KARACHI: An overwhelming majority of the men in Pakistan look to women in their families as their honour and pride. The respect is based on cultural and religious traditions that seek to address the gender divide. However, a system that has exploited these values for generations in order to deliberately tame the womenfolk gives birth to corrupt and vile practices.
Honour killing is one such evil. In the middle of July 2016, Pakistan was shocked by the honour killing of media sensation Qandeel Baloch in Multan. In the days to follow, the younger brother of Baloch would confess to the murder on live television, surrounded by police officials and journalists.
Qandeel had shot to fame in October 2013 after a video of her audition for a singing competition was widely shared on the internet, or in modern lingo, went viral. In the video, she was seen pleading with the judges to consider her for the finals of the event even after they had rejected her.
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Afterwards, the aspiring singer gained a huge following on social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Qandeel used to make random videos for her followers, cashing in on the shock value of the content she created, and thus commanding mass attention on social media for small stretches of time.
However, the stardom came at a price. Very soon, reporters dug up her past, and posted her details on the internet, including a copy of her passport. In the space of a few hours, Qandeel Baloch, who had operated under a pseudonym, went from being just another internet celebrity to Fouzia Azeem, a girl from a small village in Punjab, who had brought dishonor upon her conservative family.
In her death, she achieved what politicians, rights activists, men, women, and countless others had been struggling with for decades. The government was forced to pass amendments to existing honour killing laws following her murder. The curious case cried out for attention, and countless reporters and analysts covered it in detail for media outlets. However, Karachi-based author and journalist Sanam Maher decided to write a book about it.
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The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch was published and released by the Aleph Book Company in May 2018. The book is also slated for a July 2019 release outside Pakistan under a revised name by Bloomsbury Books.
The work compiles the events surrounding and leading up to the murder of Qandeel Baloch on the night of July 15, 2016. Maher has reported extensively on the matter, interviewing the family, reporters, professional colleagues and others connected with the victim.
The Express Tribune spoke to Sanam Maher about her new book, honour killings, social media and the role women pay in our society. Parts of the conversation with the author have been reproduced below for interested readers. A short review of her book follows the interview.
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In conversation with Sanam Maher
You have been a journalist for quite a long time and must have come across many gut-wrenching personal stories. What drove your interest in the life of Qandeel Baloch to the point that you chose to write a book about her?
In July 2016, I remember staring at the television the day news of Qandeel’s murder broke, and feeling stunned. The idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us – her audience and the media – and who had created this persona that we had bought into wholesale took root. I admired her gumption and the courage it must have taken to create the persona that she did.
Then, in the hours and days after, it was terrible to see the reactions online from many Pakistanis who were very happy that she had been “punished” for behaving the way that she did.
I saw acquaintances in my own social media feeds having arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Qandeel “deserved” what had been done to her.
“Offline”, many of the men and women I knew were condemning Qandeel’s death but then, in the next breath, following their statements with “… but if you think about it…”.
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. And this definition is not static, but ever evolving, depending on who you’re talking to.
I wanted to tell a story not just about Qandeel, but about that definition. I knew that this book wasn’t just about Qandeel, but about the kind of place that enabled her to become who she did, and the place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her.
How did Qandeel change Pakistan?
If we as Pakistanis were inspired to change or become more empathetic as a result of witnessing how women can pay a terribly high price for living life on their own terms, we wouldn’t be in a place where we’re hearing that some women at the Aurat Marches are receiving death and/or rape threats.
How has your experience of writing (reporting, researching,editing) the book changed you?
Professionally, it has been incredible to work with editors who are willing and able to mentor you and help you bring out the best of your work and capabilities.
I don’t think we get enough of that in local newsrooms – especially now, as so many good reporters and editors have been laid off at different media houses.
The book is in its third reprint now and the positive response to it and the approach it took to tell Qandeel’s story, to use her story as a means of understanding a particular moment and response to a tragedy in Pakistan, gives me hope that editors and publishers will be more interested in nuanced coverage of stories from our part of the world.
I’m interested more than ever in feeding the reader’s need for that kind of approach to storytelling.
Do you think your book has started larger debates around honour killing and the role women play in our society? Do you not think that an Urdu (or perhaps any local language) translation would go a long way towards helping this cause? Are you doing anything to make that happen?
I don’t think my book kickstarted this debate – it would be quite pompous on my part to take credit for debates and discussions that have been ongoing for years as some activists and journalists have been doing great work in making sure we don’t stop talking about honour killings.
I’m more than happy to put out an Urdu edition of the book but haven’t been approached yet by any publisher serious about working on a translation.
