreak of roadside shops on a nondescript bit of highway. Women are rarely seen; when they do venture outside the high walls of their family compounds, they cover up completely. Baloch’s father, Muhammad Azeem, was always staunchly conservative, and only reluctantly agreed to his wife’s demand that his daughters should receive an education.

Born in March 1990, Baloch was a high-spirited girl who loved climbing trees in the dusty back yard where chickens roamed. She would tease her brothers for not being able to keep up with her and, says one sister who wishes to remain anonymous, she bristled at the prospect of getting married or having to wear a burqa outside the house. “She would say, ‘I’m not covering myself like that.’ She was always brave – she never feared anyone.”

Baloch’s sister says her interest in fame really blossomed once they acquired a TV set. “Our father said there would be no TV in our house. But our mother sneaked some money to our brother and he bought one for us. She would watch and say, ‘One day, I will act and sing, too. I’ll be like those city girls on TV dramas.’”

She was a very simple girl, but she had big dreams. She was thirsty for fame

Baloch’s father, a frail, grey-haired man in his 70s who has walked on crutches since smashing his leg in an accident, recalls his daughter demanding to be allowed to ride a motorbike after seeing the boys doing it. “She dreamed of becoming an independent girl and a model,” he says.

Baloch’s mother, Anwar Bibi, stares blankly at the concrete walls of her grimy room as we discuss her daughter. It is a windowless space filled by a bed, a few photographs and some trunks holding the family’s possessions. Baloch “said she wanted to become a model for this village”, Anwar says forlornly.

It must have seemed a wild dream. A young girl from a poor village escaping to a glamorous world dominated by the sophisticates of Karachi and Lahore – especially after she was married off, aged 18, to a cousin, Aashiq Hussain. The couple had a son, Mishal, in 2009. Baloch would later describe her husband as a “savage man” and claim he had beaten her. He denies this.

“She resisted marrying Aashiq, but her father forced her to,” her mother says. “She was always angry, and I thought she would never forgive us.”

Hussain, now 32 and a small-time farmer, describes his former wife as a “very simple girl, just like all the others in the village”, but one who became increasingly obsessed with television dramas. “I was a poor man who could hardly afford two meals a day,” he says, “and she had big dreams. She was thirsty for fame, and wanted me to get her a house in a city. When I couldn’t, she decided to make her own way.”

One night in 2009, Baloch and her son went missing. Hussain later discovered she had moved to a women’s shelter in Multan, where residents lived in decrepit, overcrowded rooms, on appalling food rations. It was a time of extreme hardship, and Mishal was often unwell.

With her parents refusing to support her, Baloch eventually concluded she had no choice but to return her son to her husband. She hoped one day to earn enough to take him back, but Hussain never let her see the boy again.

Baloch’s parents at home in Shah Sadar Din in Punjab. Photograph: Asim Tanveer/AP

Baloch’s actions were seen as a grievous wound to her family’s honour. Had she been murdered at that point, her case might even have been regarded as unremarkable: in Pakistan, hundreds of so-called “honour” killings of women by male relatives take place each year. Women have been killed for doing no more than looking at another, unrelated man. According to Shah, one of Baloch’s brothers did threaten to kill her at that time.

Disowned by her family, what Baloch did next isn’t clear. Her father says he occasionally talked to her in secret on the telephone, but is otherwise unforthcoming. For a while, she is said to have been a hostess on one of the coaches that ply Pakistan’s highways, handing out snacks to passengers.

Baloch herself usually dodged journalists’ questions about her past, or claimed she had lived a middle-class life in Islamabad – all the while insisting she had nothing to hide. “Everyone knows me,” she told the BBC Urdu TV channel shortly before she was killed. “I’m not a fake person.”

What is clear is that in 2012, aged 22, Baloch found herself in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial and media capital. She was about to pull off an extraordinary reinvention.

***

At first, Baloch looked to traditional media for her big break. Determined to make her soap opera dreams come true, she landed a series of minor parts in dramas produced by state broadcaster PTV.

