Dir: To say Nasir Khanjan compares to Qandeel Baloch would be wrong. There is little that puts the social media star of mountainous Dir in the same league as the internet sensation who personified the clash between traditional and modern Pakistan – in life and in death.
New Facebook star rises in Dir, in slain Qandeel’s wake
Where Baloch was brash and bold, flaunting her body and speaking her mind to reveal divisions and hypocrisies at the heart of Pakistani society, Khanjan is shy, his speech and body language awkward. Where she confidently looked the camera in the eye, making provocative moves that would bring her both admiration and condemnation from millions; he is tentative and ill at ease in videos posted on his Facebook page.
Except Khanjan wants what the iconic Baloch had before her brother killed her in the name of honour in July. And like Baloch, he has taken the social-media route to achieve a star-status he longs for, after being spurned by media outlets.
“I used to be very active in my school days, performing in plays and skits,” says an androgynous Khanjan who loves modelling. “There is little to do now that I am in college and there are no opportunities for performance.”
As much as he would like to appear on local TV channels, he says, they have refused to employ him as a performer. In absence of other platforms to showcase his talent, the 30 year old model has turned to social media.
“I thought why not use my skills and guts to express my talent on social media,” says Khanjan. Though he says he dresses up carefully so as not to give away his aspirations to limelight, his western clothes and Wayfarers clearly make him a misfit in this deeply conservative part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where religious parties hold sway and have barred women from voting in elections in the past.
When he first started, he didn’t know being on social media would bring him fame. As he received attention and appreciation from fans – with nearly 24000 likes on his Facebook page and counting – Khanjan was encouraged. His posts show him dancing, modeling, waxing political on social issues like the “electricity problems in Pakistan” or calling upon parents to send girls to school for a better future.
Among recent posts in response to a video on his Facebook page that shows him dancing are many that cheer him on. “U have beaten Sunny Leone at dance!! Katrina Kaif will be proud of u!!” says one post. “Somehow I’ve started enjoying these entertainers even more since Qandeel was murdered!!!! Such harmless people trying to be themselves!!!” says another.
However, among posts from admirers are others that bring him down for going against local culture and values. Although, he has been mostly sanguine about such comments, of late the threats directed at him have made Khanjan nervous.
“Things changed suddenly after Qandeel was killed,” he says. “People have now started threatening to kill me, saying I am their honour and that of their village, province and sometimes country.”
The threats – sometimes passive-aggressive and sometimes outright hateful – that Khanjan has ignored by not responding to them turned into warning bells when a neighbour, a young university student, attacked him. He hit Khanjan, leaving him with a bleeding head wound.
This element of honour that killed Qandeel and now threatens Khanjan is not an issue of a certain tribe and village, says Dr Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar based cultural-critic.
“The social construct is built by social institutions and this ‘social construct’ defines gender and gender’s role, and identity and virtues, and these variables are collective. For those who dare question or challenge the social construct, the sanctioning authorities forcefully warn these groups or individuals through boycott, ridicule, exclusion and at the end, elimination.”
The honour-bound joint family system of Khanjan is another hurdle in the way of his media ambitions. Nasir is the youngest of four brothers and eight sisters, three of them married abroad.
“They always complain about his performances on social media,” says Khanjan’s mother. “His brothers-in-law crack jokes about his video clips that make his sisters ashamed of him.”
Qandeel Baloch’s brother killed her because he said people in the family and neighbourhood taunted and provoked him about his sister’s videos. The day she was killed, someone posted on Khanjan’s timeline a mock TV image announcing breaking news: “Khanjan’s sister kills him for reasons of honour.”
Given the threats to social media activists and celebrities, says the Lahore based digital rights activist Nighat Dad, online preventive measures are important for protection.
“Though, Nasir Khanjan sees himself as a harmless entertainer, people here can get offended by anything anytime,” says Dad. “No doubt the Cyber Crimes Bill is a law with many pitfalls; it still gives protection to people like Nasir Khanjan because online threats are now a criminal act.”
Khanjan says people like him who choose to express themselves freely on social media are disowned by relatives because of their profession or views. Music, art, acting, singing and dancing are not considered decent professions in conservative rural Pakistan.
Khanjan’s elder brother told News Lens: “Our family has nothing to do with Nasir.” Family members, including brothers and cousins, have ostracized him because of his online videos.
“Most of my relatives have disowned me,” said Khanjan. “Some are even angry and this anger is caused by negative comments from people. I am nobody’s honour but my own.”
After Qandeel Baloch’s death, he is afraid of his relatives. “I am afraid of my own family now because it was not a stranger who killed Qandeel but her own brother.”