A symbol of feminism

July 24, 2016

Qandeel Baloch represented those who make irreverent choices

A symbol of feminism

"I hope she stays alive," mused one of my female colleagues about Qandeel Baloch. This was months ago. That hope, like the hopes and dreams of Qandeel as well as millions of other women, is now extinguished.

The very fact that one woman in our society has to fear for the safety of another, who challenges tradition, says a lot. I did not know a lot about Qandeel Baloch, nor did I follow her. All I knew was that she was a rebel, someone challenging the status quo -- a brave woman who challenged our notions of what is proper and acceptable. She refused to let others define what was honourable for her. She was her own person and hence worthy of admiration.

During her lifetime, she was mocked by many of the people who are now claiming to mourn for her. She was a joke for many -- except that she was no joke. She was a living breathing woman who challenged both men and women in this society.

What defined Qandeel for me was the one thing that is the essence of human existence, thought and freedom: making your own choices. Her stubborn, irreverent assertion of her freedom to choose and be her own person was what defined her life and actions. Others are free to choose differently but not free to judge or condemn her.

This takes us back to what Adam Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith broke away from the Kantian tradition of classifying actions as right or wrong and was more interested in the ‘why’ of human nature. Moreover, he arrived at the conclusion that those who cannot empathise or sympathise lack imagination. Sympathy, Smith said, is an act of imagination because we can never truly feel or go through what another feels. We can merely imagine it in order to lend sympathy and empathy.

And, therefore, those who say that Qandeel was no role model or no feminist must admit their lack of imagination -- that someone can choose differently and that act of choice is just as legitimate a choice as being a senator. She did not want to fall into your straitjacket of a ‘role model’.

I feel sorry for those who are trying to distance themselves from her actions while condemning her death. In effect, many of these individuals are furthering the same retrogressive agenda that got her killed. Passing a judgment on her while saying that the judgment did not extend to killing her does not help in any way. She did not ‘pollute’ our culture, norms or religion -- so you need not try so hard to be seen as washing yourself of your association with her.

Yet many are spraying a disinfectant before condemning her murder.

Who is a ‘role model’ in a society where most people, benefitting from privilege of birth or fortune, condone, aid or profit from some corruption (moral or financial) every single day? How are any of those saying ‘she was no role model’ themselves worthy of being emulated when they choose to stay silent or be gagged in the face of injustice or naked abuse of power -- only because they think they need to move ahead in society? This includes me and you.

Qandeel Baloch does not or did not require our approval -- she only asked for the right to make her own choices, to be tolerated, to be allowed to exist. And we denied her even that.

It is not uncommon for victims of patriarchy to internalise the discourse that furthers it. Many victims of domestic violence blame themselves in some measure -- as if they are, somehow, responsible for bringing it upon themselves. So it is my contention that Pakistani women who distance themselves from Qandeel are in fact internalising patriarchal discourse -- instead of arguing that she had a right to live by her choices, they first feel the need to clarify that they disapprove of her actions or do not see that a symbol of feminism has been lost. The conformity expected of Qandeel Baloch, even and especially by women, is rooted in male-defined and male-controlled norms. This is the real problem.

Feminism and the dignity of women is hurt each time a woman is oppressed or killed for making her own choices. That is how Qandeel Baloch was a symbol of feminism -- she represented all those who are marginalised and make irreverent choices. Any harm that came her way therefore damages the greater cause of being able to break taboos, of indulging in the healthy activity of challenging the ‘thinkable’ and asserting individual identity.

The threat she posed to what is thinkable is obvious from the statement of a cleric who was embarrassed after being photographed with her. He reportedly thinks that her death, albeit sad (notice the similarities with many women saying the same thing), will serve as a lesson for anyone who shows irreverence towards the self-proclaimed scholars of religion.

This brings us to another contribution by Qandeel Baloch: her refusal to revere those who want us to believe that asking questions of the self-righteous should be discouraged.

Qandeel Baloch spoke for many in Pakistan when she showed irreverence towards the religious right. She was not afraid of exposing hypocrisy -- and the irony is that even in death she continues to remind us of our hypocrisies.

To go back to Adam Smith again, she held up to us a moral looking glass and we did not like the wrinkles we saw.

Many in Pakistan may feel that unless you march on the streets or brave arrests for your political party, you are not a symbol of feminism. But this is no longer true in the current age. If feminism is about independence, making your own choices and not succumbing to the norms that patriarchy lays down then she was a symbol of feminism. And every woman who defies the path spelled out by patriarchy for her life is a symbol of feminism. That is what we must realise. Feminism lives in every independent woman and the men who help them make those choices. Every casualty therefore hurts women and the larger discourse.

The state, in response, has promised us that a law on honour killing will soon be introduced. Many are celebrating it. But a state that has not been able to prevent thousands of women being murdered (and murder remains a crime in this country) will not miraculously become all-powerful to enforce this new law. The attitude of the state and its agents, defined by patriarchy, will not change.

Things will only change when we look at someone like Qandeel Baloch, respect her choices and move on with our lives. Without feeling the need to spray a disinfectant. That day, however, is not coming any time soon.

A symbol of feminism