“She had some small roles in television,” her mother recalls. “I would tell her that I only get public television in my house: ‘Do something for public TV, so I can see you. Also, make sure it airs at 8pm – that’s when I have power in my house.’”

In December 2014, Baloch auditioned in Lahore for a place on Pakistan Idol, the TV talent contest, but suffered a mocking rejection by judges unimpressed by her high-pitched warbling. She later claimed the episode was a “planted and fake audition, just a publicity stunt”.

Her posts were a subversion of her country’s cultural norms. She twerked, filmed herself in the bath, danced in a bikini

By now Baloch, like the rest of the country, was discovering social media, where she could reach a huge audience without worrying about pleasing the TV establishment. More than 60% of Pakistan’s 180 million population are under 30 and, courtesy of cheap smartphones, they were flooding online. Baloch realised she could make an impact presenting whatever image of herself she liked.

Her Facebook posts and videos were an extreme subversion of her country’s cultural norms. She twerked for the camera, filmed herself taking a bath, and danced in a bikini. For every delighted fan, there were 100 furious trolls calling her a whore who deserved to die, but still Baloch attracted followers in droves, and it wasn’t all about sex. Many female fans were charmed by the comic goofiness of her videos. An early viral hit, the How I’m Looking? selfie, was a 20-second clip in which Baloch, standing in a crowded place, fishes for compliments from a man standing behind her:

“How I’m looking?” she asks.

“Marvellous,” the man assures her.

“Just marvellous?” she snaps back.

The videos look slapdash, but were carefully contrived. According to Junaid Qasi, a digital branding consultant who worked with Baloch in the last months of her life, she would write scripts, discuss ideas and keep filming retakes until she was completely happy she had created something that would go viral. And she was always looking out for news events and “hot trends” to exploit.

Her growing social media profile presented modest money-making opportunities. In 2014, a cooking oil company and a film distributor started paying her to plug their products on her Facebook page. She appeared in pop videos. But it was nothing like enough to support her increasingly expensive lifestyle, which included a rented flat in an upmarket area of Karachi, a maid and a car.

In Pakistan’s male-dominated media circles, it was widely assumed Baloch must also be working as an escort. Baloch was never confronted with these claims, but in the BBC Urdu interview she said she had deliberately focused on social media to avoid the sleaze of modelling. “I think you know what type of people are sitting in showbiz and how they misuse the girls, making indirect offers and asking to join them at parties,” she said.

Social media gave Baloch the stardom she craved. Photograph: Facebook/@realqandeelbaloch

Qasi says Baloch received help managing her Facebook page from a group of bloggers based in India, a country she dreamed of conquering. These mysterious bloggers allegedly posted some material on her behalf, including feminist calls to arms that never sounded convincing to long-time Baloch watchers. “She knew nothing about feminism,” says the rock singer Mufti. “She was an innocent, and clueless of the cultural significance of what she was doing by posting a lot of sleaze.”

***

By the end of 2015, Baloch’s dreams appeared to be coming true. Named one of the 10 most Googled people in Pakistan, she now had hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers – boosted by stunts such as a televised visit to the house of Imran Khan, the country’s former cricket captain turned opposition party leader.

When Khan announced the end of his short-lived second marriage in October 2015, Baloch launched a campaign to become the third Mrs Khan. She turned up in front of his house – and the broadcast vans parked outside – to beg Khan to marry her. Every TV station in the country cut live to this impromptu press conference, held by a strange figure wearing aviator sunglasses and asking for help to climb into the politician’s home. “I truly love Imran Khan,” she told reporters. “I am ready to do anything if you’ll help me over this wall.”

Baloch’s matrimonial efforts proved unsuccessful, but she was fast establishing herself as a mainstream media personality, appearing on chatshows and even high-profile news programmes. Meanwhile, her social media pronouncements became more controversial. In February 2016, she published a Valentine’s video message that denounced “idiot and moron politicians” for trying to block the day’s festivities.

