Pakistan, as we were reminded with the sorrowful news of Qandeel Baloch’s murder a few weeks ago, is not a country that rewards women for taking an active role in their destiny.
Few countries are, mind you, but Pakistan can be more brutal, more flagrant in its utter contempt for women than most. Feminism is still considered the preserve of women too plain to snag husbands, or to people who give it more credit, a tool of the West to undermine the happy Muslim family unit. It is a testament to our low expectations of Pakistani men that the media reported with an air of pleasant surprise that Qandeel’s father actually wanted to see his son convicted for her murder.
With her public profile that continued to divide public opinion even after her death, Qandeel inspired, at least in the English press, an unprecedented reflection, the sorry state of women in Pakistan, and its unforgiving, patriarchal mindset where male egos are Aztec gods requiring regular human sacrifice.
Those who dared
There are so many instances of rage and brutality against women that the violence of the details in the ones that make it to the papers – maiming, torture, murder – is repeated too often to shock. We’re only reading the tip of the iceberg and still the occurrence is so frequent that it seems to sap rather than spur resolve for change – bringing on the lethargy of utter helplessness.
Qandeel’s death reminded me of another woman who didn’t let societal convention stand between her and the kind of life she wanted. Veena Malik, who posed allegedly nude (she insists her underwear was photoshopped out) on the cover of Indian FHM magazine in 2011.
Numerous righteous Pakistanis bayed for her blood while also frantically googling her bosom. It is hard to say which activity accorded them greater pleasure. Scoffed at by an elite who sing a different tune when it’s a Hollywood star nude on the cover of Vanity Fair, Malik’s own father wanted to have her arrested, and in retrospect one considers that it’s quite good of him to at least abide by the letter of the law, flimsy as it is, and not just kill her himself.
In a moment of what would have been high comedy in a less sinister country, the then interior minister stepped in to decide what action was to be taken against her. It is her good fortune that she had the means to escape – means not available to Qandeel.
In Taliban-occupied Swat, it was the bullet-ridden body of the dancer Shabana displayed in Mingora’s central square that quashed any signs of defiance Swat’s citizenry may have considered showing. Shabana was killed for ignoring warnings from the Taliban to give up her sole means of supporting herself; through dance performances at private gatherings. It is hard to say whether Shabana’s death would have elicited a similar amount of horror had she been shot not by the Taliban but by a male relative.
Women who step out of the ever-narrowing bounds of propriety are not often accorded such wholehearted sympathy. Certainly not dancers and other such purveyors of temptation who might give people ideas. To be the unwilling recipient of sexualised attention is to be expected and born without complaint, but to wield feminine wiles knowingly is unacceptable. One keeps reading that Pakistan is at war with the Taliban, only it’s just hard to tell who’s who sometimes.
The orthodox liberals
While the line between conservative Pakistanis and militants seems to be just a matter of facial hair and firearms, Pakistani liberals too aren’t quite what you’d hope. As has often been remarked, the term liberal has been usurped, along with much else in the country, by an elite who confuse being progressive with the ownership of a cocktail shaker and a social life involving women in bodycon dresses.
This is the same liberal elite who routinely police women in their own circle, beat their wives, set as a condition of love a woman’s complete submission to their interests and priorities, and find in sexism and body shaming (while themselves settling into the comfort of obesity) the fodder for loud, thigh-slapping humour.
They’re happy to extend unqualified sympathy to the female victims of jirgas, who could never aspire in any way to undermine their power, but their own ex-girlfriends are still "stupid sluts" and when a friend’s wife leaves alleging cruelty and domestic abuse, we’re told there are “two sides to the story.”
You should have seen the liberals take a swing at Zahra Haider, a girl who wrote a piece in Vice about the lack of sexual freedom in Pakistan saying, quite rightly: “if a woman from a middle-class family or underprivileged background is caught having premarital sex, serious shit goes down.” When she revealed that in spite of the rigors of the morality brigade she’d had a number of sexual partners in Pakistan, the same people who posit themselves as spirited defenders of women’s rights slammed this honest young girl as a “bad example” and “promiscuous” – a word which desperately needs to be retired, along with the people who use it.
The only Pakistani woman I can think of who not just survived her deliciously scurrilous private life in the public sphere was the late great Malika-e-Tarannum, Noor Jehan. I don’t know if we were a different country then, or if she was pardoned the human impulse for desire on the basis of her phenomenal talent (it’s too much to ask for women to be musical geniuses to accord them the respect men get for free).
I just always loved that of the women behemoths Umm Kulthum, Lata Mangeshkar and Noor Jehan, who were the beloved official voices of Egypt, India and Pakistan respectively, ours was the only one who was also a cheeky, irreverent, unapologetic sexpot. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d not believe it today.
Faiza S Khan is the Editorial Director of Bloomsbury India.
This article first appeared on Dawn Images.