Candle in the Wind | Najam sethi Latest column in Friday Times | 22 July 2016
The killing of social media starlet Qandeel Baloch has galvanised Pakistan’s civil society. Her violent and untimely death (she was all of 26) at the hands of her brother has led to outpourings of shock and grief from across our social divisions, and has brought to light a vibrant demographic of young, web-savvy women who look upon self-expression as a fundamental and inalienable right. It’s as if Qandeel, in her brief career as a raging Internet celebrity, had touched the hearts and tickled the fancies but also expanded the imaginations of young Pakistanis.
She was born Fauzia Azeem, one of twelve siblings, into a poor family in Dera Ghazi Khan. Married at 17, she quickly fled her allegedly abusive husband and sought shelter in Darul Aman. Thereafter she held a string of jobs before auditioning in 2013 for the popular TV show Pakistan Idol. In her audition Qandeel Baloch (she had already taken on this enigmatic stage-name) was obviously cast as a “disaster” candidate: her attempts at singing were met with pained expressions on the judges’ faces and were complemented with kooky “coiled-spring” sounds signifying a mechanical error. Though Qandeel went along with the ditzy role ascribed to her by the show’s producers (she tottered in on very high heels and wrung her hands repeatedly), she was keen to make an impact: she was exuberantly dressed, armed with English phrases, and belted out some genuinely melodic notes before being escorted off the stage by one of the judges.
In her subsequent engagements with the public, Qandeel adopted a more radical strategy. Instead of relying on television, she turned to the unregulated and potentially explosive circuitry of Facebook; instead of sticking to a “safe” girl-next-door image, she began to peddle the persona of a faux-naive, helplessly sensual dilettante. Dressed in revealing outfits like tank tops and frocks, she held forth in a cutesy, hiccupping voice on such disparate national obsessions as the dysfunction of Pakistan’s cricket team, the ethics of celebrating Valentine’s Day, and the prospect of her own ardour-filled marriage to Imran Khan, whose surname she deliberately mispronounced, in the way an Indian actress might. All this was interspersed with repeated usage of the word “like”, a trendy American tic, and her simpering renditions of Urdu poetry.
In other words, Qandeel was pitching herself as a new kind of Pakistani entertainer, one who combined humour, fashion, and the modern-day drama of relentless self-documentation with a good deal of titillation; and from the surge in her followers on Facebook, who eventually numbered more than a million, as well as the impassioned and frequently vitriolic comments posted under her videos, it was easy to see how the formula was working. Love her or hate her, you couldn’t ignore Qandeel Baloch.
Alas social media, while quick to give exposure, offers its “stars” none of the protections afforded by traditional mediums such as TV and film; and herein lies a crucial, fatal difference. For while she gained notoriety quickly, Qandeel could not have translated her viewership just as easily into money; nor did she burrow her way into “showbiz” with the backing of powerful patrons.
In the last month of her life, Qandeel exhibited an urgent desire to overcome the limitations of her career as a social media sensation. First she tried to amp up her relevance by taking selfies in a hotel room with Mufti Qavi of the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee; then she put out a risqué music video – again combining provocative images with a sociological subtext – lampooning society’s controls on women’s bodies. According to news reports, she was hoping to parlay the publicity (and liberal goodwill) generated by these stunts into a lucrative gig on Indian reality TV show Big Boss. And all the while she was managing the pressures exerted by her still-provincial family: telling TV anchors she had received death threats from her brothers (whom she supported financially) and declaring that she planned to leave the country with her parents after Eid. (In that last assertion we can sense the swing and ballast of her game plan, a thrilling escape followed by a more secure career as a TV celebrity.)
Sadly, the mores of a moribund society closed in on Qandeel before she could realise her desire for liberation. In the end, while visiting her parents over Eid in Multan, she was strangled to death by one of her brothers, a self-confessed drug addict who later said he had killed her for “bringing dishonour to the Baloch name.” We need not take that statement at face value, and should analyse the deed for all manner of base motivations. But in the meantime we should remember Qandeel Baloch as the first of her kind, 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.