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A star rises from poverty, is killed defying Pakistan norms

 

 

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a star

SHAH SADDERUDDIN, Pakistan — Like most of the men in this village of mudbrick homes and wooden carts pulled by water buffalo, Muhammed Azeem cannot read or write. Like the other fathers, he raised a family of six boys and three girls on whatever he could coax out of a soil baked by the searing Punjab sun.

But in a culture where a family’s worth is tallied in the number of males it can produce and girls are second-class citizens at best, Azeem was different.

He valued his daughters as much as his sons.

He raised them to be independent young women. When one of the girls married, she refused to take her husband’s name. Another changed hers to Qandeel Baloch and became famous, shocking this conservative Islamic country with risqué dance videos that showed her in skin-tight clothing grinding against men.

Azeem didn’t care. He loved Qandeel - whose new name meant “torch” in their native language.

“I supported everything she did,” Azeem says, tears glistening on his weather-beaten face. “I liked everything she did.”

Her father’s love helped make Qandeel a role model to a generation of young Pakistani women. But it also may have planted the seeds of her destruction.

Her younger brother Muhammed Wazeem seethed. It was bad enough that he couldn’t compete with his sister for their father’s affections, and lived in a home that she paid for. But even worse was the relentless sniping from villagers. Storekeepers would show him her Facebook posts on their phones, criticizing his family for allowing her to make the videos.

He decided he had to save the family’s “honor.” Last month, he drugged Qandeel and then, as their parents slept downstairs, strangled her.

In most so-called honor killings, families close ranks around the killer. But Qandeel’s father wants his son punished.

“My son was wrong,” Azeem said. “I will not forgive him.”

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A social media star, who was abused by a husband who burned and beat her, Qandeel paid with her life for refusing to live a life dictated by repressive tribal traditions and religious edicts defined by clerics who espouse a narrow and repressive brand of Islam. Qandeel Baloch, provocative media star, who was killed by her brother was born Fauzia Azeem, to a dirt poor farming family, raised in a mud house baked by the searing sun of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

This is the story of a girl from one of the poorest, most backward areas of Pakistan who emerged to transfix a nation - and then was killed for her role in its clash between tradition and modernity, between Islamic fundamentalism and secularism.

It is a paradox of today’s Pakistan, a deeply religious country where 4G service and social media have arrived in even the most isolated communities, that one family could produce a wildly untraditional daughter and a son so traditional he felt compelled to kill his sister for her 21st-century ways.

Qandeel’s home village, Shah Saddaruddin, is a seven-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad, a journey through sugar-cane and mango fields, often on roads that are no more than dirt tracks. Murky streams and canals flow through a vast countryside owned by feudal landlords who keep their workers deep in debt.

Most girls are hidden away once they reach puberty, and many are married shortly afterward to a boy chosen by their parents. Occasionally, women are exchanged to pay off a debt, or to settle a dispute.

“Women here are strictly controlled,” Qandeel’s sister Munawar Azeem says. “It’s our tradition, but Qandeel was stubborn, she always wanted more, had different ideas.”

She says she’ll never forgive her brother for killing her sister, who was only 26 when she died.

Her father loved the girls “too much,” Munawar says, as if sensing that his esteem was too great for their deeply traditional society.

The girls lived in a country that sees 1,000 honor killings a year, most of them targeting women. A woman can even be punished for something a male relative may have done. In a nearby village in 2002, a young woman named Muktar Mai was gang-raped by four men and then paraded naked through the village.

The ordeal, it turned out, was retribution for alleged sexual advances her 12-year-old brother had made toward a girl.

Mukhtar Mai stunned villagers and inspired Pakistan when she stood up to her rapists and public humiliation. She went to court, demanded their punishment and started a charity to educate young girls. Her courage became legendary.

In her own way, Qandeel was just as revolutionary, thumbing her nose at tradition with her provocative videos that amassed millions of views - and thousands upon thousands of thumbs-down.

Her rebellion began long ago, when she was still a little girl named Fauzia.

One day she saw her older brother practicing karate and judo. Every day after that, the 8-year-old could be found outside working on her martial arts moves.

Her mother, Anwar Bibi, smiles at the thought of her daughter.

“I don’t know why she was the way she was, but she never cared what anyone thought,” Bibi says. “She was always brave.”

Fauzia thought maybe she’d join the army. Or no, she’d be a pilot.

“She would look at the sky and she would say: ‘Papa, I want to fly. I want to be like a bird,’” her father says.

Eventually Fauzia settled on becoming a star. She watched Indian soap operas on television and read fashion magazines. She told her mother she’d be famous one day.

After becoming Qandeel, her first public performance was in 2012 on “Pakistan Idol,” a local offshoot of “American Idol.” It was a disaster.

Judges cringe as she sings, finally pleading with her to stop. Her appearance ends with her being escorted off the stage and sobbing backstage. The video went viral.

Her notoriety grew when she posted a seductive video earlier this year offering to strip-tease for the Pakistani cricket team captain if Pakistan won its match against rival India. (The team lost.)

Her tweets were sometimes titillating - “Am I Looking Hot? 3 Yess I Know M Looking Damn Hot 3 3.” But self-empowerment was a recurring theme: “I am Special..I will Remain Special.I will Dare to do different things which people will never Dare to do.”

Torrents of condemnation inundated Qandeel’s Facebook page. One user wanted her arrested for “spreading vulgarity.” One with a rudimentary grasp of English wrote, simply, “We hete you.”

But she inspired many others. One wrote: “You are strong like men,” and another said: “Fabulous style and confidence. U r such a superstar my QB.”

Qandeel’s transformation from fame-hungry celebrity to fledgling feminist may have its roots in her short marriage, one she said was marked by abuse.

It seemed like a love match at first. Unlike many here, it wasn’t an arranged marriage. She fell for a family friend.

Ashiq Hussain, her ex-husband, lives in a village called Mozza Tarryaie, where a single buffalo is tethered outside the mud house he shares with his four brothers, their wives and 15 children as well as his elderly parents.

As Hussain tells it, Fauzia would pursue him, writing him letters.

“Even sometimes she would use her own blood to write,” he says.

“There was no Qandeel then. She was Fauzia.”

During their marriage of less than two years, he recalls, she was obsessed with moving to the city, buying a house and wearing pretty clothes.

“Maybe in her heart she was already thinking of being a star,” recalls Hussain. “But I told her before marriage: ‘I am a poor man, a very simple man. You knew I could not give you more.’”

After a year they had a son, Mishal. He resembles his mother, sharing her round brown eyes and full lips. But he doesn’t remember his mother, and he is quiet, almost sullen.

Qandeel fled the marriage, accusing her husband of beating and torturing her — a charge he denies. She was widely condemned for abandoning her son, but she said their families forced her to leave Mishal behind.

During her sensation-filled life, many critics dismissed Qandeel’s claims of abuse. But when Qandeel’s body was bathed before being buried, in keeping with tradition, her mother saw the scars, says her neighbor Saba Munir.

Munir gestures to her own hip to show where Qandeel had been badly burned. The scar, she says, was very large.

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If any moment captures Pakistan’s earthshaking clash of cultures, it is the selfie Qandeel took with her ever-present phone two months ago, in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

In it, she is almost sitting on the lap of Muslim cleric Maulvi Abdul Qavi in a Karachi hotel room. She wears his pointed cap perched above her arched brows and flaring eyeliner. Her mouth forms an exaggerated “O’’ of surprise and sexuality.

 

 

Courtsey The Washington Post