Right to Sex, No Right to Life

The murder of Qandeel Baloch reawakens the crisis of punishing women for expressing their sexuality

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Qandeel Baloch

Honour. What does it really mean? Common definitions include ‘high respect,’ ‘held in great esteem’ or ‘the knowledge of what is morally right’.

Sexuality? What does it really mean? Common definitions include ‘the capacity for sexual feelings,’ ‘a person’s sexual orientation’ or ‘sexual activity.’

Is it possible to be an honourable person who is not afraid of expressing their sexuality? The murder of social media queen Qandeel Baloch tells us otherwise. 26-year-old Baloch was strangled to death in her family home by her brother Waseem Azeem. After his arrest he confessed that he believed her behaviour “was completely intolerable” and that he killed her for “honour.” The behaviour he refers to is Baloch’s controversial activity on the internet.

Baloch, real name Fouzia Azeem, was a model, actress, activist and social media personality. She was known for posting provocative pictures of herself as well as videos about her life and views on society. Her most eyebrow raising moment was promising to perform a strip tease if the Pakistani cricket team beat India. Baloch however wanted to push boundaries, she was unashamed of her behaviour and vowed to do whatever she wanted regardless of public opinion. The internet star spoke out against the hypocrisy and patriarchy of Pakistani society. Unashamed of her body, Baloch was once asked by a TV anchor why she “resorted to being vulgar” to which Baloch calmly replied, “you need to watch my videos again, I don’t see any vulgarity in my videos. I think I look hot. And sexy.”

But there’s also a serious side to the vibrant woman. Baloch grew up in a poor and largely conservative family, she left a loveless marriage due to domestic violence and had one son. She supported her family financially including buying a house for her parents in Multan and paying for her younger sister’s wedding.

When I heard about Baloch’s death, I was shocked and disgusted that a woman could be murdered by her own blood simply for posting pictures and videos deemed inappropriate. What line does your own sister have to cross to be murdered? But more importantly, do we as a South Asian society believe deep down that she brought death on herself? A few days after the murder I attended a largely Asian networking event and met a male Asian celebrity. He asked if I had heard about Baloch’s death and I said yes, expressing my shock and sadness over it. He was also shocked, only to then say “But you know what, have you seen her pictures? They were really rude you know.”

I went quiet for a few seconds before replying that however explicit the pictures were, she didn’t deserve to be killed. He quickly agreed that her death was indeed a bad thing, but his agreement didn’t reassure me. Even if this person didn’t want Baloch to be murdered, why even mention that her images were too rude in the first place? Now it could have been a casual observation, but it could also have been blame. In death a woman like Baloch will still be criticised and scandalised for her sexuality. Even if she was not murdered for her lifestyle choices, the seeds of shaming can bloom into a crazed individual who will go so far as to kill in the name of honour.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan annual 2015 report, there have been 987 cases of honour crimes with 1,096 female victims and 88 male victims. The incidents tend to revolve around illicit relationships, forced marriages and domestic disputes. In February 2015 an 18-year-old woman was allegedly killed by her brother over her suspected relationship with someone in her village. In September a man shot dead his two sisters for suspected relations with men in their area.

The situation does not fare better in the United Kingdom. In 2015 it was reported that over 11,000 cases of honour crime were recorded between 2010 and 2014. Prominent victims include 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed who was murdered by her parents for refusing to accept a forced marriage and 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod Babakir Agha who was strangled for divorcing her first husband from an arranged marriage and falling in love with another man. The most recent case involves 28-year-old Samia Shahid, who it has been revealed was strangled in Northern Punjab, allegedly because her family disapproved of her second marriage. Her husband states that her family had sent the couple death threats.

This is a problem we need to address within the South Asian community, where we shame women for expressing their sexuality or taking charge of their love lives. Whether you agree with Baloch’s lifestyle or not, ask yourself what honour really means to you? Is an honourable person someone who kills their sister or a person who takes a provocative picture? Baloch has often been called the ‘Kim Kardashian’ of Pakistan, ironically there has been debate over whether Kim is a model of female empowerment or a shameless attention seeker. Echoing the first paragraph of this article, it’s all about perspective. What is deemed empowering to one is shameful to another. Regardless of your opinion, murder or violence is never justified. 2016 has been a dismal year for news with global reports of terror attacks, murders and political instability, are we as an Asian community making things better in the way we treat men and women when it comes to sexuality?

After my conversation with the man at the networking event, I casually googled images of Baloch and found them to be tame and innocent compared to the Western celebrities I see every day. I have no idea what that man was complaining about, but like I said, it’s all about perspective.

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