“The reason I chose to make this film, and when I started was right after her murder,” she said. “The reason behind that was … I was thinking about how the ability to choose, the freedom to choose, is such a powerful tool that all of us have. And a lot of us take it for granted, not knowing that many women around the world — not just Pakistan — do not get to exercise that right.”
Usmani participated in a conversation with Gloria Steinem hosted by New York Women in Film & Television on Friday. “A Life Too Short,” from MTV Documentary Films and produced by Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Idetails the events that led to the murder of Pakistani social media star Baloch. After attempting a singing career on “Pakistan Idol,” the star’s social media presence grew to millions of followers. She began to use her Facebook page to express thoughts on women’s rights and Western culture, soon exposing Islamic cleric Mufti Abdul Qavi for his alleged corruption and romantic advances toward her.
Qavi was expelled from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party following the revelation, and many of his followers flooded Baloch’s social media and phone with death threats. In 2016 in the name of an “honor killing,” the star’s brother Waseem Azeem murdered her in her sleep because he believed she brought shame to the family. Azeem was sentenced to life in prison.
“Murderers of honor killing, they are basically celebrated in the prisons by their fellow prisoners,” Usmani said. “Earlier on in Pakistan, if you committed an honor killing, you could be easily forgiven by the family of the murdered. After the death of Qandeel Baloch, there has been a new amendment in the law that the family can no longer forgive the murderer.”
The documentary, which credits Saad Zubair as co-director, explains this, mentioning that a family’s forgiveness now only saves a killer from the death penalty, but not from a life behind bars. Baloch was ultimately killed, Usmani said, because of her decision to question the religious and cultural rules placed on her by society. She often received hate comments and threats due to the way she dressed and acted in her social media videos.
“She had no formal education, but she had this gut, this instinct, this understanding that she wanted to create her own identity,” Usmani said. “And she really went for it. She was taking this sexual agency, this feminine agency into her (own) hands.”
Though the documentary captures a turning point that encouraged legal modifications around honor killings, it also poignantly captures the story of a woman overcoming hardships to exercise her freedom of choice. “It is a story of honor killing, yes,” Usmani said. “But it is also a story of poverty, it is also a story of domestic abuse, it is also a story of child marriage, it is also a story of classicism, it is also a story of trying to find your identity, and it also a story of social media fame. This girl, at a very young age, went through so much and still chose her decision, her definition of herself every time.”