The murder of model-celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, has become more of a moral dilemma for the political liberals than the blame-the-victim conservatives. This is because unlike the other recent murders of celebrities and artists, Qandeel’s murder involves the uncomfortable issue of sexuality.
There are two vagaries in liberal commentary on cases such as Qandeel’s. The first is the cliché that honour crimes are “senseless” and can only be fixed by legal reform. The second is a generic one that followed the murders of Sabeen Mahmud and more recently, Amjad Sabri, suggesting that their deaths were motivated by a metaphoric revenge by religious extremism against the arts and humanities.
Qandeel’s murder is literally just that, a murder, but her unnatural death makes complete sense because it is in continuation of the historic and routine act of eliminating female bodies that are defiant of the male-defined socio-sexual order. The more threatening that fitna-potent women in Muslim contexts are, the more chances that they will be physically eliminated to prevent rupture of the order. Under such logic and as claimed by Mufti Qavi, Qandeel’s murder makes complete sense.
Women’s rights activists have responded by repeating their demands from the broader campaigns against honour crimes. But these demands only attend to one half of the issue. Renaming ‘honour’ crimes and reforming the Qisas and Diyat law that extends impunity to the criminal are only half-important. This will not protect potential victims because shaming or even punishing the actual criminal-murderer will not change what is considered to be the victim’s crime — that is, her independent sexuality and choice in expressing it.
If we are unhappy with the current state of such crimes, we need to challenge the base logic that gives women identities as symbols or properties of families. We need to dispel the romance of how secure women are in ‘our culture’ as opposed to Western individualism. We need to quit fetishising women’s ‘modesty’ and oppose infantilising legal norms that appoint men as our guardians, heads of households or prime custodians of children and property.
Most critically, we need to cure men (and women) of the fear and loathing of women’s sexuality. ‘Feudals’, ‘maluvis’ and lower-classes do not comprise some exclusive community that is guilty of such thinking — privileged and educated men and women subscribe equally to such an ethos, however well-disguised.
The uncomfortable conversation and campaign that is needed is around the unfashionable feminist one on women’s sexual liberation and freedom to express sexualities. Reforming the Zina law ended the conversion of the victim of a sex-crime into a criminal herself and it is now more difficult to accuse and indict a woman of adultery. But, it still makes the state responsible for governing and controlling sexuality. Heads of households act as extensions of the state and exercise and execute legal regimes in their homes, especially, when they see the state is not doing a good enough job.
It is not an aberration that many women are unsympathetic to Qandeel because of her flaunting sexuality. Women are as susceptible to social conservative thinking and control as men. There’s nothing biological or class-specific about empathy, tolerance and humane thinking — these are values that are taught and learned through worldly rewards and punitive acts.
There’s been a generational shift in women’s rights issues in Pakistan since the Musharraf era. In some ways, Qandeel signified this shift. First, is the significance of her identity. She acquired an affective name, a mobile phone and under an expanding media, became a new-generation professional — something called a ‘social media celebrity’.
Next, she caught the attention and wrath of audiences because she owned and flaunted her sexuality with defiance and abandonment.
Third, she provoked and pushed the boundaries of male-set norms and expectations. She threatened the status quo and, unlike many squeamish women who benefit from feminist progress, Qandeel claimed her ‘modern’ feminist allegiance with little academic anxiety.
Fourth, she arguably had more male supporters than regular Pakistani women’s rights activists or, for that matter, Malala. Despite her mocking of the religious clergy, she was not accused of being a traitor or an ‘Imperialist feminist’ who exposed Muslim male misogyny. But, the PTI does consider women’s sexuality a disease that must be “counseled” with archaic electric shock therapy.
The murders of Mahmud and Sabri may have been motivated by those who considered them guilty of shirk, bida’t or being anti-Islam. And yes, those who create an enabling environment for the extreme act of murdering creative, imaginative and especially, skeptical thinkers are also culpable. But such an anti-progressive milieu has not been exclusively created by fundamentalist or conservative forces.
Censorship of the arts, writing, social and even, the natural sciences has been routine in Pakistan. Proponents of critical thinking have been punished and expelled from relevance systematically. But, liberal thought has been crushed as much within the fraternity itself, through actual and self-censorship, cover-ups and exaggerated self-importance and petty jealousies and ghettoized seminars and conferences. Social media has aided in the neutralising of debates and its members are guilty of remaining silent out of a deep-seated fear of being ‘unfriended’ by one side or another.
So-called supporters of the liberal arts and human rights have enabled opponents by shrinking and limiting liberal space to the virtual world; by mocking the efforts of those who remain active in the field rather than on keyboards and; by carrying a generic cynicism that is all too ready to play victim and is apologetic about the failures of acclaimed liberal political leaders.
They also turn a blind eye to the sexism and misogyny rampant amongst liberal men — the ones who frequent their drawing-rooms. All the ‘extremist’ needs to do then is to pull a trigger because we have collectively contributed to the culture and pattern that mourns online and then moves on to the next blog that needs commentary. Liberals may support sexual freedoms as a lifestyle but they are equivocating, flippant and unsupportive of the politics of women’s sexuality.
War-time Japan used to recruit Comfort Women to gratify the sexual needs of soldiers as part of their national duty. Pakistan needs more women like Qandeel to scale up the discomfort of those privileged hypocrites and morality-mongers who fear sexual women more than its murderous men.