Although it’s been over a week since the murder of the outrageous social media celebrity known as Qandeel Baloch, and much has been written about her and her death, the very tragic nature of her real story continues to haunt me.
The glamorous young woman of Instagram and YouTube turned out to be a mere facade. The well turned out, elaborately made up and well-coiffed woman, with all her sexual innuendo and her risqué broadcasts, was revealed as a disadvantaged girl from a poor area of south Punjab. Her social media broadcasts gave little indication of her humble beginnings or the tremendous odds she must have battled in her rise to fame.
The woman who was such a star on social media (over 46,000 Twitter followers and over one million ‘friends’ on Facebook) was killed by her brother, in the house where her parents were staying. This was a house in Multan that she paid the rent on so that her elderly father could receive the medical treatment that she was paying for.
Subsequent to her murder, much was written and much was said about the broader issue of (so-called) honour killings and about the nature of her celebrity, and whether or not her work or brazenness could be classified as in any way as feminist in its assertion of sexual power.
The whole discussion of the life and death of Fauzia Azeem aka ‘Qandeel Baloch’ began to be framed in a discourse on honour killing and feminism. But that actually was not the real story — although certainly a part of the story.
This girl’s story is about her journey from poverty and oppression to a form of self-determination and financial betterment that was made possible by the voyeuristic nature of social media. She re-invented herself, developed a bold and shocking persona that gained her a huge following, and was savvy enough to know what to use as material, and when. Indeed, her productions seem to reveal both a canny news sense and an impressive ability to read the public mood in terms of topicality and demand. She was totally outrageous, shameless in her attention-seeking.
And she was an enigma — nobody really knew who she was or where she came from.
Alas, as her true story began to come to light, her media persona began to fall apart. Poverty, forced marriage, motherhood, initial work as a bus hostess, unsuccessful attempts to enter the world of show biz— all revealed her as all too human — and vulnerable. She was no longer the one who was in control of her image, no longer a powerful performer; she was just a poor girl with pretensions, a failure in her attempts to make it big in the world of modelling or acting.
There is certain poignancy to be found in the fact that this girl —who actually did a pretty good job of acting out a fictitious character — was unable to get a break in television drama. Even more so when you consider that although most TV drama productions today seem to focus extensively on female oppression and social disadvantage, the roles of poverty-stricken, disadvantaged characters are inevitably played by upper middle class actresses. Even the role of a Fauzia Azeem couldn’t be played by a Fauzia Azeem.
One of her last broadcasts was her outrageous tryst with a mullah from the Ruet-e-Hilal committee, which was hilarious in its exposure of how much the cleric seemed to be in her thrall and enjoying her attentions. And she would probably have gotten away with that had she been a star with some social standing or a wealthy family, instead of just a girl of poor stock.
When I looked at ‘Qandeel Baloch’, I saw a shameless attention-seeker, a self-publicist with no great claim to fame. But now when I regard the story of Fauzia Azeem, I see an immensely courageous person who tried her best to rise from poverty and disadvantage, and who was obstructed at every turn by the hurdles of both class and gender. Yes, her death had to do with the deep seated misogyny of Pakistani society but it had as much to do with social oppression and class. The point is not whether she was a “feminist icon” or a “role model for women”; the point is she did the best she could despite immense disadvantages.
Despite the tragic nature of her story, one is filled with admiration for her ambition and her courage, and for the fact that, even at the peak of her celebrity, she continued to support her family.