"Honor killings": It's hard to think of a more ironic phrase. In some lands, like Pakistan, it means to kill a relative -- most often a girl or woman -- because of anxieties over actual or perceived immorality.
It happened again with the weekend murder of Qandeel Baloch, who has been called the Pakistani Kim Kardashian for her many tweeted cheesecake photos, Facebook posts and appearances in videos. Baloch, 26, was strangled by a brother for "honorable" reasons.
At GetReligion, we've complained for years about the reticence of many media professionals to link the killings with some versions of Islam. And here we go again, with USA Today blaming nebulously described "conservatives":
Baloch, whose real name was Fauzia Azeem, shot to fame and notoriety with a series of social media postings that would be tame by Western standards but were deeply scandalous by conservative Pakistani societal norms. She cultivated an outrageous public persona, recently promising to perform a public striptease if the Pakistani cricket team won a major tournament.
Baloch had a large following of more than 700,000 people on her official Facebook page. She posted recently she was “trying to change the typical orthodox mindset of people who don’t wanna come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices.”
You know conservatives. Those are the guys who oppress women and hold back progress and cut welfare and keep out immigrants. The heavy implication is that in Pakistan and in the U.S., conservatives are pretty much alike.
And just so we didn’t miss the point, the paper headlined the article as "Pakistani model killed after offending conservatives." That may have gotten complaints: The version I saw read, "Pakistani social media celeb is dead after apparent 'Honor Killing'." But you can still see the original headline in the web address, which includes the phrase "pakistani-model-killed-after-offending-conservatives."
Newsbusters called out the newspaper on this blunder -- even naming writer Nick Penzenstadler:
Reporters like Penzenstadler find no problem in defining evil people as "conservatives." In this case, the brother had more conservative morals, so why not? Liberal reporters have also used "conservative" to describe the hard-core communists in Russia or China, since they wanted to "conserve" communism. The same applied to racists trying to preserve apartheid in South Africa.
The story says Penzenstadler responded with puzzlement, saying he "couldn't understand why using 'conservatives' was insulting. But Newsbusters could have said much the same of the Associated Press, which dropped the "C" word three times. Baloch "offended many conservatives" by posing in photos with Mufti Qavi, a prominent cleric. The pictures scandalized "conservative Pakistan." And honor killings "punishment for violating conservative norms."
And it's not just them. The New York Times tells the same story of conservative brutality against liberal expressiveness:
Her bold persona defied the conventions of Pakistan, a deeply conservative society. She was reviled by some in the country for being crass and vulgar, and prone to attention-seeking stunts. But other Pakistanis admired her defiance and independence. She attracted more than 700,000 followers on Facebook and at least 40,000 on Twitter.
"Qandeel was probably the first true female internet celebrity in Pakistan, in that her celebrity had nothing to do with any achievement beyond her provocative presence on social media," said Hasan Zaidi, a Pakistani filmmaker and media critic.
The BBC likewise skirts religious references, focusing instead on how younger Pakistanis saw Baloch as a "cultural icon and hailed her liberal views." It even ends with a mini-sermon:
But in Pakistan, women, especially poor ones, still lack basic rights, from schooling to choosing a husband and violence against them is rife. The country struggles with sexuality and especially with "immodest" women.
The fact that many of her videos went viral suggests a titillating fascination with confident female sexuality - along with fear of its power and of her assertion of independence. However she lived her life, tweeted one, it was her life.
Yep, it's all politics and social norms. Never mind that Pakistan's people are more than 96 percent Muslim. Is it possible that many among them interpret their faith to allow honor killings?
The fact that Baloch's death followed her posed photos with Mufti Qavi should have tipped off mainstream media that more than social stuffiness was at work. It should have led journalists to ask religious leaders for answers.
Our former GR colleague George Conger raised this point three years ago, after three women were shot dead in Pakistan:
Pride, culture and religion are cited as reasons for the honor killing. If the reporting does not lay out why these killers interpreted their faith as allowing them to kill women, the reader is left to conclude that the killers are moral monsters, are fanatics or insane.
Tmatt lapsed into sarcasm in 2014 after the BBC reported the stoning of a woman:
Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:
Under Pakistani law, the victim's family is allowed to forgive the killer. However, in many cases family members are themselves responsible for the killing.
And what legal system forms the foundation of Pakistani law? What, for example, has been the root cause for the headline-generating Pakistan cases in which believers in a minority faith, usually Christianity, are accused of apostasy against the faith at the heart of the nation's government and culture?
Other media could have taken a lesson from The Independent, which ran a long interpretative story after the 2013 killing:
Stoning is not legal in most Muslim countries and there is no mention of it in the Koran. But supporters argue that it is legitimised by the Hadith – the acts and sayings of the Prophet Mohamed. Stoning is set out as a specific punishment for adultery under several interpretations of sharia or Islamic law. In some instances, even a woman saying she has been raped can be considered an admission to the crime of zina (sex outside marriage).
Understand: No one here is saying that honor stonings are basic to Islam. They are rooted in a particular interpretation of Islam, as filtered through cultures and societies. Mainstream media would do well to seek out Islamic sources who can explain the beliefs.
Photos from Qandeel Baloch's Facebook page.