“She was a Pakistani woman who genuinely did not give a shit and called the rest of society out on its hypocrisy,” Mufti says. “Every time someone called her shameful, she demanded to know: ‘Then why are you watching my videos?’”

For popularity, you need to take off clothes. To become popular and famous, you need to act strange

Abid Khan, the events organiser who appeared in her How I’m Looking? selfie, says Baloch set out to emulate two other women, Mathira Mohammad and Veena Malik, who also became famous by defying cultural expectations. “She watched them on YouTube and started copying them,” Khan says. “They were her role models.”

Mohammad, a Karachi-based model, first got noticed presenting a late-night phone show called Love Indicator. Though tame by western standards, her revealing tops and flirtatious banter were enough for her to be accused of vulgarity. Malik, an actor, scandalised the country when she posed nude on the front cover of Indian FHM in 2011, one arm painted with the letters “ISI” – the acronym of Pakistan’s infamous military spy agency.

“But those other girls had the support of their families,” Qasi says. “It wasn’t the general public that killed Qandeel, it was her own family.”

When Baloch made the striptease offer to the national cricket team in March 2016, Qasi and his colleagues warned her she was going too far. “But she never listened. She only wanted fame.”

Some of Baloch’s rivals were unimpressed, too. When Mathira called her “cheap” during a joint appearance on daytime TV, Baloch hit back with what might have been her personal manifesto. “For popularity, you need to take off clothes,” she said. “For popularity, strip dance is necessary. Everything is necessary. To become popular and famous, you need to act strange.”

***

The money Baloch was making hastened a family reconciliation. She offered her parents a chance to escape Shah Sadar Din, renting them a house in Multan and paying their living expenses.

Then she revealed her hotel meeting with Qavi and interest in her exploded. Her former husband told the media she had walked out on him and their son. She responded that she had left an unhappy, forced marriage in which she was beaten. With the clamour around her at fever pitch, her situation was becoming dangerous. On 28 June, she appealed to Pakistan’s interior minister for police protection. There was no response.

The Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr was fast approaching, but Baloch was lying low. She decided not to join her parents at home in Multan, then changed her mind at the last minute, concluding it had become too unsafe to remain in Karachi.

She was tense when she arrived in early July, for once fully concealed in a niqab rather than wearing her normal jeans. “She stayed in the house, but was very frightened and asked us to keep the lights off,” her mother recalls. “I kept on asking her, ‘Are you in danger?’ She said, ‘No, Ma, I’m not.’”

Shah claims the family were aware of the risk posed by Baloch’s brother Waseem, who is said to have been particularly outraged by her behaviour. The pair had previously had a good relationship, the lawyer suggests, talking regularly on the phone. But a few days after Baloch returned home, Waseem is said to have turned up at her parents’ house in Multan and threatened to kill her.

His mother says she gave him the money to return to Shah Sadar Din, only for Baloch to call and ask him to come back. In an attempt to win him round, Baloch told him she would help him find a wife – and the ploy seemed to work. When Waseem returned, he was apparently no longer angry, and prepared sweet milk for all to enjoy after dinner. It was, he later said, laced with sleeping pills; soon, the whole family had turned in for an early night.

The following morning, Baloch’s lifeless body was discovered by her mother. “When I woke up, I was sweating a lot,” Anwar says. “I stood up, but my head was heavy and my vision blurry. I walked supported by these walls, calling Qandeel to wake her up for breakfast… I lifted the blanket from her face, but she was no more in this world. I was terrified. I screamed in horror.”

***

As often happens in “honour” killing cases, the alleged killer appeared unrepentant. After he was arrested and paraded in front of news cameras, Waseem said, “Yes, I killed her last night. Strangled her to death… I am not ashamed of killing her.”

By way of explanation, he told the assembled press: “She was doing videos on Facebook and dishonouring the family name… [And there was] that cleric’s issue; our house was sieged by the media. Before, it wasn’t like that.”

