Dead but not de­feated

The Pak Banker - - EDITORIAL - Rafia Zakaria

Once upon a time in Pak­istan, all women were thought to be liars. On the oc­ca­sion of con­tested, dif­fer­ing ac­counts - where it was a man's word against a woman's - the for­mer al­ways pre­vailed. Truth did not, could not, be­long to women. Men owned and made it up; if one could not de­cide what that was, they con­ferred with other men. To­gether, all the men kept the 'truth' in check, made sure it served their pur­poses, en­sured their supremacy. If half the coun­try was left out, peeved, dis­cred­ited and de­meaned, it was not their prob­lem. Luck­ily, noth­ing lasts for­ever, and even the fortunes of Pak­istani men were sub­ject to this ruth­less premise al­lot­ted by des­tiny. Change ar­rived in the dis­cov­ery of a new vir­tual realm, where in­ter­ac­tion was no longer phys­i­cal and hence con­trol no longer en­tirely pos­si­ble. En­try to this vir­tual realm could not be lim­ited to men and was eas­ily and cheaply avail­able. Like all that is new, the pos­si­bil­i­ties and prom­ise of this new realm sparkled and shone; ev­ery­one wanted them and men took them. On the screens and through the cam­eras of their mo­bile phones they could gaze and glare at even more women, glam­orous and far­away. It felt not like an abridge­ment of their con­trol, but an imag­i­nary ex­ten­sion of it. They thought they would con­tinue to ex­ert their ex­clu­sive hold over the truth.

They were wrong. Lit­tle by lit­tle, ac­cess to the vir­tual realm ex­panded and women snuck in, and so be­gan a bat­tle that rages to­day. Truth - which be­longed ex­clu­sively to Pak­istani men - stands con­tested by Pak­istani women and it is a con­flict that is ex­act­ing ca­su­al­ties. The death of Qan­deel Baloch is just one among them.

In the vir­tual world, women are ex­ert­ing the sort of in­de­pen­dence and equal­ity that is de­nied to them in the real Pak­istan.

Avowedly self-made and out­spo­ken, Qan­deel Baloch rep­re­sented the Pak­istani woman of the post-in­ter­net age; her bold­ness a provo­ca­tion to the premise that what is right, true and real can be­long only to men. Un­afraid and un­abashed, she chal­lenged no­tions that a woman's 'be­long­ing' to a man is cru­cial or nec­es­sary, that a di­vorcee must be de­graded into non-ex­is­tence, that fe­male sex­u­al­ity is locked away for lack of male ownership. Qan­deel Baloch did not be­long to a man; in be­ing a free agent - un­afraid of con­tro­versy and un­threat­ened by the usual in­flic­tions of shame - she was a chal­lenge to the male do­min­ion over truth. Her bat­tle­field was the vir­tual realm, where she put up real truths against shaky pre­sump­tions. Openly, vis­i­bly and of­ten hu­mor­ously, she mocked men, their glib supremacy, and their necrotic hypocrisy. The most re­cent in­ci­dent in­volved a re­li­gious cleric, Mufti Ab­dul Qavi, who ap­pears, las­civ­i­ous and hat­less, in self­ies posted by Qan­deel on so­cial me­dia. Here is a man of faith with­out his mask of piety; ea­ger to em­brace the sex­u­al­ity con­sid­ered so sin­ful and de­rided with such fer­vour in pub­lic. But one in­stance with one woman can be dis­carded as a small, eas­ily for­got­ten scan­dal. One bad cleric, it may be said, must not dis­credit the many mil­lions who hold moral do­min­ion over the coun­try. In Pak­istan, how­ever, the col­lec­tion of widely pro­lif­er­ated images meant more than that. Here was a lech­er­ous cleric, a vis­i­ble flir­ta­tion, his cap on her head, their pic­tures every­where and for ev­ery­one to see. This was not sim­ply a scan­dal; it was a dis­place­ment, an ex­po­si­tion of the pri­vate per­ver­sions of a man made sud­denly vis­i­ble by a woman. Truth, moulded and dis­torted, which once be­longed only to men for their pur­poses, was now in the hands of a woman - a woman named Qan­deel Baloch. The vis­i­ble las­civ­i­ous­ness of one man, some could con­clude, stood for the se­cret truths of so many men: the bosses be­hind doors, the col­leagues be­hind shop coun­ters, the un­cles who visit, the cousins who covet. All of these men, whose se­cret sins have never been con­sid­ered truths, were threat­ened by the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­po­sure. How many more women would take cam­eras to the men that tor­ment them, the men that con­trol the truth, the men who think women can­not, will not, must not tell?

It was more than the men of Pak­istan could take; one shamed man was one too many for the mil­lions of men that now stood to be ex­posed by women armed with self­ies, record­ings and screen-grabs. In the boil­ing sum­mer months, the bo­gus beat­i­tudes that masked the lech­ery of our 'holy' men fell away. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Qan­deel be­gan to re­ceive death threats not long af­ter the in­ci­dent. In re­ports that have been re­leased af­ter her death, she asked the gov­ern­ment for se­cu­rity against these threats. She did not re­ceive it. Qan­deel ac­tual killer was her brother. The rea­son he gave was 'dis­hon­our', ac­crued to the fam­ily ow­ing to Qan­deel's risqué and bold so­cial me­dia posts, par­tic­u­larly those with Mufti Qavi. In re­al­ity, how­ever, Qan­deel Baloch has mil­lions of killers: they are the men, and at times the women, who can­not stand the pos­si­bil­ity of truth, and hence power, be­ing dis­placed from the realm of men into the hands of women. These mil­lions are every­where, con­tin­u­ing to ex­act and en­act the sham­ing that has al­ready killed the thou­sands of other women, but whose ap­petite re­mains insatiable and ea­ger for more deaths. Their war is not only against Qan­deel Baloch, it is against the pos­si­bil­ity that, in the vir­tual world, at least, women can and are start­ing to ex­ert the sort of in­de­pen­dence and equal­ity that is de­nied to them in the real and ac­tual Pak­istan. "We are en­raged," said a post by the Dig­i­tal Rights Foun­da­tion, which cham­pi­ons the rights of Pak­istani women in the dig­i­tal realm, fol­low­ing Qan­deel's mur­der. It is an apt sum­mary; the Pak­istani woman's bat­tle over truth and power in the vir­tual world is real, and Qan­deel Baloch may be dead but she is most cer­tainly not de­feated.

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