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Author Sanam Maher’s new book on Pakistani social media sensation, Qandeel Baloch is a perceptive look at women who ‘cross the line’ in deeply conservative societies.
Who is a person ‘really’? Is your Instagram persona the real you? What if the ‘you’ on YouTube is who you would rather be, than the one you are forced to be in the ‘real world’?
The question of what the real self is, and who gets to decide what an individual’s real self is, are contentious ones, bringing in as they do questions of who gets to tell whose story. And when that individual is Qandeel Baloch, the social media sensation from Pakistan who was murdered in 2016 by her own brother for ‘bringing dishonour to the family’, how does one sift through the contesting narratives that emerge from every quarter?
Karachi based Journalist Sanam Maher, in her first book, The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch, wisely decides to sidestep the question, and instead, gives us as an aslant narrative that reveals more than a direct view would.
The result is an absolutely engrossing piece of creative non-fiction that weaves back and forth between Qandeel’s story and that of others, not all of whom are directly related to her story.
Qandeel Baloch’s story is by now fairly well known in its essentials; poor girl from a conservative, remote village makes it to the big city and in her quest for stardom, begins building a clever brand on social media, innocent and raunchy in turn, and always, seemingly, revealing her real self. Embroiled in one controversy after another, hated by many in Pakistan, Qandeel nonetheless was on her way up and possibly close to being invited on the Big Boss show in India.
It is at this juncture that her brother murdered her – a case that became sensational only because of who Qandeel was; as Maher reports in the book, residents of her village cannot see what the fuss is all about. Chillingly, she reports one of them telling a journalist, “Yahaan hamaray haan riwayat hai ke hum har doosray ya chauthay din koi na koi larki ko maar ke darya mein phenk detay hain. Aiween tum media log hype create kar rahay ho. (We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing.)”
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Qandeel Baloch became a symbol of all that was going wrong for Pakistani women and many would argue, for the sub-continent’s women as a whole, since Indian women are hardly exempt from being killed ‘for the sake of honour’. While Qandeel’s murder galvanised the Pakistani state into stringent action against honour killing (at least on the books), there is more to Qandeel than just her death, and it is here that Maher tells us some of the most interesting stories.
One of the subjects she explores is how, far from being unique in being reviled on social media, Qandeel Baloch may have differed only in the scale of hatred and abuse she received. Maher meets Nighat Dad, a Pakistani campaigner who has pioneered a resource group against online abuse and harassment of women. Nighat’s own story of braving family disapproval to access the Internet freely, and her account of the many ways in which women are shamed and attacked for ‘crossing the line’ made this one of the most gripping chapters in the book for me.
Another fascinating character in the book is on the religious cleric Mufti Qavi, who went on a television show with Qandeel, met her in private, featured in somewhat provocative photos she shot of their meeting, and after her death, was accused of being instrumental in her murder (and is currently under trial). Maher’s encounter with Qavi is deeply illuminating of the ways in which religion and digital media find new ways to get comfortable with each other, in a society that is still deeply religious and where piety has for long been seen as a route to power.
In a book titled The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch, naturally Qandeel’s rise to fame and what she meant to those who knew her are explored, but the book steers away from providing us with the ‘definitive’ Qandeel.
Instead, it allows us to look at Qandeel in the many ways that those who knew her perceived her – as the girl who always wanted more, as the dependable child who took care of her parents, as a determined woman who was willing to give her child away rather than throw away her dreams, as a woman willing to do many things for the fame she craved, and as the woman who was ‘too bold’ and paid the price for it.
Maher makes ambiguity look simple, and that is no mean achievement.
If you’d like to pick up The Sensational Life And Death Of Qandeel Baloch, you can find it at Flipkart, at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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