Qandeel Baloch: Exposing patriarchy in death
A foot in high heels enters the frame, then another, followed by pink tights and a sleeveless green top. Wearing round-rimmed sunglasses with her long straight hair falling at the middle of her back. she sways and frolics her way up the stairs. Her name flashes on the screen along with the logo of Pakistan Idol.
She stumbles repeatedly as judges on the show direct her to a circle on the floor where she is supposed to stand and perform. When she sings, she is off-key. The judges exchange amused, awkward glances and reject her. She throws a tantrum, wailing loudly without shedding a single tear, and refuses to leave the stage. One of the judges escorts her out, only to let her continue her snivelling in front of cameras in the anteroom. A video of the episode goes viral on the Internet.
This is how Qandeel Baloch first surfaced as a social media sensation.
Her Pakistan Idol audition took place in 2013. A year later, Qandeel was interviewed by a private television channel. When the host asked her about the audition, she was unabashed. "I charged [Pakistan Idol] to make the appearance. It was a publicity stunt," she said. "Reality shows aren't as real as people think."
Model and television host Mathira was also present during the interview. She called Qandeel's revelations "unprofessional" — something that maligned a big music platform. Qandeel said she saw nothing wrong in talking about what she called an acting project. She was brought to the show to attract viewers through humour, she said.
She batted her heavily lined eyes as she pointedly referred to Mathira and asked if it was okay to "discard your clothes" or "do nude shoots" or "share inappropriate pictures on social media" to gain popularity. If that was okay then appearing as a hired prop in a reality show and talking openly about it should also be okay, she seemed to suggest.
When Qandeel was asked at another show if Mathira was her inspiration, she shrugged her shoulders and retorted, ''Why should I follow a low-profile artist like Mathira?"
In August 2015, Qandeel was modelling at a cultural show in Islamabad. After the show, the car that was to take her to the hotel broke down and a local reporter, Ahmed Subhan, was requested by the organisers to drop her. In the car, she told him in her usual free-spirited manner that she was in no mood to return to the hotel and would love to grab some samosas before going back to her room. They drove off to do just that.
The ride became the starting point of the friendship between Qandeel and Subhan. They would regularly stay in touch on the phone afterwards.
When Subhan visited Karachi in March 2016, the two saw each other multiple times. One day they decided to go together to a shisha bar that had recently opened near her apartment. Qandeel went there in simple clothes, without wearing any make-up. When at the bar, someone asked her if she was the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. That scared her so much that she hid behind Subhan and told him to leave immediately — her 'bold' persona suddenly left her.
Who was the real Qandeel? The loudmouth on television or the young girl scared of being recognised in public? Subhan insists Qandeel was neither a vamp nor a coy temptress. She was just an "entertainer".
Except that Qandeel was not sure about that.
"I am a singer," she declared in her 2014 interviews; that changed to being an actor and model in 2015. Only in 2016 did she start referring to herself as an entertainer.
The 2012 show was titled Living on the Edge. It was one of those reality shows in which participants are asked to do unimaginably daring acts. Its host and director was Waqar Zaka who has carved a name for himself in the genre. Qandeel was one of the participants.
At one point during the show, Zaka dared Qandeel to walk up to a boy standing outside a popular mall in Karachi and slap him. She did exactly that without flinching.
But Qandeel wanted to sing. She asked Zaka for help. He recalls arranging an audition for her at a religious channel so that she could recite naats. She did not do well at the audition, says Zaka.
She continued looking for small showbiz projects but found none for months. She later claimed in interviews that she was acting and modelling all that while, though none of her work from that time was broadcast or published.
In May 2013, she appeared in a PTV Home drama, Muhabbat Weham Hai, produced in Lahore under the direction of Zulfiqar Ali. Qandeel played the side character of a sweet, soft-spoken girl — a forgettable role that nevertheless helped her make friends in showbiz, including Muhammad Shafique, another television director with whom she worked in a play, Lamhon ki Bhool. He often shared her work on his personal social media pages. She appeared in Pakistan Idol the same year.
In 2014, Qandeel appeared in another reality television series, Desi Kuriyan. The series involved 12 girls from the city, living in a village where they carried out day-to-day tasks along with other villagers. In her jeans and t-shirt, Qandeel would knead flour, dig trenches and sweep courtyards.
She was eliminated after a few episodes but returned later as a wild-card entry. By that time she had figured out what would keep her in the competition.
In one episode, she was made to climb a tree as punishment and was told to sing constantly while other contestants cleaned the space they were living in. As she sat atop the tree, she dedicated songs to each participant — poking fun at their height, complexion and features.That upset her competitors but the audience liked her wit and sassiness.
She made it to the finale in which the contestants canvassed for the villagers' votes. Qandeel shook men's hands and patted their backs; she hugged little children and engaged in conversation with women. Then she made a surprise move — "vote for me; don't vote for [the other girl]; she is fat," she announced on a loudspeaker.
A local girl stood up to her and said that calling someone fat was not the right way to talk about someone. Qandeel instantly apologised.
