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A year after Qandeel Baloch

The legacy of Qandeel Baloch is not simply that she flung the doors of debate around Pakistani female sexuality wide open but that she demonstrably exposed the uncomfortable connection between sex and the sham of piety and honour

A year after Qandeel Baloch

In the Indian subcontinent, national identity hangs precariously on three hooks — women’s wardrobes, wombs and, male competitive sport. Nationalism requires the guarding of women’s bodies against external aggression and monopoly over their productive and reproductive capacities.

More than a game, cricket is representative of a shared colonial history, and victory and losses sustain memories of separation, cross-border difference and territorial pride. Exposure of women’s bodies or loss of a cricket match is symbolic of irreparable male shame and betrayal of the nation’s honour.

The recent victory of the Champions Trophy by the Pakistan cricket team over arch-rival India is credited to mass piety and prayers in the holy month of Ramzan. This is in stark contrast to when these teams met in Kolkata last year. That contest became controversial due to the sensational and promiscuous offer by social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch (Fauzia Azeem), who incentivised a Pakistani victory by promising a strip dance if the Islamic Republic beat India.

With one deft pledge, Qandeel subverted the linkages between nation, honour and female purity. She also redefined the South Asian practice of forcibly stripping naked and parading women in order to shame or disgrace them for alleged sexual transgressions.

How do you shame a woman who is proud of her body and offers to publicise her sexuality as a national duty?

Qandeel’s defiant threat-promise sabotaged the male gaze and destabilised sexual politics in the Islamic Republic. But her ingenious impropriety caused confusion and political tension — not just for the pious conservatives but also, for feminists and progressives.

After her brother murdered her, debates about Qandeel reflected unresolved anxiety over sexual politics in Pakistan. Women activists who had themselves been accused of behaving inappropriately as Muslim women — that is, not wearing veils or dupattas, smoking, mixing with men, divorcing and marrying repeatedly — objected that Qandeel was not a good role model. Some felt pity and thought Qandeel’s sexual impropriety was a mental health problem because they consider women’s promiscuity, homosexuality and crossing genders to be biological disorders.

It is women like Qandeel Baloch who expand the arbitrary and gender-discriminatory boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour and redefine feminine agency. More women like her must survive and be supported to change the narrative around sexual independence and gender equality.

Ironically, politically assertive women are valued as productive citizens but sexually assertive women are seen as pollutants and/or victims. Many progressives felt that Qandeel should have been rescued by psychological therapy, if not religious teaching. Apparently, a good role model for Pakistani women is only the abstaining, the asexual or, the maternal kind.

On the other hand, Qandeel’s millennial supporters argued that she turned heteropatriarchy on its head by using the master’s tools (sexual objectification) and by taking control of her sexuality for her own purposes. Despite her mocking of pious Muslim men and the religious clergy, Qandeel was not accused of being a traitor, or an ‘Imperialist feminist’ who exposed Muslim male misogyny.

It is women like Qandeel Baloch who expand the arbitrary and gender-discriminatory boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour and redefine feminine agency. More women like her must survive and be supported to change the narrative around sexual independence and gender equality.

For a long time, feminism has been falsely reduced to a movement of burning bras and commitment for women’s sexual liberation only. Feminism is a political struggle for race, gender and class equality and, while stripping and nudity may not be priority methods for achieving feminist ideals or transforming structural inequalities, to deny sexual politics as the core of feminist philosophy is a bit like saying socialism is about redistributing wealth but stripping away people’s private property is not a key method for this end.

Qandeel shot to fame overnight, gathering a captive online audience — largely male — for her erotic posts that won explosive ‘likes’ but also spiteful comments within hours. Her provocative online performances had simultaneously fixated and repelled male viewers. It is interesting how, in the industries of politics, sport and entertainment, Pakistanis can virtually ‘like’ but in real life, hatefully reject the same personality. Qandeel’s claims of feminist empowerment made her a very different kind of threat — the kind that deliberately combines sex and politics.

How do you shame a woman who is proud of her body and offers to publicise her sexuality as a national duty?