Baloch’s brother, Waseem Azeem, under arrest for her murder in July 2016. Photograph: Asim Tanveer/AP

Waseem may have been hoping to receive forgiveness from his family. Under “blood money” laws derived from sharia, murderers can be absolved of their crimes if their victim’s relatives forgive them. The provision has helped fuel the epidemic of “honour” killings in Pakistan. But in an unusual move, the local police ruled this particular crime was “non-compoundable”, making it harder for a forgiveness deal to be agreed.

The publicity surrounding the case has since led to a change in the law, toughening the punishment for “honour” crimes. Now, even if a killer is forgiven, he will have to serve a life sentence – although he can be spared execution.

The preliminaries for Waseem Azeem’s trial began in January, but it is likely to grind forward only slowly. His cousin, Haq Nawaz, was also charged with murder, while two other men were charged with conspiracy to murder and “facilitation”. All four have pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to their defence counsel, Sardar Zafar Ahmed.

Baloch’s parents would later change their story to exonerate another son, Aslam Shaheen, who they had initially claimed was an accomplice to the murder. In January, police filed charges against them, too, claiming they had been bribed to change their testimony. But they remain adamant that Waseem is guilty of killing their daughter.

Mullah Qavi, meanwhile, has expressed no regret over Baloch’s death. While he insists he is a liberal who supports the reform of “honour” killing laws, he suggested her murder was a sign of God’s displeasure – and a message to others.

She came to embody the lingering chasm between our social media and our social reality

“She made fun of Imran Khan, Shahid Afridi and the Pakistan cricket team, and no one said anything,” he told me last year, sitting on the floor of a grubby classroom in his seminary in Multan. “But when you insult a scholar, you see the reaction. [Baloch] said she had 700,000 followers, but when she died hardly 100 people attended her funeral prayer. This is because people respect muftis [scholars], and she disrespected me.”

Pakistan’s liberal-minded press, and several leading politicians, did express horror at Baloch’s death. The Friday Times devoted its front page to the country’s “candle in the wind”: “A talented, self-made artiste who tested the limits of our sensibilities, and who came to embody, in her colourful life and terrible death, the lingering chasm between our social media and our social reality.”

On the internet, the ugliness of that social reality was plain: “Qandeel Baloch was a disgrace tbh, brother did well,” read one of the thousands of disparaging tweets after her death.

Even some leading activists were not quite sure what to make of Baloch. While condemning the killing, Tahira Abdullah, a veteran human rights campaigner, said her provocations were a sign that she was “a very disturbed young woman”.

As for Baloch’s parents, their life in Multan came to an abrupt end after her death. Their daughter’s killing has thrown them back into the poverty of Shah Sadar Din, and the dusty compound they share with 25 members of their extended family. Her father says he has no intention of pardoning his son: “I cannot forgive him. I want him to be shot dead in front of my eyes.” Now he claims he was never upset by or ashamed of Qandeel’s videos: “She was a very brave girl, and it was her bravery that made her famous. If she had not taken risks, she would not have become famous.”

• Additional reporting by Saad Khan.

o o o

SEE ALSO:

The life, death and impact of Pakistan’s working-class icon Qandeel Baloch, killed in 2016 after becoming a social media celebrity. This film tells Qandeel’s story through her own videos and media appearances. A young, fearless woman who collided with Pakistan’s mainstream media, Qandeel exposed the religious right and challenged middle-class morality. From her life before stardom in a rural village to her early days in entertainment as a model and actor, Qandeel gained attention by making provocative web videos. We get to know Qandeel through her family, admirers and those she interacted with and inspired. The film also analyses her life through the lens of class and power politics and connects it to women’s continuing struggle for self-expression in Pakistan.

Directors and producers: Saad Khan and Tazeen Bari Editor: Caterina Monzani Executive producers for the Guardian: Charlie Phillips and Lindsay Poulton Commissioned by the Guardian and Bertha Foundation

P.S.

The above article from The Guardian is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use