Reproductive Rights, Culture, Gender, Policy, Inequality

The pseudo power of Islam and societal policing in Pakistan

In the wake of Rabi Pirzada, I am thinking of Qandeel Baloch

On November  1, 2019, Pakistani singer Rabi Pirzada’s private pictures were leaked online.

While social media has always sparked a debate about privacy, it comes with extra weight when this discussion is sparked in Pakistan, where a family’s honor is based on the modesty of the female members. Because of this convoluted idea of repressing a woman’s sexuality, victims of cybercrimes are rarely ever seen as victims – instead, these women are denounced by society, making them susceptible to all kinds of vulgar and lethal threats.

Rabi Pirzada was, unfortunately, no exception to this mindset, but her incident reminded us of one of the first times a woman paid the price for being a victim. In the wake of Rabi Pirzada today, I am thinking of Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch stirred her patriarchal and self-righteous society when she ran away from her humble village life to pursue her dreams of becoming a model and actress. While the entertainment industry is difficult to penetrate, Baloch used social media to boost her publicity, and soon she became a celebrity because of her risqué videos and uncensored monologues where she would call out society’s misguided sense of morality. In fact, in 2016, she tried to expose a religious figure of Pakistan, Abdul Qavi.

In June, Baloch made appearances on local news channels where she spoke about videos she took in Qavi’s hotel room, insisting that he invited her and she was trying to expose the double standards of our clergy while imposing the suppression of women. 

That summer, Baloch was strangled to death by her brother, for smearing their family’s honor. The unapologetic murderer is now serving time, but society hails him a hero.

Any time a woman is at the forefront of a conversation in Pakistan, all women fear for her life. We must tread lightly, for society is always ready to exploit our talent and appearance for their benefit. But any time a woman tries to reclaim her power and take charge of her autonomy, she is condemned immediately.

For instance, men on the Twitterverse had no problem indulging in Pirzada’s private pictures, but their indulgence apparently only spoke volumes about Pirzada’s character, not their own.

So what distinguishes Pirazada from Baloch? Why was one forgiven and the other murdered? The answer lies in the pseudo-power of Islam in Pakistani society. A country whose identity and culture are so deeply intertwined with religion becomes easy to manipulate.

A demure, conservative woman is ideal, but our society is not opposed to entertainment either, and therein lies our moral grey area. Because entertainment is still encouraged, women like Baloch and Pirzada do rise to stardom on the shoulders of the very same people. However, any time a woman owns her sexuality as a part of her identity and refuses to let society police her, she becomes a watched target, much like Baloch before she passed away.

Pirzada also owned her sexuality, and while her leaked pictures were private, they exposed a woman who transcended beyond societal judgment – which is unacceptable. However, because Pirzada has seen multiple nameless women become a victim overnight, she took matters in her own hands. Instead of challenging the misogyny, she released a video dressed in somber, modest clothing, condemning her own behavior, and promising to leave the path of entertainment to pursue the service of God.

In an effort to appease the violent bystanders, she promised to pray for forgiveness for mistakes that were between her and God. This response seemed to be exactly what all the self-righteous men and women were waiting for, as it provoked a positive reaction.

Thousands of people responded with praise, complimenting her strength – even praying for her forgiveness with her. It was a miracle to watch a woman be exposed, and walk away scot-free.

But it would be a lie to call it “progress,” in any form.

Progress is not built on the backs of manipulation and the pseudo-power of a religion that is about peace.

Progress would have been our social standing by Pirzada, rather than scaring her into manipulation.

Watching her video made me ride a rollercoaster of emotions that I was not prepared for. It started with admiration for her wit, as I thought about how cleverly she manipulated all the people who are praising her now. That turned into disgust and sadness as I watched how far we are capable of pushing someone because the alternative is getting murdered.

And that amplified into anger as I thought of Qandeel Baloch, a truly fearless woman who could not be backed into a corner. She rose with guns blazing, and instead of giving in to the pseudo-power of religion, she dared to expose our clergy. But she ended up murdered in her own bed, while Pirzada is given a second chance because she uttered God’s name at the right time.

I used to think that, for every day a woman is not harmed, I would consider it a win. However, can we really call it a win if it includes the exploitation of our values and morality that is based on misogyny and patriarchy?

Instead of continuing to build the pseudo-power and authority of Islam in our society, wouldn’t we benefit more if we tried to detangle our identities from religion so that it could regain its purity rather than being used as a tool for societal policing and civil judgments?