ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Qandeel Baloch, one of Pakistan’s most famous and controversial social media stars, has been strangled to death in what police are calling a case of so-called “honor” killing in the city of Multan in the country’s province of Punjab.
Azhar Akram, Multan’s chief police officer, told CNN that Baloch was killed by her brother in her family’s home after he had protested at the “kind of pictures she had been posting online.”
Baloch’s father Muhammad Azeem reported her death to the police, her brother is currently on the run, and the case of her death is being investigated by police.
Baloch, 25, was from the Punjabi town of Kot Addu and had risen to fame due to the brazenly sassy, and increasingly political, videos that she had started posting on Facebook.
Her videos were not very different from thousands others shared by 20-something social media celebrities around the Internet — she pouted like a kitten into the camera, discussed her various hairstyles and shared cooing confessions from her bedroom about her celebrity crushes.
Baloch pushed boundaries
Yet in Pakistan, her flirty antics were unusual, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable of women in Pakistan. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Gender Gap Report, Pakistan was second to last on the list of 145 countries with regards to gender disparity.
Baloch was both adored and reviled. Unlike more conventional Pakistani female celebrities — who found fame portraying pious damsels in distress on television and film — her videos were not slickly produced, her English was not flawless and she was curvaceous and self-deprecating.
She had nearly 750,000 followers on Facebook, where her videos went viral but were also the subject of much debate and discomfort. In recent weeks, several of her posts encouraged her audience to challenge old practices of Pakistani society. In a July 14 post, Baloch referred to herself as a “modern-day feminist.”
Hamna Zubair, the culture editor of Pakistani newspaper Dawn, told CNN that she had received much criticism for carrying pieces on Baloch. One commentator asked her if she would be “reporting from a brothel” next.
Baloch tightly controlled her narrative in the media. She shared little about her personal life and was something of an enigma; nobody really knew which city she was based in.
She found fame and slipped into the national consciousness after declaring that she would perform a live strip tease online if Pakistan won a cricket match against arch rival India.
As her media profile grew, Zubair said Baloch became aware “of her power to deliver a certain message about being female in Pakistan,” and that she had become a “burgeoning activist for increasing women’s visibility” in the country.
She made more headlines after posting selfies on her Instagram account with Mufti Abdul Qavi, a senior member of the clergy. The bizarre pairing led to frenzied media coverage and resulted in Qavis’s suspension from his post on one of Pakistan’s religious committees.
After news of Baloch’s death, while waiting to go on air on a local channel, Qavi told CNN that “her death should be a lesson for all those who point fingers at someone’s honor.”
Pakistani feminists had celebrated Baloch. Madiha Tahir, co-founder of the feminist magazine Tanqeed, called her a “gutsy feminist provocateur” who had exposed “the hypocrisy of the male-dominated establishment, especially the clergy, through her social media videos.”
“She wasn’t rich,” Tahir said. “She was a working class woman who dared to be exactly herself.” Tahir said Qandeel’s death was not due to a matter of honor but due to the “pervasive misogyny” of Pakistani society.
Baloch “feared for her life”
A couple of days ago, local media reported that Qandeel Baloch had married at 17 and left her husband about a year later. After the reports were published, she confirmed that her legal name was Fouzia Azeem and that she had been using an alias for safety reasons.
Earlier this week Baloch had stirred up more controversy by releasing a kitschy music video on YouTube called “Ban,” which mocked some of the restrictions that she had been subjected to.
Behind the scenes, things were a bit different. Hassan Chaoudhry, a reporter for local paper Express Tribune, told CNN he had spoken to Baloch on the phone just two days ago, saying she was sobbing and “feared for her life.”
On the morning she was murdered, Qandeel had shared a picture of herself staring defiantly into the camera, wearing a pair of leopard print pants and a black tank top. She had written that she was a fighter. “I will bounce back,” she said, adding she wanted to inspire women who have been “treated badly and dominated by society.”