How do you shame a woman who is proud of her body and offers to publicise her sexuality as a national duty?

Qandeel’s promise of stripping as an incentive for the Pakistani cricket team contrasted against Veena Malik’s earlier ‘betrayal’ for modelling for an Indian magazine with the spy agency acronym, ‘ISI’ branded on her body. But Veena succumbed to the male-defined rules and chose to be rescued by the religio-nationalist model of redemption that demands conformity, straightness and domesticated sexuality. She married, covered her head and redirected her seductive skills to lure men towards religious practice.

Veena’s case represents a peculiarly Pakistani version of the Madonna-whore complex — one which accepts seductive performances, capitalist enterprises, game shows and other profane ventures, as long as these promise to entice audiences towards piety rather than self-gratifying pleasure. Such performative piety is simply part of the market that offers Islamic consumerism but depends on the same gender dynamics where the male gaze dominates and objectifies women. In contrast, Qandeel forfeited marriage, undressed, and her performances challenged religious actors and exposed their double-standard hypocrisies. Veena won salvation because she now seduces believers into piety while Qandeel paid with her life for asserting and encouraging female sexual independence.

The legacy of Qandeel Baloch is not simply that she flung the doors of debate around Pakistani female sexuality wide open but that she demonstrably exposed the uncomfortable connection between sex and the sham of piety and honour. Sex and drugs are equally potent forces that may be considered neutral until they are purposefully used for harm. But sexual politics is an unequal, male dominant field that has historically reduced women to sexual commodities for male possession. The struggle to redress this balance requires methods that create discomfort and challenge the status quo to reclaim women’s sexual agency and the right to exercise it.

The influential classes may rightfully claim that their political struggles resulted in the amendment to the honor-killing law in 2016 but societal taboos against women’s sexual liberties cannot be expunged by legal action only. It is women like Qandeel Baloch who expand the arbitrary and gender-discriminatory boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour and redefine feminine agency. More women like her must survive and be supported to change the narrative around sexual independence and gender equality.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

6 comments

  • R S Chakravarti

    With hindsight, it seems clear that she would have been murdered for what she did, by someone or the other. I wonder why she didn’t realise that and be a bit careful in her behaviour.

  • Dr. Asghar Javid

    I totally agree with Ms Zia with respect to the hypocrisy, double standards and duplicity displayed at the individual, community, local and national plane, and the widening chasm and hypocrisy between the ideals and practice of sexual ethics and morality.

    Pakistani society is blindly getting trapped into the sexual anarchy of the West, and with it the injurious repercussions of such behaviour- namely breakdown of society with grave prognosis for social cohesion

    Society requires to be regulated and the rules of societal engagement have been enacted in the Quran and Sunnah-application and translation of these guiding principles into deeds can transform our current morally, socially and sexually bankrupt society into a perfect humanity

    The concept of a sexually assertive female (or for that. matter male), as enunciated,is an anathema. Female objectification is to be condemned but by dressing and behaving seductively women are themselves promoting their own objectification!

  • Those who seek sexual independence or that of any other kind, please bring forth your suggestions backed by religion and that only. This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it was founded on the very basis, both for men and women, those looking for something else should look elsewhere.

    • R S Chakravarti

      According to your founder, M A jinnah, it was not founded on that basis. But after his death, the govt of Pakistan started censoring his speeches and a long journey began with the Objectives Resolution. I have learnt all this from Pakistani papers.

      • Dr. Asghar Javid

        You should keep your nose out of the affairs affecting the Muslim ummah!

        As far as Muslim society is concerned all our deeds are subordinate to the dictates of Islam, and in this case, to the sexual ethics of Islam which promote modesty in sexual conduct to assure the development of a righteous, eqitable and decent society!

        • R S Chakravarti

          I fully agree with your views about modesty. I am not a great advocate of sexual freedom for either men or women. But my point was different. Your founder clearly stated his view that religion is a personal matter; after that, the country he founded changed direction. Maybe I should have been more explicit in my reply to A.

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