After Qandeel Baloch: Pakistan’s Feminist Struggle

Daniela Arango – Colombia

In a recent high-profile Pakistani “honor killing,” Qandeel Baloch, an online celebrity, was murdered by her brother Waseem Azeem. Her case and a wave of awareness campaigns, including an Oscar winning documentary by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, have spurred the Anti-Honor Killings movement, resulting in the passage of a key Anti-Honor Killing Bill in 2016.

Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission recently released a report detailing the rise in honor killings, ritualistic homicides committed to protect a family’s “good name.” In 2014, about 1000 women were killed in such attacks, and 869 women the year prior; the estimates for 2015 land at around 1,100. This practice has a long history of perpetuation through social pressure, patriarchy, and feudalism, but it is exacerbated by a loophole in the Pakistani criminal code that allows the family of the victim to pardon the offending party. Despite Prime Minister Nawaz Shareef’s staunch stance against such incidents, the Pakistani National Assembly only recently passed an anti-honor killing bill. Even then, senators argued that it was a compromise from a much more stringent bill; the new legislation allows judges to have great sway in whether a case is considered an honour killing to begin with, which could pose an obstacle in effecting meaningful change. These challenges beg the question of how women’s rights groups can effectively enact change in the face of patriarchal, religious, and legislative obstacles.

While the murder of Qandeel Baloch spurred this movement and created pressure to pass the bill, her case has been a divisive issue—many in the nation decried the murder itself, but refused to defend Baloch’s freedom of expression and personal choice. Arsalan Khan, Assistant Professor at Union College New York, argues that Baloch’s murder and other honor killings are the product of a kind of toxic masculinity that links personal reputation with the ability to control the women of the household, citing that Baloch was only killed after her identity was revealed in Pakistani media. This is exacerbated by social pressures that become unbearable in a communitarian society that maintains strong links between extended family. Arguably, the biggest factor that perpetuates such heinous crimes is a loophole in the law that allows perpetrators to walk free. In the Islamic law practices in Pakistan, qisas (retribution) and diyat (blood money) ordinances stipulate the ways in which victims and their families can reap compensation from the offending party, which includes the ability to pardon. In homicide cases, it has become common for the offending party to pressure the family of the victim either physically or monetarily into pardoning the culprit. For honor killings, the effect is even more insidious, for the offending party is part of the family of the victim. This allows families to conspire to commit such honor killings, and walk away scot-free.

While the latest anti-honor killing bill has removed the ability to pardon (families can now only pardon the culprit from the death penalty) and a life sentence is guaranteed, fierce opposition has arisen, especially from religious conservative factions. The argument often goes that the Sharia is being diluted by “Western values,” and that the country is taking regressive moral steps by allowing women to have more freedom. Those in the West who observe these issues have called for a Western-style separation of church and state, but fail to recognize the many reasons why a clean separation is very difficult to achieve. The Pakistani bureaucracy makes affecting change incredibly difficult, and women face enough barriers in having their complaints taken seriously at different levels of law enforcement. In addition, many religious clerics hold influence as leaders of communities, and continue to to instill their values in society through religious education institutions. Lastly, it is important to recognize that there has been strong state-sponsored support for the construction of a national identity that is rooted in Islam, from the conception of Pakistan as a state “for Muslims”, to the enactment of Sharia law “by Muslims”. Decades of defining Pakistani nationality in opposition to the Other (the Indians, the Hindus, the British) has entrenched religion in all facets of Pakistani society.

The separate-church-state view also tacitly adheres to the notion that religion, particularly Islam, is inherently incompatible with women’s rights, an assertion that is disproved by countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that afford women considerable rights and freedoms. The assumption that they are incompatible ignores the fact that in Muslim countries with sexist laws, most widespread interpretations of the Quran come from a male perspective. Women have historically been excluded from clerical positions, and haven’t had the privilege to offer interpretations of the Quran. However, a new wave of such reinterpretations could serve as a new approach to women’s rights activism in Pakistan. In his paper “Feminist Interpretation of the Quran as an Ideological Critique against Patriarchy,” Farid Muttaqin argues that Muslim feminists in Indonesia are trying to increase feminist readings of the Quran, and that these readings can form important religious support for their progressive agendas. In addition, it allows for a pathway to recruit more women into progressive movements by appealing to the religious texts, when these women may otherwise be turned away by the feminist label, or otherwise subscribe to  internalized patriarchal systems.

Most importantly, having Quranic support for feminist agendas will allow for a re-envisioning of what an ideal Muslim society should be. While there is a consensus in Pakistan that religion is an important part of legislation, the particulars of the various interpretations of Sharia law have largely been left up in the air since Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s time. It is important for women to begin contributing to the wealth of interpretations that form the basis of the Sharia, for this approach can lead to steady, incremental change. When faced with obstacles to progress on all sides, Pakistani feminists may find that returning to religion can be a strong weapon in the fight for equality, one that can’t simply be brushed off as Western propaganda.