KARACHI: When Qandeel Baloch was killed in July 2016, she left a hole in Pakistan that will take years to fill. This void was felt by everyone, from the judiciary and the loopholes in the law penalising honour killing to the patriarchal system that plagues our society.
But mostly by Pakistani women. The darkness encapsulated them, staring right into their faces. As if it was too close to home, knocking on their door.
Journalist Sanam Maher’s biography The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch manages to dig into this hole, leaving questions in the readers’ minds.
And when a non-fiction compels you to look for answers beyond its pages, making you watch and re-watch Qandeel’s much-talked-about videos, you know the writer has succeeded in getting her point across.
Sanam manages to grab attention right from the start. In her quest to find out more about Qandeel’s life, she manages to talk about an anomaly: middle-class Pakistani women. These are women with little or no representation. They work tirelessly for themselves or their families, only to have their stories stolen by those who think they know them well or who only represent them in line with a man in their life.
But as the book traverses through Qandeel’s life, it gives space to many like her. There is Khushi, who leaves her modelling career for her father and Nighat Dad, who has helped many a middle class woman take legal action against online harassment through her Digital Rights Foundation. It also has Arshad Khan, the famous Chaiwala, whose rags to riches story was cut short by his family’s disproval of the modelling industry.
Through the interviews, Sanam also highlights the suffocating structure of Pakistani society; the society that believes ‘honour’ is above a woman’s life and dismisses almost everything else pertaining to her existence – even her health or security.
Once, on a morning show, Qandeel was asked to recreate a dialogue from one of her videos, wherein she lies on her bed complaining of a stinging headache. Despite her insisting that the headache was real, the host of the show was persistent and so, the late internet star eventually gave in.
But that didn’t happen too often. It was Qandeel’s nonconformist attitude that appalled so many. Even in her last interviews, she repeatedly said “they” want to kill her. But no one seemed disturbed enough to find out who “they” were.
Sanam’s biography humanises the girl that was Fouzia Azeem without trying to justify Qandeel Baloch. Her murder sparked much debate on social media, in newspaper columns and television shows.
But most people who condemned the incident also strongly disapproved of Qandeel’s overtly sexual behaviour, often attributing it to her being misguided and from an underprivileged background, or reacting to an unsuccessful marriage. Even Saba Qamar’s acclaimed Baaghi made Qandeel out to be a victim.
Saba once said, “Unfortunately, in our society, many ambitious women choose the wrong path because of their lack of understanding of the world.” Qandeel was just a woman trying to own her sexuality. But in a country where woman are killed for marrying by their choice, she was an anomaly that no one wanted to accept, not even her own village.
“We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day, some girl is killed and thrown in the river,” said a resident from Shah Sadar Din. This is the same river where she was destined to be thrown by her brother, just like the dark hole Pakistani women stand at the brink of.
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