Sanam Maher remembers staring at the television – the day the news of Qandeel Baloch’s murder surfaced – and feeling stunned. She knew she couldn’t let go of her story again.

Before Sanam started freelancing, she worked as an editor in a newsroom at a daily English paper in Karachi. The first time the journalist learned about Qandeel was in that very newsroom, when she heard her colleagues talking about Baloch’s viral How I’m looking? video. Sanam looked Qandeel up on the internet and what she saw led the journalist to want to do a story focusing on how young Pakistani women were using social media to push the envelope on how they can dress, speak or present themselves. The piece was never written – lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs. However, the idea stayed with Sanam Maher and was eventually translated into a book. SheThePeople.TV converses with the journalist and author about The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch and the global resonance of the life and death of the Pakistani social media sensation.

Maher knew that she did not want to work on a straightforward biography of Qandeel Baloch. The book tells the model’s story, but also uses each part of her life to open up into a story about Pakistan at this particular moment. Sanam wished to inquire into what happens when women behave in a way that seems to break the rules of how they are supposed to behave in the real world. In exploring these ideas, she met everyone from trolls and hacktivists to Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline, as well as Arshad Khan i.e. the Chaiwallah.

The author met with those Qandeel lived with in her village, spent time with her friends and family members, those who loved and missed her, as well as those who were very glad to be rid of her. For the first leg of the journalist’s research process, she was largely in Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Shah Sadar Din, Lahore and Islamabad, tracking Baloch’s movement from the village to the women’s shelter (where she sought refuge when she left her abusive husband and her son) and finally, to Islamabad (where she worked as a model and singer).

 With all the news reports, gossip, TV shows and documentaries, many felt that they already knew Qandeel’s story. “What we know so far has been coloured by the media frenzy around Qandeel’s murder. I was interested in who she was, how Fouzia Azeem became Qandeel Baloch and what that journey or process of transformation revealed about the audience and place that enabled it in the first place,” relates Sanam Maher. Some people were amazed that Baloch didn’t seem to give a damn about what people said. Maher cites that, in many of Qandeel’s interviews, the talk show hosts or news anchors repeatedly asked her why she didn’t stop posting provocative photos or videos – Don’t you see what people say to you in the comments? What kind of woman are you? What kind of woman would behave in this way? She didn’t neatly align with people’s ideas of how women can and should behave, even in the face of criticism, and people just could not stop looking at what she did next.

Qandeel Baloch Sanam Maher
Aleph Book Company

“An honour crime has no basis in Islam. What we’re dealing with here is a deeply rooted social and cultural problem,” asserts Sanam Maher. In Dera Ghazi Khan district (where Qandeel Baloch’s village is located ) honour killings are commonplace. “Let’s say a father murders his daughter or son for honour because he or she married someone of their own free will. That father may end up in jail, but as far as his community or tribe or family goes, he has protected his honour and his family name, and he is thus someone to be praised. It does not matter that he may spend time behind bars,” explains the journalist. As many activists and lawyers working on honour crimes and their legislation have pointed out, the police, legal community and judges also need to be better informed, encouraged and protected when it comes to enforcing legislation. Maher maintains that one of the key requirements for that kind of change is education, greater access to education and a better understanding of why education is crucial for boys and girls.

In Dera Ghazi Khan district (where Qandeel Baloch’s village is located ) honour killings are commonplace. “Let’s say a father murders his daughter or son for honour because he or she married someone of their own free will. That father may end up in jail, but as far as his community or tribe or family goes, he has protected his honour and his family name, and he is thus someone to be praised.

It would be a challenge for the average Pakistani to recognise the faces of any of the hundreds of men and women killed for honour every year. “Their stories and our dismay at yet another killing fades with the grubby newsprint from our fingers as we read about them,” says Sanam. But Qandeel was different. There was a sense of having known her – or a facet of her personality – as many frequently engaged with her online, whether that was to bait her, shame her, secretly watch her videos at night, share her videos with friends, imitate her and make a meme of her.

Thus, the news of Qandeel’s alleged “honour killing” hit home – she was not just another name in the paper, another faceless man or woman written about for one day and then forgotten by most. While many Pakistanis vocalised their approval online for Baloch having been “punished” for behaving the way that she did, what the world and Sanam Maher also witnessed, in July 2016, was that many Pakistani women engaged with the subject of honour killing very vocally online, as they felt they could not stay silent, and they talked about how a Pakistani woman can and should behave and what happens when she is believed to misbehave. “Pakistani women seem to bear the weight of expectations when it comes to determining how we would like the world to view us, and with Qandeel’s murder, many women were coming forward to say they were fed up with shouldering that burden,” explains Maher. According to the author, the reactions to Qandeel’s murder have revealed two very different answers to the question of what it means to be Pakistani, and more crucially, what it means to be a woman living in Pakistan today.

“Pakistani women seem to bear the weight of expectations when it comes to determining how we would like the world to view us, and with Qandeel’s murder, many women were coming forward to say they were fed up with shouldering that burden.” Sanam Maher

Qandeel Baloch
Qandeel Baloch ( Picture Credit: mypakistan.pk)

 In one of her last messages on Facebook, when it had been revealed that she had a former husband and a child, it seemed like Qandeel Baloch was trying to appeal particularly to the women who were viewing her photos and videos. “As a women we must stand up for ourselves,” she wrote. “As a women we must stand up for each other… As a women we must stand up for justice.”

“I’m a girl power. So many girls tell me I’m a girl power, and yes, I am.”

In her last interview before her death, Qandeel spoke for the first time about this kind of feminism. “I don’t know how many girls have felt support through my persona,” she said at the time. “I’m a girl power. So many girls tell me I’m a girl power, and yes, I am.” Sanam thinks that these words would probably have been largely ignored had Qandeel lived, but after her death, they served as a rallying point for those who defended her choices.“It is easy to put Qandeel Baloch on a pedestal now and use her as a hashtag and call her an icon, but when she most needed support from those who praise her today, particularly women, she was let down. It would have been incredible to see what she would have done going forward – had her life not been cut short,” remarks the author.

At the time of Qandeel’s murder, female BBC journalists in Pakistan spoke out about how they too were harassed online at different points in time, receiving everything from threats of acid attacks to rape to warnings that their home addresses or phone numbers were known and could be shared. Maher sees the need for more women to be included in the process of registering a case of harassment, more women able to speak with and counsel young men and women who may need to discuss harassment or bullying or threats online, and greater gender sensitisation at official institutions that deal with this kind of harassment.

Maher sees the need for more women to be included in the process of registering a case of harassment, more women able to speak with and counsel young men and women who may need to discuss harassment or bullying or threats online, and greater gender sensitisation at official institutions that deal with this kind of harassment.

 “I’ve tried to remember always that when the details of Qandeel’s ‘real life’ came forward, it was by force – she never wanted to reveal her real name, or the fact that she had a son and an ex-husband – and something that was deeply distressing for her,” emphasises Sanam Maher. She hopes that, by the end of the book, readers leave knowing a bit more about themselves and the changing life and social dynamics in Pakistan, rather than every juicy, dirty detail of one woman’s life.

Feature Image Credit: Aleph Book Company

The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, by Sanam Maher, has been published by the Aleph Book Company. It is priced at Rs. 599, and is available online and in bookstores.

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