Qandeel Baloch’s Murder Is Shocking But the Mindset Behind it Isn’t

Last week, Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was brutally murdered by her own brother because he didn’t like her Instagram fame.

Qandeel’s brother’s actions were extreme. But Qandeel, known as “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian,” was a woman who unashamedly used her beauty and her image for her own gain — and even in the U.S., plenty of people struggle with that concept.

How many times have you heard a woman with a lot of followers derisively referred to as an “Instagram thot”? How many times have you heard people act like selfie culture is the end of the world? How many times have you judged someone else’s shameless selfie?

A woman who posts a selfie — or owns her appearance and sexuality in any other way — isn’t hurting anyone. But many of us still find it outrageous and offensive that someone could look in the mirror, like what she sees, and share it with the world for her own gain.

It’s twisted — we celebrate women for their beauty and sex appeal, but only if someone else has granted them the right to celebrate it. If a director, a photographer, or a record label decides you’re worthy of acclaim, great. But if you decide to go for it yourself by posting photos and commodifying your own appearance, you’re desperate.

“She’s so into herself,” we say. “She’s an attention whore. Who does she think she is?”

Qandeel was frequently criticized for presenting herself in an overtly sexual way. But the real trouble came last month, according to the Wall Street Journal, when she posed in a flirty way with Islamic cleric Abdul Qavi, taking selfies while wearing his cap. This resulted in uproar and was apparently the final straw in Qandeel’s brother’s eyes.

“I am not embarrassed at all over what I did,” he reportedly said. He’s also said, “Girls are born only to stay at home and to bring honor to the family by following family traditions but Qandeel had never done that.”

Qandeel’s murder obviously had religious and cultural motivations that go way deeper than a hatred of selfie culture. But we can’t pretend that her brother’s motivation for killing her doesn’t stem from a discomfort with female agency that’s present in most societies.

We demand that women are beautiful, sexy, and presentable at all times. But when women achieve this beauty and sex appeal, it had better look like a coincidence. We’re supposed to be naturally beautiful. Under no circumstances are we supposed to admit that we strive for our beauty or, worse still, that we’re enjoying it. Once the general public sees any effort going into it or any self-enjoyment coming out, all the benefits of that beauty are nullified.

Most societies still value a woman’s appearance above all else. But when women decide we don’t need someone else to tell us we’re pretty or sexy or desirable, people lose their shit.

And as we wrote back when Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie was causing a massive media kerfuffle, public opinion of a woman’s body still has more power than what a woman actually does with it. If Qandeel Baloch took selfies and never showed them to anyone, maybe she’d still be alive. But because she was reveling in her beauty and making the choice to use it as an asset, her appearance became a weapon to be used against her.

“I am a social-media sensation, I am a fashion icon,” the Wall Street Journal quotes Qandeel as having said in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “I don’t know how many girls have felt support through my persona. I’m a girl power. So many girls tell me I’m a girl power, and yes, I am.”

This news should be a harsh reality check for anyone who condemns social media as something shallow and frivolous. Social media is a means for women to control their own image and profit from it in the ways we choose, after centuries of having our beauty commodified by others. It shouldn’t take an honor killing for us to realize how many people find this idea threatening. And as women, we need to defend our right to it.

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