Two days after drugging and strangling Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, her brother Waseem Azeem was asked by a journalist why he killed her. “She was doing videos on Facebook,” he replied.
Baloch’s murder at the age of 26 sent shockwaves around the world. She was dubbed “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian”—though, coming from a poor family with vastly different life experiences, she was nothing like the reality TV millionaire. Baloch had longed for fame since her teens and took inspiration from the powerful and glamorous women on the television set her family had struggled to afford. She told her mother that she didn’t like the sound of marriage.
At 17—partly to curb her rebellious ideas—she was forced to marry anyway. She said that the relationship was abusive (her former husband denies this). One year later, baby in tow, she fled for a women’s shelter.
Two years on from her death, Baloch’s life is acknowledged as one of historic significance. Her open contempt for sexism and patriarchal control has inspired women all over Pakistan—many of whom see her as a trailblazer who paid the price for her honesty and fearlessness.
By her early 20s, Baloch was living in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. She was a proudly scandalous online celebrity. Her erotic dances and cheeky vlogs, many of which are no longer online, provoked desire and laughter—but also vitriol and fury from men. Many of her most avid watchers were among her most hateful trolls.
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Baloch remained unapologetically herself even as harassment, abuse, and violent threats flooded her social media accounts. She was lining up modelling, acting, and talk show work. The life she’d dreamed of was in sight, and she was able to support her family back in rural Multan.
Instead, on 16 July of 2016, Baloch was murdered by her brother in their family home. “I am proud of what I did,” Waseem said. “I drugged her first then I killed her. She was bringing dishonor to our family.”
“It affected me much more deeply than I was expecting,” says journalist and Twitter personality Imaan Sheikh, who left Pakistan four years ago due to threats to her and her family. “There were three days of crying,” she says of her reaction to Baloch’s death. (Her murder trial is still ongoing; five people are facing charges, including her brother.)
“There’s always the first to reclaim space in this way,” says Nighat Dad, founder of the Digital Rights Foundation. “She paved the way.”
In video after video, Baloch gazed into the camera, playing with her hair, her lips, her breasts, and asked: “How am I looking?” A week before she was killed, she twerked in "BAN," a music video that mocked conservative culture.
Months before her murder, Baloch released a video promising to strip if Pakistan beat India at cricket. She shared a teaser. Some of those close to her advised that she was going too far, but she was undeterred. “For popularity, you need to take off clothes," she said. “For popularity, strip dance is necessary. Everything is necessary. To become popular and famous, you need to act strange.”
Since Baloch was murdered, Sheikh says, women have begun “losing their shame” around sex.
“After she died, I realized I needed to be more open,” Sheikh explains. “I needed to be less of an ‘ideal’ Pakistani girl, I needed to talk about my sexuality—as openly as men, if not more so.”
“Qandeel’s legacy lives on in the way women are reclaiming online spaces and shattering patriarchal norms,” Dad argues. More women, she says—including working class women and trans women—now view social media as an avenue of opportunity to improve their social and financial circumstances. “Qandeel established how you can use online spaces strategically and for your own benefit.”
Like Baloch, Pakistani model Eman Suleman’s own career took off because of social media. Now she uses fashion to fund her university studies. “Qandeel gave women the courage to be more open about their sexuality,” she tells Broadly.
Baloch’s boldness was matched by her provocative opinions. “Qandeel didn’t just inspire people because she showed her body,” says Kami Sid, an activist and actor who found fame through social media as Pakistan’s first transgender model. “She inspired people because she had ideas—that’s why people loved her.”
“Though she didn’t proclaim herself a feminist at first, she was living it,” says Dad. But her politics became more apparent in the last couple of months, she says: “Qandeel started talking about rights, her agency, and feminism.”
“I am trying to change the typical orthodox mindset of people who don’t want to come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices,” Baloch once shared in a Facebook post. She spoke out for women who, like her, had experienced forced marriage and domestic violence, and tweeted in support of Malala. “Don’t compare urself with normal or intellectual women…” wrote a man in reply. Five days later, when she was dead, he replied again: “Everyone knows she was controversial. #RIP.”
Baloch’s most controversial act was one of her last. Three months before she was killed, she appeared via video link on a talk show to debate a prominent Muslim cleric, Mufti Abdul Qavi. During the debate, Qavi expressed his intention to meet in person. When they did, Baloch shared selfies and videos of the two of them in a Karachi hotel room. They are shown selecting cigarettes; she posed in his cap. She later publicly disclosed more about their meeting—they had shared a soft drink and a cigarette, even though it was Ramadan.
"As soon she died I realized that we failed to protect her."
The backlash was immense. Baloch and her family faced ever-increasing harassment, including death threats. Twenty-five days later, having sought refuge back home and been denied police protection, her brother killed her.
Before Baloch’s murder, Sheikh says she used to censor her opinions online “because of how men react to women talking about politics.” Now, she wants to be as “explosive” as she can. Although the fact one of her contemporaries was “killed for something she said on the internet” frightens her, she says that her and her friends grew braver and “gained a lot of shamelessness and power from what happened.”
But the online abuse that eventually precipitated Baloch’s murder has not diminished. The misogyny, the harassment, the rape threats, the death threats—they’re still there. A 2017 report by the Digital Rights Foundation found that 40 percent of women have been stalked and harassed on messaging apps. After Baloch was killed, Dad launched Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline, and is educating women nationwide about digital rights and security.
“As soon she died I realized that we failed to protect her,” says Sheikh. “The majority of comments on her content were slutshaming, threats, people literally saying that they’re going to rape her—and we didn’t confront it, we ignored it as we thought it was normal.”
Since Baloch’s murder, “women fight back so beautifully that it gives you a lot of courage,” Dad says, explaining that they’re educating themselves on digital safety, security and privacy, defending themselves against trolls and threats and—crucially— supporting each other.
Last month, Dad herself stepped in to call out Muhammad Mursaleen, a student who had tweeted to wish “sexual torture” upon a female journalist who had been abducted. Dad received rape threats and death threats in return, but her efforts succeeded. Mursaleen’s university announced that they would take “appropriate action” to discipline him, and he made a public apology.
“I still don’t think there’s space in society for women like Qandeel,” says Sheikh, “but there is women making space for women like Qandeel, now. Women are protecting each other.”
Suleman, too, has noticed the change. “Women defending other women online isn’t alien anymore,” she says. “When I receive abuse, I now have all these women coming in and protecting me—it means so much.”
Two days before her death, Baloch wrote on Facebook: “As women we must stand up for ourselves… As women we must stand up for each other… As women we must stand up for justice…” These sentiments—and the conviction and sense of community they have inspired in other women—may form her most powerful legacy yet.