Punjabi film actor Laila was the "fat girl". She went on to win the particular season of Desi Kuriyan. During the course of its recording, Laila became friends with Qandeel, who later went to live with Laila in Lahore, says Qandeel's father Muhammad Azeem.
Zaka claims it was he who gave Qandeel the idea of making selfie videos and releasing them on social media. Most of the videos she shared on social media in 2014 showed her serenading a melody. She was not musical but she was sensual, and she knew how to toy with the camera. She also tagged producers and hosts of private channels when she uploaded those videos on Facebook. That got her some television interview invitations as an upcoming singer.
Her first full-length video – in which she danced to a song – appeared online in early 2015. Titled Touch of a Lady, it accentuated the image she had been cultivating through her selfie videos — a girl willing to stretch the boundaries of what was acceptable behaviour on camera.
As the year progressed, singing took a back seat in her videos. She lip-synced while doing some dance moves, but mostly she was flicking her hair and batting her eyes at the camera, with her lips parted and her body in varying degrees of undress. These videos garnered thousands of likes and followers.
She took another audacious step in August 2015 when she uploaded a video of her talking into the camera while giving social media users a tour of her personal space. When she uploaded a similar video from a chairlift in Murree, the camera veered a little to reveal the arm and leg of a man accompanying her. Her followers wondered who she was with.
Soon came out another video of her with a man — an Islamabad-based event coordinator known in cyberspace as Mec Khan. Wearing her trademark sunglasses and a black hood covering her head, she flicked her lip with her thumb and asked "How 'em lookin'?" "Marvellous," responded the man standing behind her in yellow. The video went viral. Her utterance became one of the most trolled quotes of 2015.
A video she uploaded online in November 2015 showed her singing the Hollywood romantic song Bohat pyar kartay hain tum sey sanam. Many thought it was just one of her usual releases but just before the video ended, she proposed to Imran Khan and dedicated the song to him.
A private channel subsequently did a segment in which a camera followed Qandeel as she stood outside Imran Khan's residence in Lahore. All this came at a time when his divorce from Reham Khan had just been announced. Qandeel had developed a nose for news and a knack for using it to her advantage. Subhan says she would often call him to ask about the most trending news or upcoming news events. She would later tailor her videos in light that information.
During the ICC World Twenty20 in March 2016, for instance, she uploaded a video, saying she would do a "striptease" for Shahid Afridi if Pakistan won the tournament. Released in the context of a big international cricketing event, the video managed to attract a huge audience.
In a July 2016 interview, Qandeel revealed that another cricketer, Umar Akmal, had gotten in touch with her, requesting her to address the offer to him. If this is true, then it was reflective of how she had become so popular that even a cricket star saw merit in being the centre of her attention.
Qandeel knew well that on the flip side of her online popularity lay ridicule and reproach for her video appearances, but she stuck to the narrative that the fault lay in the eye of the beholder.
Amna Chaudhry, a young social commentator who wrote a newspaper piece in March 2016, titled How I became friends with Qandeel Baloch, explains Qandeel's views: people could choose not to watch the videos if they so abhorred her. The videos were not being released on television, Chaudhry says. Those who were watching the videos were making all the effort to look them up, she adds.
A bombshell of a video came in June 2016 when Qandeel posted the recording of her encounter with a Multan-based religious scholar, Mufti Abdul Qavi. The video showed the two sitting close to each other in a hotel room; in one scene, she donned his karakul cap and in another she could be seen closing the window curtains.
In a subsequent television interview, she accused Qavi of making sexual advances towards her. Many saw the episode as part of her attention-seeking efforts; many others believed she was unveiling hypocrisy. Whatever her actual motive, Qandeel certainly crossed some class and power boundaries through her video with Qavi, breaking rules about interaction between men of religion and a certain subset of women that she was seen as part of. If nothing else, she did blur those margins.
Qavi soon met with the consequences of his laxity. He lost his membership of both the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, a government body assigned to announce the appearance of the new moon every month, and National Ulema and Mashaikh Council, an association of senior clerics and spiritual leaders.
A few days later, he would also face charges of threatening her and conspiring to kill her.
By the summer of 2016, Qandeel had become a social media star, as big as any other in Pakistan — perhaps even bigger. But who really was she?
Her comments about her family seemed well rehearsed — that her father and brother were in the army. It was an easy-to-accept narrative, one that did not invite further queries. Malik Azam, a journalist working with Daily Pakistan's Multan edition, would soon shatter that carefully created persona.
In June 2016, he met an old friend. The two had attended college together. As their conversation progressed, Qandeel's name came up and Azam's friend disclosed that she came from the same small village in Dera Ghazi Khan district where he came from. "She got married in front of me," he is said to have revealed. She was not known as Qandeel Baloch then — she was called Fauzia Azeem.
Azam confirmed the information by getting hold of her Computerised National Identity Card and passport, submitted to a Multan court that was hearing a case against her — for giving the Baloch a bad name and also maligning and insulting Qavi. On June 23, Daily Pakistan's Multan edition published his scoop — carrying Qandeel's real name and disclosing that she belonged to a tiny dusty village, Chah Mahray Wala, adjacent to Shah Saddar Din town situated on the Indus Highway between Dera Ghazi Khan and Taunsa.
