Culture Of Shame Behind Pakistani ‘Honor Killing’ Also Plagues America

By Neerali Patel

The recent “honor killing” of Pakistan’s Qandeel Baloch serves as a harrowing reminder not just of sanctioned violence under the auspices of religious doctrine, but of our own society’s fraught relationship with female sexuality, bodily autonomy, and basic human rights.

According to the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani rights group, honor killings claim the lives of more than 1,000 women each year. More complicated and disturbing still is that 4 in 10 Pakistanis believe murder is “justified” if a woman engages in premarital sex or adultery, according to research from Pew.

The details of Baloch’s death serve as a stark and chilling manifestation of these attitudes. A self-made social media starlet, singer, and model, Baloch was outspoken and unapologetically sexual, a provocative — and ire-inducing — anomaly in Pakistan who openly mocked the country’s restrictions and behavioral bans on women. She auditioned for Pakistan Idol, gyrated in a music video called “BAN,” and filled her Instagram feed with pouts and flesh and self-aggrandizement.

Like countless American celebrities — including the ubiquitous Kim Kardashian — Baloch had built a small but glittering empire using her own visage and body as the bricks, an empire that was “bringing dishonor” on her family.

What’s lost in the noise of comparing Baloch to the likes of Kardashian is the indisputable bravery of Baloch, whose existence was, by definition, political. And dangerous. As reported by CNN, just last Friday, Baloch posted on Facebook that women must stand up for themselves, each other, and for justice, calling herself a “modern day feminist.”

After Baloch’s murder, activist group Action for a Progressive Pakistan — which “call[s] for a Pakistan grounded in principles of justice and fairness . . . ” with “no discrimination on the basis of sex/gender, class, province/ethnicity, religion/sect, or sexual orientation” — released a petition called “No Country For Bold Women.” In their demand for accountability and the condemnation of “honor killings,” they explicitly state that making Baloch’s career synonymous with Kim Kardashian does her memory and work a great disservice:

“Qandeel was not Kim Kardashian, as some media accounts have erroneously noted. She was our Qandeel: a working class woman, a Third World feminist, a disrupter, and firebrand who dared to do as she pleased, despite threats to her life.
Qandeel was not killed for ‘honor.’ She was killed because an inordinately fragile, male ego couldn’t handle her flame. She was killed because a pervasive misogynistic culture cultivates and protects a toxic masculinity. She was killed because patriarchal structures sustain unequal gender relations with both men and women believing that violence against women is unremarkable, ordinary, and even deserved.”

Drugged and strangled by the hands of her own brother — who not only confessed, but expressed pride in his act — Baloch’s death serves as a case study for the kind of rage and shame that we heap upon women who dare to flaunt their bodies on their own terms.

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Qandeel Baloch was so much more than the reductive “Kim Kardashian of Pakistan,” but it’s worth examining the parallels between the oppressive and antiquated notions of “shame” that killed her, and much of what we do to and say about American women like Kardashian.

Women like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lady GaGa, and the infamous Kim K may not be facing systematic silencing by death, but there are countless ways in which our society seeks to destroy them; we call for their social disappearance or social death. Just look to the comments section of any article on these female celebrities — and myriad others — and you’ll discover hateful, vitriolic language. They’re likened to trash and “whores,” and labeled a complete “disgrace to society.”

Because these women proffer their bodies for consumption, we feel justified in chewing them up and spitting them out, even as we voraciously devour their music, art, and imagery. It took Baloch’s death for me to stop and reconsider how I’m contributing to some of the same culture of slut-shaming that resulted in her murder.

The point I am trying to make is not that we should all celebrate or get behind everything these women do — like all humans, they’re fallible, and their celebrity doesn’t make their every movement newsworthy; in fact, much of what infiltrates our media coverage is dull, vapid, and anti-intellectual. Like many, I find it unsettling that as a culture we collectively spend so much time scrutinizing their lives.

My point is that Americans, too, frequently slut-shame and degrade openly sexual female celebrities. A pertinent example of the attitudes and phenomenon I am describing is the scathing fallout in the wake of Kim K’s sex tape; I read and hear constantly that she is only famous for fornicating and that outside of that, she offers no value to society.

I will admit that it’s not the most meritorious achievement to be known for a sex tape. But her ex released the sex tape. And it was humiliating for Kim — as she’s stated many times. Committing suicide because of cyberbullying, like leaking sex tapes, is an observable phenomenon, and yet it doesn’t seem to deter us as a society from making the victims feel like they don’t deserve to have a voice — to live and flourish.

If we use Kim as a lynchpin of this shaming discourse, then I would argue that like Baloch, she is a kind of unsung hero for speaking out on what happened to her, for triumphing in the face of it all, and for continuing to expose her body — to be known for revealing her body instead of shriveling up, going into hiding, or forcing herself to be a conventionally “good role model” simply to negate our hypocritical criticisms.

America is eager to lambast the belief system that justifies honor killings, even as we crucify our own sexualized celebrities, using much of the same rhetoric. It’s easy for us to point to outwardly oppressive societies like Pakistan. It’s difficult for us to look inward and examine how many of our behaviors and beliefs justify the destruction of women.

It’s time we take a look.

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Lead image courtesy of Qandeel Baloch’s Facebook

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