This is what we know about Qandeel Baloch:
She liked the water, she swam. In her videos and photos, she wore the same clothes over and over — a white bathrobe, a pink polka-dot dress. She had a sense of humour.
Her real name was Fauzia Azeem. She was born into a perfectly ordinary, socially conservative family. She married young, had a son. She walked away from that marriage when it didn’t work out. She wanted, in her own words, “to be able to stand on my own two feet, to do something for myself.”
Her Facebook persona, Qandeel Baloch, was followed by practically a million people. She posted pictures on social media that Pakistan deemed ‘bold,’ a term in the nation’s vernacular that has come to signify a certain kind of sexual openness.
All these facts are now overwritten by what happened in the last few hours.
What we now know about Qandeel Baloch is that she is dead, according to police, killed at the hands of a brother who felt he’d been ‘dishonoured.’
At this newspaper, we ran our first story on Qandeel Baloch in October 2015. When we first saw her on social media she was pouting and posing, imploring her audience to answer the question “How I’m looking?” We were amused and intrigued. “Who is this girl?” we wondered.
In the odd way Pakistani culture has of being both accepting of difference (case in point: Ali Saleem successfully ran a talk show which he hosted in drag) and fiercely protective of its imagined purity (case in point: Veena Malik was bashed in 2011 for appearing on the cover of an Indian magazine, sporting little but an ‘ISI’ tattoo), Qandeel was both coveted and reviled.
She was a young woman who clearly didn’t abide by the unspoken rule that in Pakistan, your private self and your public self ought to remain distinct from each other. She blurred that line. Through her photos and videos, she invited us into her bedroom, her bed. She directly addressed the camera and her audience, asking them what they wanted next: a selfie? or something more?
From the comments that appeared under her posts, young men wanted to be with her; they also wanted to snuff her out. Young women were horrified by her ‘immodesty’; they also lauded her for doing exactly as she pleased.
By the end of 2015, via frequent Facebook and Instagram posts, Qandeel had firmly established her place in Pakistan’s burgeoning celebrity landscape. Of course, she wasn’t the first young woman to be crowned the nation’s ‘boldest’ entertainer. Before her, we’ve had Meera, Veena, Mathira and more.
But while they coyly tiptoe around questions of their sexuality, their motivations and their attachments — Qandeel set herself apart by being unabashed about her desire to be a screen siren, somebody who provokes. On a TV show, she proclaimed Sunny Leone was one of her role models. On Instagram, she had no qualms about saying she was sexy.
Though she wasn’t exactly an open book, she was honest about her ambitions.
And as has been proved today, if you’re a woman in Pakistan, ambition can get you killed.
At this newspaper, we followed Qandeel’s short career closely. We reached out to her often. Depending on her mood, she’d either ignore our calls or initiate long, meandering conversations.
As her posts began to be viewed by more people and as she began to be covered by mainstream newspapers, I believe she became aware of her power to deliver certain messages about being female in Pakistan. Around this time, I began to see Qandeel as a burgeoning advocate for increasing women’s visibility in Pakistan.
And so, we ran pieces questioning why Pakistanis harboured so much hate for Qandeel. And I got a lot of flak for giving her so much coverage. A few days ago, one commentator asked me something along the lines of: “You’re covering Qandeel so much, what’s next, reporting from a brothel?”
All of this criticism made clear what most Pakistanis thought of Qandeel: they’d tolerate her as long as she was nothing but a sex object, because they were titillated. But as soon as she started entertaining them in the name of women’s rights, she was to be condemned.
Earlier this year, it became clear that what Qandeel may have started as a lark was becoming very personal to her. We understood that she had an agenda. She was beginning to understand the significance and reach her fame afforded her, and she seemed to have adopted a narrative of empowerment that would resonate not only with the international community, but also with Pakistan’s more progressive population.
A few days ago, when news of her brief marriage broke, we spoke to her for what would be the last time. She was distraught, but very frank with the writer who called her.
“I am a social media sensation, I am a fashion icon,” she said. “I don’t know how many girls have felt support through my persona. I’m a girl power. So many girls tell me I’m a girl power, and yes, I am.”
I think she was girl power.
Yes, she was evasive, moody, an enigma. But of late, she’d begun to grasp exactly what she stood for. She had opinions about patriarchy, I believe she was educating herself, and not just for fame, but because her life had showed her that the world is a difficult place for women and she wanted to change that.
What we know about Qandeel Baloch is that she was on her way to becoming a cultural icon.
She was a media-savvy ouroboros, consuming yesterday’s image and the response it garnered to construct her persona afresh tomorrow.
She was both a product and a reflection of the precarious state of Pakistan today, where neither liberalism nor conservatism has definitively ousted the other, where women are increasingly visible in the public eye yet are also still murdered with casual nonchalance, where fame may buy you social mobility, but only if you play by the rules of the privileged class.
Some people will accuse the media of lionising her in her death, of retroactively ascribing meaning to her persona, her cause.
I want to make clear that this is precisely the tragedy.
I don’t think Qandeel herself was clear on who she was, what exactly she wanted to represent. Qandeel had only just begun. She had a long way to go, and if she hadn’t been killed for honour, I have no doubt that she would’ve gone very far.
In one of her last posts, Qandeel said: “As women we must stand up for ourselves. As women we must stand up for justice. I believe I am a modern day feminist… I am just a women with free thoughts free mindset and I LOVE THE WAY I AM.”
Today, I type her name into a search bar, click through her Facebook posts. Her dark eyes and feline brows interrogate my motivation.
“Did you stand up for me?” they ask. “Did you do everything you could?”
That’s the question we have to live with now.