The Complicated Afterlife of a Murdered Social Media Star
"A Woman Like Her" is a portrait of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani woman who refused the life set before her
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On 15 July 2016, 26-year-old Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother in Multan, Pakistan.
In the years leading up to her death, Qandeel posted an array of videos on social media. In one, she playfully asked her friend in broken English: “How I’m looking?” (it became a meme). In another, she promised to strip on camera if Pakistan won their cricket match (they lost). In several, she declared her love for the cricketer (now Prime Minister) Imran Khan. In most, she dressed exactly as she pleased: skirts, swimsuits, shoulders on display.
Thanks to these videos, Qandeel acquired innumerable fans and haters across Pakistan, and rose to unprecedented online fame. Unprecedented, that is, for a teenager who escaped a violent marriage. Unprecedented for a girl who came from one of the least developed areas of Pakistan. Unprecedented, in other words, for a woman like her.
Sanam Maher’s debut book A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star is a compelling work of sharp, empathetic reportage. In order to tell Qandeel’s story, Maher deep dives into the lives of dozens of Pakistani men and women. From the investigator in charge of the case (one of the first women in her hometown to join the police force) to the preacher implicated in Qandeel’s murder (known as a “true preacher of liberal Islam”), A Woman Like Her is a portrait of Pakistan as much as it is a portrait of one Pakistani woman who refused the life set before her.
Here’s a moment that stayed with me. The area where Qandeel came from is one where women are visibly missing from the landscape; where, in fact, they are often not given any shoes. When Maher asks a local journalist why this is the case, he impatiently explains: “If you’re not wearing shoes and you walk outside, where will your eyes remain?”
A Woman Like Her is the story of women who look straight up.
Richa Kaul Padte: At age 17, Qandeel is in a violent marriage. After the birth of their child, her husband snaps at her: “You have a son, what more do you want?” You write of this incident: “Even six months later…the answers to her husband’s question beat within her like the maddening tick-tocking of a clock’s hand frozen on a minute in time. What more do you want?” In A Woman Like Her, you make so much space for women who are taught to want nothing. Or at least nothing more than a male heir. Was this your intention at the outset?
Sanam Maher: It’s such a powerful question, isn’t it: what more do you want? What space do we have for this wanting? Even if all you want is to be someone, to have people know your name—can we allow it?
When Qandeel was killed, something you would hear a lot of was, “What else did she expect?” After all, she put photos and videos of herself online, angering her brother and [community], so wasn’t she asking for it? I started out wanting to interrogate this response, but I didn’t anticipate that I would want answers to other questions too. For instance, when I met Qandeel’s mother, I was struck by her behavior and how she spoke about her dead daughter. I was using my own frame of reference. I thought: Wouldn’t a mother be totally bereft? Wouldn’t she be beside herself with grief? I expected her to behave in a way that made sense to me when we were dealing with a totally senseless situation.
But I realized that she was surrounded by people who were saying, “Your daughter was shameless, so if you mourn her, you’re equally shameless.” She was in a position where she was being judged for her grief. So then I had new questions for myself: how we even begin to understand this? Everything I’d seen about Qandeel in the media tried to present a straightforward story about who she was and what had happened. But you cannot tell a neat story about this kind of killing, when a family colludes against or tries to save one of its own for doing something so terrible.
RKP: Please can we talk about the phrase: “You’re like a daughter to me”? Every time I encounter it, my whole body cringes, because it’s a sentence that many brown women know intimately. For me, it calls to mind older men who put their hands on your back, on your thigh, on various parts of your body. Older men, like the Islamic preacher implicated in Qandeel’s murder, who later deny allegations under its comfortable guise: “She was like a daughter to me.” What, according to you, does this phrase hide? What does it reveal?
SM: I encountered that phrase differently. All my life, my mother struggled with her mental health, and any time I would hear someone—women, usually—say that I was like a daughter to them, it carried a whiff of judgment about my mother: of how she had raised me, of how they were now trying to “better” me. That phrase gave them an excuse for their judgment. But then I suppose that’s what it is in other contexts too—a free pass.
RKP: Sanam, you and I follow each other on Instagram, where you do an amazing job of chronicling print media censorship in Pakistan. A bunch of your posts and stories contain pictures of, say, the New York Times, a paper whose Pakistani edition is punctuated with blank white spaces, where images that were deemed unsuitable once lived. I thought of this a lot while reading your book, which explores myriad efforts to erase women’s stories and lives.
In turn, I feel like A Woman Like Her does the work of refusing this erasure, of filling in the blank spaces by allowing women like Qandeel to tell their own stories, in their own voices. Could you tell me more about your decision to intersperse the narrative with Qandeel’s unedited words, to allow her to “talk back” (another thing we brown girls are so often discouraged from doing)?
SM: When it became public knowledge that I was working on this book, there was already a lot of information out there on Qandeel, but none of it seemed to satisfy people’s curiosity. So I’d find myself at dinners and someone would ask, “So, was she really a prostitute?” “How exactly did she make her money?” But it isn’t my job to provide you with those details. It’s my job to ask why you need them.
I started to become wary of journalists or sources who promised me “the real story of Qandeel Baloch.” Qandeel was a chameleon, and she presented different parts of herself to different people—as we all do. We’re different with our family, friends, partners or colleagues, and we’re different creatures on social media where we get to curate our images. Who has the right to say who the “real” you is? Even after all this time, Qandeel is still a cipher to me. With every new piece of information, every new interview, I would feel, “Yes, this is it, I understand her now,” only to learn something else and be utterly confounded again.
