Sanam Maher is the author of the critically acclaimed A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch. It tells the story of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch (Fauzia Azeem), an aspiring actress and model from a working class village in Punjab. Labelled Pakistan's Kim Kardashian, the 26-year-old became a viral sensation after posting videos online, which subjected her to death threats and public condemnation. Her shock murder by her brother in 2016 attracted global headlines, sparking a discussion on violence against women, sexuality and cyber harassment in Pakistan. SBS Voices presenter Sarah Malik speaks to Maher on investigating Qandeel Baloch's life and her murder.
Why did you want to cover this story?
It was huge in Pakistan, but it was also being covered by every freelancer and every international correspondent.
There was this neat narrative that was playing out constantly in the documentaries and articles. It was a story that was being told of this woman from Pakistan who was trying to live life on her own terms. She tried to be independent and to carve out a niche for herself but her family could not accept it, her brother could not accept it, so of course as it happens with women in Pakistan she was killed for it.
There were a lot of questions I had that weren’t being answered like - how did this woman become as famous as she did? What was her life like before she become famous? What was the impetus to become famous?
In order to become a viral social media star you have to understand your audience well and you have to understand what the audience wants to see. You can go viral for doing something once, but to sustain that and make it a career says a lot about you as a curator of your own image.
Qandeel was so great at that, she kept giving us things that made us not be able to look away. I started to think about the audience in this story. What kind of place decided it could not tolerate her anymore? What does her story say about us?
What does Qandeel’s story tell us about Pakistan?
My generation of Pakistanis are connected to a world at a scale like never before. What are we doing online? What kind of spaces are we creating for ourselves? What are we looking at when we are online and what are we aspiring to? How are Pakistani youth looking at those things?
They are saying, “Oh I want to live my life that way or I want to do these things. I want to do this job. I want to dress this way. I want to go to school in this way.”
But when there’s a disconnect between what you’re aspiring for and what you’re rooted in, and that doesn’t have the space for those aspirations, where does that leave us? There’s a real anxiety about that.
It isn’t just about this one woman, it’s about what is changing around us. All of these foreign journalists are coming in to tell our story, but where are we in this? That was my frustration.
I’m 33 years old. I was 32 when I wrote this. I wanted a book that spoke to me, and readers my age. A lot of the foreign reports we see about Pakistan, tends to be terrorism, politics and the history of the place, but how exactly are we living right now? That’s what I wanted to read.
What shocked you the most during the process of researching this book?
The part that really brought things home for me, was when I went to her village in rural Punjab. It’s strange because I’m from (Karachi) Pakistan. I live here, I grew up here. I work here. I’ve been to a lot of places around the country while reporting. When I went to her village, I was so incredibly aware of instances where I was the only woman in the room.
I remember not seeing women on ads in billboards. The only women you see are very covered up. They were wearing burqas I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the country. Usually with a burqa, you’d have a slit for the eyes, something to see. Here it was burqa which was fabric falling from the top and only a small opening at the top of burqa.
A man told me, ‘That opening is there so they don’t suffocate inside that fabric in the summer when it’s extremely hot’.
I was there with a shalwar kameez and dupatta, dressed modestly. I was covered up and I remember feeling like 'I’m almost naked here'. It was a strange moment of realisation of where Qandeel actually came from and how people look at women there and how they were talking about her murder.
They felt relieved they no longer had to worry about this problem. People from her village were worried that once the whole world found out that she was from this village they would feel ashamed they were associated with her. They felt very glad that now they are associated with her brother who killed her.
Your book felt very compassionate and respectful of Qandeel and her story. I can’t help but think that’s a reflection of you being a young local female journalist, with an entry point in this that is different. So much of the coverage of her death made me angry - the slut-shaming and class snobbery was heartbreaking and devastating.
I don’t want to be critical of journalists who did cover this story. A lot of women who did cover this in Pakistan were incredibly empathic and felt it very deeply. The way they had to work on it was very different to the way I got to work on it. I didn’t have the strict deadlines they had or the restrictions in terms of my audience. Obviously when you are working on a documentary or article for a foreign paper you’re going to be given certain guidelines, and it matches the media groups’ media guidelines and you have to work along with that. I was given the freedom of a year to work on this.
My publisher didn’t tell me, “ok well this has to be a book that appeals to a young Indian woman or a young American woman.” I was writing this for readers like myself. When we are looking at coverage, a lot was done by young women empathetic to Qandeel but they might not have had the opportunity to express this. This is what has come out from a lot of conversations I have had with people who covered it.
In regards to the second question and the snobbery associated with coverage of Qandeel, that makes me very angry. Especially when I still see people using her name and image to further a cause, because when she was alive we were not giving her that support. We were not giving her a platform to speak. There was a lot of sympathy that came after she was killed because suddenly it was ok to sympathise with ‘this kind of woman’.
Suddenly it was kosher to say 'I feel terrible about what happened to her'. When she did her strip tease video (and received death threats) I didn’t see women coming forward to say, “We think this is so brave, and so amazing. Let her do exactly what she wants.” They were either quiet or critical. That continues to make me sad and angry.
It is something that Qandeel’s mother also said when I interviewed her: "These people in the media who are saying she was so good, where were they when she was alive? Why didn’t they come to her support then?"
Shortly before she was killed, she did a Facebook live show with a Pakistani male host. He asked her, “when are you going to use your fame for good and do something positive for Pakistan?”
She said: “I have a lot of things going on, I’m really busy, there’s a court case against me and I have a lot of work, and my brothers are trying to kill me. But once things settle down I’m thinking about a lot things I want to do.” The host didn’t ask her: “What do you mean your brother is trying to kill you?” It was more, like of course, this kind of woman says dramatic things and the place she comes from, this backward village, of course they want to kill her. We didn’t see it as a red flag. That I think is sad. If she saw this support when she was alive who knows what could have happened.
There was a lot of sympathy that came after she was killed because suddenly it was ok to sympathise with ‘this kind of woman’.
What does Qandeel's story tell us about sex and shame and how women bear the brunt of that?
The issue of having shame tied into sex or sexuality is not anything new for us in this region, but it’s not unique to Pakistan. In a lot of interviews, she is asked ‘Why do you continue to post these videos, don’t you see what people say?"
They would refer to people’s comments on Facebook like: ‘You’re such a slut ‘ You should die’ and ‘You’re so shameful.'
It was almost as if we were asking her ‘why don’t you feel shame?'
She could post a picture and within a minute there would be hundreds of comments in the same vein, saying 'You’re so disgusting, cover up, I’m going to kill you'. Men sending her guns and d*** pics. She didn’t back down in the face of that.
She would read them and even respond. We were confused about what kind of woman refuses to feel shame.
What kind of woman refuses to back down when we are policing her for her behaviour and saying, “this is not ok, we don’t accept this.” In fact, she turns around and says, “I don’t care, you’re continuing to watch it.” In this way she holds up such a mirror to us. She would say this to a lot of commentators too, “Did I force you to look at picture? Why are you here doing it?”
She was like a truth-teller holding up a mirror to society. So much of the response to her was a combination of male rage and a confused and hypocritical relationship to their own sexuality.
I’d see in Urdu papers, pictures of Qandeel’s body - front page graphic pictures. We seem to prefer a dead woman to one who is overtly sexual or who asks you to desire her or who expresses her desire. The sad thing is even when women are coming forward and saying 'this man assaulted me', women still get shamed for that.
Usually the remarks are: “What were you wearing? Why were you with him? We don’t believe you. He’s never behaved like this with anyone else.” We had a case in Pakistan where singer Meesha Shaafi accused singer and actor Ali Zafar of behaving inappropriately. He sued her for defamation and the case is continuing. Any time Meesha will post on social media, she will get comments like: “You are slut, a whore, why do you dress this way? I don’t believe you.”
Are young people forcing change in the country or is this kind of violence a public punishing tool to keep everyone in their place?
I think young Pakistani men and women are fed up. It’s as simple as people wanting to just be able to wear what they want and if you want to put up a selfie you can do that and not worry what is coming your way. It’s not even about being overtly sexual, but as simple as choosing who you want to marry.
Sanam Maher will be appearing at the Sydney Opera House 'All About Women' festival on March 8.
"A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch" is published by Bloomsbury. RRP $29.99.