The meaning and legacy of Qandeel Baloch

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I didn’t care about Qandeel Baloch when I first heard about her. I didn’t think she was a fashion icon, I found her selfies excessive, and I wasn’t interested in her, even if I found her funny and somewhat intriguing. It was hard not to pay attention to somebody who almost singlehandedly captured the national spotlight by making a name for herself online. Baloch exposed society’s repression and moral hypocrisies while also thriving off of it. At the time, I couldn’t tell if this was a good or bad thing.

Now, she’s dead, apparently at the hands of her own brother. As Rimmel Mohydin tweeted, “[Y]ou made a hero out of someone who until yesterday was a punchline.” And it’s true. Overnight, Baloch has gone from being a social media sensation – for all the good and the bad – to one of the many women killed by men in their families simply because she dared to create her own possibilities.

Qandeel Baloch has been compared to Kim Kardashian by media, but while her impact may be similar, there’s little comparison between the two women. Kim Kardashian never grew up in a village on the Saraiki belt, she never fled a forced and unhappy marriage and she never found herself in a women’s shelter where she was forced to give up her child because he fell ill.

Most importantly, Kim Kardashian never made herself out of nothing after her family discarded her and she found herself alone in a country where most women rely on their families and husbands for their livelihood. Kim Kardashian didn’t, but Qandeel Baloch did.

And it’s not just about Baloch becoming famous on Facebook, taking titillating selfies, or starring in provocative music videos, though all of that is important, because throughout it, Baloch was the agent of her own image. It’s about her working and getting paid. Baloch had the strength and guts to survive and live with dignity and independence, even after losing her family and child. She did this, when most women languish in shelters or fall into abusive relationships, where they are again forced to compromise who they are for the whims of other people. That is, if they don’t return to their original family or husband out of poverty and need, as so many do. Qandeel left, survived and made it in a society where women have been told they can’t live and even breathe on their own.

For all the media fame, exorbitant makeup and highfalutin claims of being a model, an actress, and a fashion icon, Baloch led a hard, gritty life. Right before she was killed, she told Dawn Images, “I did a marketing job, I worked as a bus hostess, I did a lot of jobs, I struggled a lot.” After that, she went into showbiz, where she faced exploitation from would-be employers. “You know how they try to misuse girls who are new to the industry.” She was a working woman, a rural woman, a hustling woman, who labored to set herself free.

In this sense, she was a testament to all of the women of Pakistan. She was a testament to our creative resistance, which lies on the margins, but without which society would die or be irrevocably changed.

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