Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch – a 25 year-old from the Punjabi town of Kot Addu – achieved immense fame as a controversial and provocative internet figure who flaunted social norms of her home country. Her flirtatious and sexualized online postings may seem innocuous to many, especially when compared to the even more outlandish acts of US pop stars. But for Baloch it amounted to a cultural protest in a region known for social conservatism and opposition to women’s rights.
Her digital protest, according to authorities, is the reason her brother gave for strangling her to death on July 15.
In what has been labeled an honor killing – or a murder justified by one family member through a perceived social dishonor committed by another member – Baloch’s death has shined a spotlight on a cultural phenomenon that threatens the most basic human rights of women across the globe.
In 2015, Pakistan ranked second-to-last on a World Economic Forum list of countries for gender equality. Pakistan is listed among the nations with the highest rate of honor killings, with as many as 1,000 per year. While honor-based killings can stem from feuds between families and relate to a variety of issues, they very frequently affect women, and arise from sex-related justifications. Women in countries including Afghanistan even face the threat of honor killings if they are victim to rape.
Baloch’s brother discussed his own justification for his act to police: “Girls are born to stay at home and follow traditions. My sister never did that.”
Having referred to herself as a “modern day feminist,” Baloch adopted a political mantle on behalf of a younger generation of urbanized Pakistanis who see a more open future. While her death is beyond tragic, it won’t stop the social progress of younger generations.
As Pakistani columnist Rafia Zakaria argues,
They’ve silenced her in a very public way to function as a deterrent. But when you consider the fact that there are millions of Qandeels out there sitting on their computers at night, in Karachi and Lahore and Multan, it’s only a matter of time before there’s going to be more and more of this.
Indeed, Baloch’s social media persona won’t just go away, and neither will the open minds of many of her followers.