The story also revealed that she was a divorcee and the mother of a six-year-old boy. Mainstream media wasted little time in picking up the story. Hamid Mir, a Geo Television anchorperson followed by nearly 2.9 million people on Twitter, tweeted on June 24: "Qandeel's Cinderella story: She is not a Baloch her real name is Fauzia Azeem she is dishonouring Baloch people."
This was then retweeted many hundred times (though Mir deleted it later). Suddenly, Qandeel was all over television and newspapers — this time as Fauzia Azeem. But she refused to be seen as a liar and instead painted herself as a strong woman who ran away from a married life full of abuse. "As women we must stand up for ourselves ... As women we must stand up for each other ... As women we must stand for justice. I believe I am a modem-day feminist. I believe in equality," she tweeted.
That suddenly gave her a new audience — one that had shunned, even spumed, her until then. The same journalists who at one point had mocked and censured her, now began to write about her, calling her a symbol of female empowerment.
How did she manage an instant image transformation — from being someone who would publicly slut-shame other women like Mathira and Veena Malik to someone who called herself a "self-dependent woman" urging women to have each other's back? This is one of those social-media mysteries that make little sense while they are in the making and look even more puzzling after they are gone. "Qandeel wasn't saying don't talk [badly] about women; she was just saying don't talk like that about me," is how Chaudhry explains it.
Muhammad Azeem belongs to a poor Baloch clan living in Chah Mahray Wala. He married twice, fathering four daughters from his first marriage and six sons and three daughters – including Fauzia Azeem aka Qandeel Baloch – from the second.
"My biggest mistake was to marry Qandeel off to one of my wife's relatives," he says in an interview in his village.
Her former husband, Aashiq Hussain, lives in Kot Addu, a town in the nearby Muzaffargarh district. Her life was miserable in the joint family of her in-laws, says Azeem, a limping man in his seventies. "She delivered a baby boy but could not save her marriage." Her husband would beat her up for refusing to go out to pluck mangoes with him. She came back to her parents twice, complaining about her mistreatment, but each time Azeem "persuaded her to go back to her husband".
When Hussain hit her again, she fled to Darul Aman, a government-run shelter in Multan, taking her son with her. That was in 2010.
She returned to her parents four years later. She was living in Rawalpindi then and was doing mountain biking, Azeem says. "She apologised for her disappearance," says her mother.
Azeem later allowed his youngest son Muhammad Waseem and daughter Shehnaz to go see her in Rawalpindi. "Qandeel gave 30,000 rupees to Waseem to open a shop and arranged for Shehnaz's admission in a beautician training class," her mother adds. "She also purchased the entire dowry for her other sister's wedding."
When Qandeel started visiting her village regularly, the villagers, even some members of her family, did not approve of her dress and demeanor. "Once her brother Muhammad Saleem took out a gun to kill her, accusing her of bringing a bad name to their family," says their neighbour and family friend Mehboob Dasti. She had to take refuge in Dasti's house to escape the wrath of her brother.
The next morning, Qandeel told her parents that she would not visit the village again. She would meet them only if they shifted elsewhere, Dasti quotes her as saying. Her parents then started living in a house she rented for them in Muzaffarabad locality, on the outskirts of Multan.
A few days after the story about Qandeel's identity was published, she received a call from the organisers of Pakistan's largest style awards for an opening sequence at the award's upcoming edition. She was supposed to pair with famed musician-actor Ali Zafar. She instantly agreed. That was a giant leap.
In 2010, Fauzia Azeem was a 19-year-old recently divorced mother, with no means to support her small child. She was staying in Darul Aman where her son was constantly unwell. Unable to take care of him, she took a drastic decision and let her husband have him. She would never see the boy again.
Ayoub Khan, an official of the social welfare department who worked at Darul Aman, came to her help, says her father. He got her a job as a receptionist at a private hospital. Her second job was that of a bus hostess with a private transport company.
She moved to Karachi in 2012 where she initially stayed with her relatives. The rest, as they say, is history. In July 2016, a music video, titled Ban, was released on the Internet. It featured Qandeel performing suggestive dance moves to the singing of Aryan Khan.
"BAN Video getting awesome response from all over the World. Thanks Supporters for Your Unconditional Love <3 <3," she tweeted on July 15.
Qandeel was found dead the following morning in a bedroom of her parents' house in Multan, where she had gone to visit them. Her brother Waseem had also come to Multan from their village a day earlier. He was not in the house when her parents found her dead.
Everyone instantly suspected that he had killed Qandeel. "My brutal son not only ended her beautiful life but also buried our peaceful and prosperous future along with her dead body," says Azeem.
Police raided their village the same day and arrested Waseem. "Girls are born to stay home," he was reported by the media as saying. "I am proud of what I did ... She was bringing dishonour to our family."
This was originally published in the Herald's January 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.