“I was determined either to kill myself or kill her.”
This was the explanation a Pakistani social media star’s brother gave reporters Sunday when he confessed to strangling her to death.
“Money matters,” he continued, “but family honor is more important.”
The brother confirmed what the reports suspected: Qandeel Baloch, 26, died in an “honor killing,” a homicide of a woman who has brought “shame” to her family. Baloch’s name and photo spread across the news, bringing her a notoriety in death she had been seeking in life. She was far from a household name in the United States, but her prominence in Pakistan — and the controversy around it — was beginning to gain attention around the world.
Baloch, whose real name is Fauzia Azeem, first caught the public’s eye in an audition for “Pakistan Idol,” a singing competition show spun off of “American Idol.” She didn’t win, or even make it past the first audition in front of the three judges. But the fit she had upon hearing the news of her rejection was enough to launch the video on Facebook, where she was mostly mocked for her reaction. In the age of social media, those five minutes of fame can be leveraged — soon enough, Baloch was attracting thousands of fans to her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, where she regularly posted pictures and videos of herself. They were risque: Often she can be seen laying in a bed, wearing bold red lipstick or baring her cleavage.
Such a maneuver would hardly make most social media-savvy Americans bat an eye. But in Pakistan, a country with strict conservative values — especially for women — Baloch was shocking. She was called every slut-shaming name in the book, from people who were just annoyed with her self-involvement to those deeply offended by her show of sexuality.
In her mind, she was taking a stand for women.
“I am an inspiration to those ladies who are treated badly by society,” she once said. “I will keep on achieving and I know you will keep on hating.”
Perhaps her persistence was the product of her unsettling past, of which her fans and critics only recently learned. When she was 17, she was forced to marry a much older man who she claims was abusive. They had a son together.
“The kind of torture he has inflicted on me, you can’t even imagine,” she told Dawn.com.
Her former husband denies these claims. Baloch eventually left him, and became estranged from her son. This revelation made waves, but it was another recent scandal that seemed to lead to her killing.
During Ramadan, she posted selfies on her social-media accounts with Mufti Abdul Qavi, a prominent Muslim cleric. It appeared the two were together in a hotel room. One photo even showed Baloch wearing the cleric’s traditional fur-lined hat.
They said they were meeting for Iftar, the meal that breaks a day of fasting during Ramadan. Qavi claimed he was there to discuss the teachings of Islam with Baloch. But the Pakistani government punished him, removing him from the committee that decides when Ramadan begins and ends. Baloch felt the backlash on social media. She petitioned the government to provide her with security because of all the death threats she was receiving.
Little did she know, the real threat was in her own family. Though they seem like a relic of a far-ago time, “honor killings” are still rampant in Baloch’s country. An estimated 1,000 Pakistani women are killed this way every year. In June, a father lit his daughter on fire because she eloped. When a 19-year-old schoolteacher refused to marry a man twice her age, she too was burned alive. In May, 14 tribal leaders were arrested for burning a teenage girl to death — not because she eloped, but because she helped her friend do so.
Baloch’s younger brother, Waseem Azeem, said his motivation was the taunting and embarrassment his sister brought upon their family. He covertly slipped her a sedative, then strangled her.
Many honor killings go unpunished because the law in Pakistan allows for a victim’s family to pardon her killer. But on Monday, police changed the type of report registered in Baloch’s death, according to Dawn. Now her case will “be taken as a murder against the state,” meaning her family cannot stop the government from prosecuting her brother.
Meanwhile, the cleric who appeared in Baloch’s selfies is saying her death is a warning for those who humiliate clerics like she did.
“People should realize that religious clerics are the pious face of Islam,” he said in the New Indian Express. “They should not dare to play with their reputation or try to malign them otherwise they will face the curse of God.”
This story has been updated.