“How I’m looking? Beautiful? Sexy?” asks Qandeel Baloch, smiling suggestively into the camera. Upbeat music introduces her in a video selfie, emoticons flying across – angry, wow, sad, love. We then see six more women all on video selfies. Onscreen text explains how social media in Pakistan has offered spaces for free expression for marginalised groups, including women. But those who challenge gender norms online? There can be a high price.
We are back to Qandeel, who is now wearing a short purple dress, bright red lipstick, her hair stylishly done. She tells her followers that she is 99% sure they hate her, but that she is a 100% sure she doesn’t give a damn. We learn that she had half a million followers on Facebook, that she became a star for posting sexually provocative videos on social media.
And that she was murdered by her brother.
The opening sequence of the short documentary Qandeel, directed by Tazeen Bari and Saad Khan is a powerful prelude to understanding the life and death of Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. The film takes us into the complexities of Qandeel’s life, the context that she came from, her online activism, sexual expression, and what led to her untimely death.
Fouzia Azeem, more popularly known as Qandeel Baloch,was called Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian. Madiha Tahir, a journalist and filmmaker who is interviewed in the documentary,questions this comparison. To quote her: “She (Qandeel) is not Kim Kardashian at all. She is not famous for being rich. An upper-class woman would have her class protection and it’s unlikely that an upper-class woman would be supporting her family from these social media videos.” Class protection. That’s when I got thinking about class, and how that can pivot a person’s freedom, privilege and safety.
Qandeel came from a working-class family. Through her sister’s voice, we learn that their family included six brothers and seven sisters. We see the modest room where Qandeel and her family slept. When a TV first came into their house, it opened up a whole new world for Qandeel. It inspired her to want to get into acting and singing. She wanted to be on TV like the “city girls”. And she did. She moved to the city, changed her name and started pursuing a career in show business.
Why did Qandeel feel it was necessary to change her name before going public? What pushed her to hide her identity? Did she feel it was perhaps safer, and in her best interest, if the world did not know where she came from? There seems to have been a fundamental fear in exposing her working-class background. She needed to protect the small town girl trying to make it big in a very public career. By reconstructing herself as Qandeel, she was able to wield power that was entirely self-built, thereby allowing her the freedom to navigate the media landscape on her own terms.
Despite the backlash she faced for her bold videos and fearless activism, Qandeel unapologetically continued to be herself. In what was considered ‘indecent’ in a conservative society, Qandeel dressed as she pleased, spoke her mind and openly expressed her sexuality online.
Sexuality was a bad word. Qandeel challenged that, using social media as a tool to share her thoughts and desires. She didn’t have the agency to do so in the offline space. The Internet was her weapon to rebel, expose hypocrisy and push sexual boundaries. By claiming a new identity, and having the Internet empower her, she was, in a way, able to fabricate her own class protection.
Until that was taken away from her.
A critical sequence in the film dives right into the turn of events for Qandeel. She meets an Islamic cleric in a hotel room. She takes selfies with him, and calls him out on social media for being a hypocrite. This incident leads to huge criticism against her. The media, tipped off with a lead, leaks Qandeel’s true identity. As soon as this happens, she faces public disapproval for hiding her background,and starts receiving threats to her safety. Disturbed by this turn of events, she decides to go back home to be with her parents. In a moving scene, her mother takes us through the events of that fateful day. It was that night that Qandeel was murdered by her brother. She faced death in the place she thought she was safest–home.
In the eyes of her brother, Qandeel’s expression of her sexuality put her on the low rung of the ‘honour’ spectrum. She brought shame and dishonour to her family. His reasoning, and the plain dark truth of killing his own sister as a reaction to the public outcry against her,is a chilling revelation of a fractured social system. There is undeniably the complexity of religion, gender and power in this equation, but at the root of Qandeel’s death, is class. Her attempts to hide her lack of privilege failed, exposing her to imminent danger. It instantly made her vulnerable to social forces far too powerful to fight.
Would Qandeel still be alive if she had come from a liberal, upper-class family? What could have been the social mechanisms that could have protected her? Why did the media disrespect her and reveal private information? Why did the exposure of her true identity disempower her?And to top all these questions– is the freedom to openly express sexuality determined by class norms?
These are some of the pertinent questions that Tazeen Bari and Saad Khan’s documentary bring up. The film compellingly uses archival footage, expert interviews, audio recordings and social media excerpts to weave Qandeel’s heart-wrenching story. It persuades us to think about the complicated web of conservatism, the fatality of media exposure, the dangers of class dynamics and the personal risk that accompanies the free expression of sexuality.
While Qandeel remains the central subject of the film, it also gives us a glimpse into how numerous other women in Pakistan are claiming online spaces to express themselves. Social media has given them a platform to say and do what they can’t offline. The ugly realities of social dogma persist, yet the struggle to break out of restrictive structures continues to blaze on.
To end with something to think about, I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s quote on freedom and the woman’s situation:
Because of the fact that in woman this freedom remains abstract and empty, it cannot authentically assume itself except in revolt: this is the only way open to those who have no chance to build anything; they must refuse the limits of their situation and seek to open paths to the future. – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex