Journalist Sanam Maher was always intrigued by the sensation that was Qandeel Baloch, but when the news of Baloch’s death rang across the country, Maher found herself with more questions than answers.
This prompted her to begin researching more into the enigma that Qandeel Baloch was and what her life was really like- and this inevitably lead to Maher’s first book, the aptly titled “The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch.”
ProperGaanda spoke to Maher about the book, Baloch and the role of social media for young Pakistanis:
PG: Why this book and why now?
Sanam Maher: I’m interested in social media and what we’re doing on social media, how we’re sort of interacting with that space as young Pakistanis- that’s something that I was already interested in any way. For me, Qandeel was a great way to lead into that story and this idea of what young women are trying to make a space for themselves online. I thought of Qandeel for that and never followed up on it- but then when the news broke of her murder I realized “this was it” – this is the story that I want to work on. I could see so many of the things in my work playing into that, but beyond that, it was this idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us as an audience. As someone who worked in the media, even I didn’t know very much about her. At that point (after her murder) we were learning she had a husband, a child, was in the abusive marriage and was supporting her parents… The persona that she had created for herself and the way she presented herself- I feel like all of us were looking at the surface and not really questioning anything beyond that.
PG: So we’re talking about social media and young Pakistanis- are you looking at alternate realities or imagining the future?
SM: I think it’s really anything that we want it to be – you have a lot of marginalized communities are getting to use this space in ways they don’t get to offline, the conversations, the communities that they are finding and the way they get to engage with the world. My interest is interested in this generation of Pakistanis- we are the first generation of Pakistanis that have been connected to the world in this way on a scale that has never happened before. We’re getting to see what everyone around the world is doing. A lot of times how you’re behaving online- you’re living in the world outside Pakistan, but then offline you’re very much rooted in the world, society, and culture over here. I’m very interested in how those two things go up against each other and the repercussions of that.
With the book also, the structure that follows is that it uses a lot of different parts of Qandeel’s life to open up the story to other Pakistanis. One huge part of it is looking at what she was doing online- it opens up stories about cybercrime. Nighat Dad, looking at what happens to women who get trolled or harassed online- it kind of just feeds into all these stories about what we are doing online- Qandeel is a great way to find these strands.
PG: Where do you see women’s rights in Pakistan today- and in the future?
SM: To be honest I’m always really confused when I’m asked this question- it’s confusing because over here it is so across the board. When you’re asking someone like me and how I see it. it’s going to be very different from than how another woman from a completely different background will see it. I can’t speak to what her experience is of how feminism is playing out in Pakistan. When you’re saying that there have been more conversations around harassment or #MeToo, where are those conversations happening and who is taking part in them? If that’s something you’re seeing on social media that’s hugely important but it’s one small slice of it. There is a tendency to see this stuff and assume that because you’re having a discussion online that these are filtering offline.
Sometimes what’s happening that there is just there is a lot of noise online that filters offline into talk shows or on the news so if you look at the Meesha Shafi case, there is a lot of discussion about it online and offline there is a lot of talk about it as well- but more is happening beyond that and after that conversation has taken place. What are the ramifications (of this) within our cities or circles; we need to look across this country and what is happening- how does that playing out over there. I would be really interested in how it’s playing with people outside my circle or city.
PG: The media was fixated on Qandeel, can you explain a bit more about what you think was behind it?
SM: As an audience, we have an attention deficit, we constantly want to see something that gets our interest. She interested us because we had never seen a woman behave the way that she was behaving- they hadn’t seen a woman pull the kind of stunts that she was pulling. You can have a lot of viral stars, like the chaiwalla, but then how do you keep our attention as an audience? Someone like Qandeel really understood that and she was looking at a lot of people outside of Pakistan like Kim Kardashian to Sunny Deol- she was looking at the things that these people were doing because she was trying to tap into these strategies for getting attention.
For us very simply she was doing something we hadn’t seen before. To keep our attention she had to keep doing these things such as the video with a Maulvi or the music video. That’s what the book tries to address- as an audience, what exactly were we so fixated by and what does it say about us?
PG: What do you think it means that our society could only pedestalize after her death?
SM: Even now after her death I think that a lot of people immediately rushed to say well she’s an icon and feminist, that she is the image of what an empowered, liberal woman here looks like. We really rushed to pigeonhole her into these categories, (however) while she was alive that conversation wasn’t going on. It was only after her death a lot of these narratives came forward.
I think we would want to see her as the image of what an empowered, carefree Pakistani girl looks like- but then you also have to look behind the scenes- whatever she was doing was a means to an end. It was a way for her to make money for herself and support her family. There was a lot of hustle going on behind the scenes- there were a lot of instances where she was scared or apprehensive about what she was doing at times.
PG: In writing the book, what surprised you- and what didn’t?
SM: I spent two months just researching anything and everything that I could about her- interviews to how her death was covered. I then went to Multan believing that I had a clear handle on the story and that I knew what it was going to be because of all the things I was reading and seeing in the media. This is the story of a girl who has these parents who are very support and understanding of what she’s doing and her brothers don’t appreciate or like it as they think it’s something that brings them dishonor. I thought it was very, very neat. Then I go there and every day when I talk to people I was hearing a completely different side of things with the people I met there that were around her and what they were saying about her.
This is not the story I came here with- it’s completely different. A lot of stuff hadn’t been covered since it didn’t fit a certain narrative of who Qandeel was and what her death met.
After it’s come out I honestly didn’t expect to have some of the conversations I have been having about the book- it’s definitely a minority though. Some of the discussions have been with retailers asking why is her face on the cover of the book because people are really sensitive and that people may not want to see a book with her name on it. I still don’t know what to make of things like that.
Sanam Maher is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. For more than a decade, she has covered
stories on Pakistan’s art and culture, business, politics, religious minorities, and women.
The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is her first book.