The book dives into personal stories of people that have no link to Qandeel. What purpose do these serve in your account?
The book doesn’t just focus on Qandeel. While this is very much a book about who she was, it also tries to answer another question: since she created a persona that she knew would appeal to us, what did we see reflected back to ourselves when we watched Qandeel’s videos or looked at her photographs? So the book uses parts of Qandeel’s life in order to open up into a story about Pakistan and young Pakistanis at this particular moment.
So for instance, when looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to “offline”?
What happens when we behave in a way online that seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, “in the real world”?
In exploring these ideas, I met with Arshad Khan aka the Chaiwallah, as well as the men and women who are trying to patrol our activities online and monitor and censor us, and others who are determined to keep us safer and more vocal online – particularly in the case of women and marginalized or minority communities.
That meant meeting everyone from trolls and hacktivists to Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline, and learning how our “offline” tendencies, such as our kneejerk reactions to women who don’t behave or look or talk like we might want or expect them to, are creeping online.
I wanted to explore how we might be connected to a global space of ideas and possibilities online, but we’re still very much grounded in the society and culture we live in here in Pakistan, and through Qandeel’s story and some of the others in the book, you see the terrible ramifications that a clash between the two can have.
The book has been published with a different name recently, perhaps for release outside Pakistan. Why has the name of the book changed for western audiences?
That edition, titled ‘A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch’, has not been published yet – it comes out in the UK, Europe and Australia in July with Bloomsbury.
It's quite common for books to be released in different territories with different titles. It’s the publisher’s call to see whether a certain title with resonate or not with readers in different countries.
Can you tell us a little bit about your future projects?
For the moment I’m back to freelancing and working on several pieces over the next couple of months. Any future book projects are still in the research phase right now.
Do you have any message for young readers, especially women, reading The Express Tribune?
Read as widely, as often as you can, in any format you can. I get asked frequently about how one can go about becoming a writer and I’m always surprised by the resistance to this first crucial step: you must be a constant reader.
The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is based primarily on interviews that the author has conducted with the family, friends, and other people connected with the deceased. In addition, the narrative focuses on how reporters and police officials handled the news of the killing.
Sanam Maher is an experienced journalist, and this is quite evident in her writing. Although readers might be a little put-off by the premise, wherein the book is not entirely about Qandeel but about the people surrounding her, the detailed reporting of the incident and the investigation following it more than makeup for any shortcomings.
Also, the book explores in detail the stories of other women that the author encountered while researching the life of Fouzia Azeem. In some respects, each of these stories represents what Azeem could have been had her life turned out differently. According to the author, these characters are also meant to capture the clash of modern and ancient traditions, as played out on a global stage.
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In the book, we meet Khushi Khan, an aspiring model turned designer from the disaster-struck areas of Kashmir who moved to Islamabad for work and has to support a family back in her hometown. For this girl, life is all about making tough choices.
Maher also dives into the life of digital rights activist Nighat Dad, a lawyer from a conservative family who runs a non-profit organisation called Digital Rights Foundation. DRF aims to provide a platform for young people, especially women, to report harassment on the internet.
The chaiwalla also makes an appearance in the book. The popularity of Arshad Khan has waned since a picture of his went viral, and in the book, the author tries to understand how the time Khan spent in the media spotlight has changed his life, and the life of those around him.
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But the book is not just about these people. Many details about the life of Qandeel Baloch come to light as the book progresses. The reader learns about the childhood of Qandeel, her short-lived marriage, her modelling career, and more.
Baloch was born into a family of eleven, and had six brothers. She hailed from a small village near Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab, and was married off to a man much older than her when she was just a child. After fighting her way out of that relationship, Qandeel eventually became a model and a social media celebrity.
Although Qandeel had been moderately famous for quite a long time on social media, she shot to stardom when she publicly flirted with a prominent religious leader. The book also looks at how that short-lived stardom played a part in her killing.
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Throughout the book, Maher looks at how technology has become an extension of our bodies, penetrating our lives and changing it in a profound manner. However, readers are also reminded how these changes are also a catalyst for violence.
Apart from honour killing, the book explores themes such as the power of social media, internet stardom, as well as the clash of cultures, globalisation and religion. The author has tried very hard to link the narrative together without appearing to be biased.
The stellar reporting and the engaging story make for a very interesting read. It would not be wrong to say that the debut novel of Sanam Maher is an excellent book and a testament to her writing prowess. Fatima Bhutto called her one of the finest young writers in Pakistan, and it is hard to disagree.