I felt uncomfortable having the platform to tell her story when she was never given that opportunity herself. When news broke that Qandeel wasn’t her real name, or that she had a child, those were “real stories” that had been brought to light by force. I asked myself if I wanted to contribute to the sickening way a person can be robbed of their agency. I never wanted to speak on Qandeel’s behalf, and I pushed to have her words appear verbatim throughout the book. In fact, there are many sentences where you might not be aware that you’re reading Qandeel’s words, not mine. I tried to keep intact the ways she spoke, and how she described herself or seemed to think of herself. It was a very small way for me to keep her voice in her story, to allow her to talk back to whoever is reading it.
RKP: A Woman Like Her is so minutely observed, and yet it is tremendously expansive, with a narrative that twists and turns in different directions. And one of my favorite places it arrives at is the question of digital rights. An administrator of a women’s university says of the challenge of keeping its girls safe: “I can tell them when to leave and when to come back, and I can tell them when to be in their rooms, but once they turn on their phones, they could be anywhere.” What a thought: online, girls can be anywhere! Why does the same idea that lifts my spirits frighten those in power?
SM: I think it has started to frighten me too, albeit for different reasons. We’re seeing that these spaces are being policed and monitored and we’re more aware of their limits now. It’s becoming harder to find safe spaces online and to make sure that the conditions that women and minorities are trying to escape in the “real world” aren’t spilling over into their online worlds. Just last week, I received a text message from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority urging citizens to “report” anything they deem to be “blasphemy, pornography, terrorism and other unlawful content on social media.” I’ve noticed that I’ve started to become very cautious about what I choose to voice online— it’s one thing for me to get angry or abusive messages, but it’s quite another to have a totally subjective system in place that allows you to do more than DM me.
RKP: There are over 44 million social media users in Pakistan, but, as many of the people you interview believe, “they must [all] remember one thing: they are still rooted here in the land of the pure.” I’m interested in how this dance between purity and freedom plays out in women’s lives: both online and offline. Can a “pure” woman ever be free?
SM: Well firstly, what is “free”? You and I might have the same answer to that question, but I’m thinking of something the lead investigator on Qandeel’s case, a female police officer, said to me: “Of course women have the right to employment, the right to education, the right to good living standards. You can say you want to be totally unfettered, to have freedom, but is becoming Qandeel Baloch freedom?”
A question that Qandeel would get asked many times in interviews about her social media activities was, “What kind of woman would do something like this?” That demonstrates an anxiety—how should a Pakistani Muslim woman look, behave and think? There’s a fear around what could happen if a woman decides to answer that question for herself. The only kind of “free” I understand is the freedom from any consequences of not looking, behaving or thinking the way that a “good” or acceptable woman would.
RKP: Qandeel’s murder was claimed by her brother as an “honor killing”—a murder enacted to avenge shame brought upon a family, community or tribe. Qandeel died halfway through 2016, and in those six months, there were approximately 326 reported honor killings in Pakistan. 312 of the victims were women. The linking of women’s actions and bodies to a family or community’s honor follows brown women across the world: for example, between 2010 and 2014, there were 11,000 honor crimes recorded in the United Kingdom, including abduction, female genital mutilation and murder.
Qandeel says in despair, “No one tells me, ‘Qandeel, you have gone to war against a society, against a kind of place where men think women are as lowly as their shoe. The kind of place where it’s so common for a man to hit a woman, that if some man doesn’t hit his wife, people call him dishonorable.’ Why don’t people see that?”
From London to Karachi, from New York to New Delhi: why don’t they?
SM: We’re dealing with an interesting case here in Pakistan right now, where an actor’s wife has accused him of beating her. The wife, Fatima, shared photographs of her bruises on Facebook last week and since then, many have spoken up in support of her and condemned her husband’s behavior. He was largely ridiculed for holding a press conference where he called his wife “troubled”, saying she was “playing the woman card” to vilify him. A protest against domestic abusers has been called in Lahore, and a senator tweeted her support and promised to help Fatima.
This is all really great to see, but it makes me wonder how conditional this sympathy is. Fatima shared photographs of her bruised face and body, she has a small child, her family agrees that she should divorce her husband, and many neighbors and friends say they were witness to beatings over the years. I think about the reaction Qandeel got when she spoke about her abusive marriage, of her husband putting out cigarettes on her body, of her desire to leave him so she could continue her education and make something of herself. We ridiculed her for saying she wanted support herself after she left her husband. We didn’t have the “perfect victim” in a woman like her – she was trashy, fame-hungry, a drama queen, a woman who had left her husband and abandoned her child so she could become “the national slut of Pakistan.” So I think that we do offer support, but only when we’re comfortable with the kind of woman asking for it.
RKP: A BBC journalist once memorably called Qandeel “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian” — a comparison that made Qandeel legible to global audiences (even though Qandeel, who came from one of Pakistan’s poorest areas, was unable to access the privileges and safety nets that Kim’s fame allowed her). You write in the book’s epilogue: “Qandeel is no longer ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’ — if anything, the women who follow in her steps, who aspire to the kind of fame she found…want to be ‘Pakistan’s next Qandeel Baloch’.”
This sentence gives me so much hope. Does it give you some, too?
SM: It does, and I hope that whenever we find our new Qandeel, we do a better job of celebrating her. Okay, perhaps that’s a tall order — I’ll amend that. I hope we’re better at tolerating her.