Author : Shaziah Zuberi
So many honorable women in our society have succumbed to the inevitable on account of the toxic practice of ‘honor killing’, with their deeply moving stories never being told. Instead these stories are deliberately concealed or simply ignored. Is this acceptable for good people of conscience in the 21st century? Are we not complicit in this crime by averting our gaze and ignoring the issue?
I am so heartened that the media decided to produce the TV drama ‘Baggi’ to address this complex social issue directly. It covers the true story of the late Qandeel Balouch who was brutally strangled to death by her brother in an honor killing. The drama’s cast includes luminaries like Irfan Khoosat, Ali Kazmi, Osman Khalid Butt, Nadia Afghan, and Sarmad Khossat, with Saba Qamar playing the leading role.
While the drama will not result in a sea change in our culture, it is a laudable initiative to raise awareness about the hypocrisy pervasive in our society that lies at the heart of conflating the oxymoronic notions of ‘honor’ and ‘killing’. Such an evocative drama has the potential to propel an evolution in societal norms and values, forcing us to critically question such benighted notions that are taken for granted particularly among the more tradition-bound and conservative elements in society. It also airs the issue without bringing it in the sphere of partisan politics.
I’m not in favor of inserting this issue in the realm of politics. This is because when such issues get embroiled in the murky waters of partisan politics, they typically fail to impact society or spur a change in attitudes. Witness the case of Ayesha Gululai Wazir, a member of parliament from PTI. When she brought her harassment case against her party’s leader, Imran Khan, to the fore in a political context, she was threatened with having acid thrown at her face and her home burned down. She was called immoral and the kind of woman who sells herself for 24 hours. When she threatened to share the lewd messages she claimed Imran Khan sent her she was accused of playing political games. Never mind that she herself is a politician. When such issues get
embroiled in partisan politics, they never elicit the appropriate societal response.
On the other hand, when the conversation is conducted through the medium of the arts, we learn from others’ vantage point and try to balance their needs against ours. The medium allows us to not only necessarily feel good but sometimes express fear, distress, or injustice. It is a method of story-telling, something that is innate in human beings through the ages, and necessary for societies to retain their identities. In addition, the empathy that we feel from drama is key to our normal moral development. If we never felt fear or distress, how could we empathize with the fear or distress of others? I personally feel that this is the power of art. We can feel something and empathize with it at a very deep level, and we don’t have to put words to it. That’s exactly what I felt about Qandeel after watching her recent play.
I see Qandeel’s story as incredibly complex with multiple layers that we need to dig into for it to unfold. There were innumerable obstacles, mistakes, self-doubts, and setbacks along her way. The drama Baagi explores the inside story that no one knew before. While some of Qandeel’s decisions dramatized in Baagi were morally questionable, it is impossible to comprehend the background of those decisions. But after watching the drama, it gets somewhat easier to connect the dots and peer into her dark past to understand the obstacles she faced in the form of constant harassment, rejection, and bullying. Meanwhile she desperately wanted to stand up on her feet and overcome the many predators around her who consistently restrained her from moving forward.
It was fun watching her early childhood experiences when she used to watch television shows and got interested in show business. I was struck by one scene in the drama where her sister was being physically abused by her brother-in-law. Qandeel told her sister that she should not tolerate this toxic behavior because what her husband was doing was wrong. I found it a powerful stance, particularly for a young girl from an underprivileged background. It provided me with the sense that she
strongly felt women should stand up for themselves. Although she got married early and had a son, the marriage didn’t last long as she fled from her violent husband. She dreamt big and wanted to live an extraordinary life as a star.
However, her struggles were only beginning and she was facing all manner of challenges. It was difficult for her to fit in the showbiz world, and get decent opportunities. What meagre opportunities came her way, society would not do her justice because she was an ordinary girl. Society closed virtually all the doors for her. The only door left open was social media where she freely and independently expressed herself and developed an identity. She used her sexuality in a way to empower herself. She danced, she stripped, she was loved, and she was hated. I recalled another clip when she publicly asked the Mullah to get her a date with the famous cricketer and politician, Imran Khan. She was mocking our society’s hypocrisy and she used her spunk and guts to hold up a mirror to society.
When she targeted the Mullah and other politicians, her profile skyrocketed and she was on television shows across the land. I remember when she posted provocative pictures of herself on social media. On a personal level I would disagree with that action of Qandeel. She shouldn’t have done so because dressing up publicly in a provocative manner sent the wrong message and attracted the wrong type of crowd. Maybe it would have been best for her if she would have avoided such actions. But as I learnt from her play she was reluctant to lead her life without making waves and having an impact. We can also infer from her story that the choices that she made in life did not necessarily reflect what she truly loved but were a consequence of the constrained set of options she faced.
Therefore, I will not judge her for that action because no one could read her mind or comprehend her unique circumstances. However, what happened by this action was that she was constantly facing all kinds of negative reaction from all directions. Some of her followers said that she pushed the envelope too much, while others said that what she was doing was offensive and not acceptable in our culture. There was a drumbeat of criticism from every side. This kind of negative reaction never stopped and made her life a pressure cooker. And it ended up with society taking her life. Yes, she was killed by her own brother, in her own family’s home, in a so-called honor killing. According to her brother she brought shame to her family. Many people felt that way. They felt that she had no right to live because she was errant and deviant, and continuously misbehaving and not following traditional norms. However, they are ignoring her realities about her hardship, and her struggle in supporting her impoverished family.
What does it say about our society when so many men are condoned for acting like horrendous predators, while a spunky woman who uses her sexuality to make a bigger point of objecting about her condition and the constant humiliation and abuse she faces is victimized and made to pay the ultimate price.
It is sad that Pakistan is perceived as a country of tradition-bound conservatives who subjugate women. In addition, it is perceived as a society with double standards. Qandeel had the courage to expose those double standards. It’s as if a woman who speaks up risks losing her standing, or at the very least being labeled a whiner who didn’t know how to play the game. This is why many hate and dehumanize her. Qandeel was the victim of a moral policing brigade, who dictate the way women and girls should appear and behave. I think Qandeel’s story showcases stunning hypocrisy in our treatment of women particularly from the lower classes who have no ability to exercise the freedom of choice and the ability to live with even minimal comforts.
I value and appreciate the role of our media who have brought this subject to the fore to create awareness about the abject mistreatment of women from the lower and middle classes in our society. I’m hoping this positive initiative through the medium of drama will have positive reverberations and bring a measure of change in society. It is an
important subject in this new era where more women around the world are sharing their stories and being heard and are making an impact. This has never happened before, but, as they say, the arc of history is long but always bends towards justice. As the popular scholar Bacha Khan said; “If you want to know how civilized a culture is, look at how they treat their women”. They should be judged by the same standards as men are afforded in general. I say that because there is virtually no margin afforded to them while men have so much more leeway.