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Sarah Shaffi

Shining a light on the dark corners that built up and knocked down Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her younger brother in her family's home in Pakistan [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 March, 2020

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#IWD2020: In her book A Woman Like Her, journalist Sanam Maher explores Qandeel's life and death. But what began as a book about one woman turned into something quite different.
honour

noun

a quality that combines respect, being proud, and honesty:

•   a man of honour

•   we fought for the honour of our country.



killing

noun

an occasion when a person is murdered:

•   a series of brutal killings 


In the first half of 2016, hundreds of people – the vast majority of them women – had been murdered in honour killings in Pakistan. But it was one particular death, on July 16 of that year, that caught the attention of not just the country, but the world.

Qandeel Baloch, whose real name was Fouzia Azeem, was murdered by her younger brother Waseem in her family's home in Shah Sadar Din. Waseem said she had brought shame on her family with her videos on Facebook.

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At just 26-years-old, Qandeel's death caused as much of a ripple effect through Pakistan as her life had.

In her book A Woman Like Her, journalist Sanam Maher explores Qandeel's life and death. But what began as a book about one woman turned, as Maher researched and conducted interviews, into something quite different.

"I realised that it isn't my job to provide the reader with every dirty little details of Qandeel's life, but to ask why they would want them at all," writes Maher at the beginning of the book.

"I began to ask other questions. What kind of place created a woman like Qandeel? Why did her story receive such great attention? Why are we still so fascinated by her, and when we watched her videos or saw her latest photograph, what was her image reflecting back to us?"

In answering these questions, Maher takes a fascinating journey into various parts of Pakistan, from its modelling scene to a madrasa.

This book is less about why Waseem killed Qandeel, but how the cultural and media landscape contributed to Qandeel's fame, and to her death.

This book is less about why Waseem killed Qandeel, but how the cultural and media landscape contributed to Qandeel's fame, and to her death

Maher delves into Qandeel's past, looking at how she went from a small village to Pakistan's first major social media star, described by one reporter as being a "Kim Kardashian-type figure".

We learn that Qandeel got married at 17, to a cousin, and had a son with him. Unhappy – Qandeel said her husband was violent towards her – she eventually left him and went to a shelter, before striking out on her own.

It was from there that she went to Islamabad, where she met a man named Mec, who Maher speaks to in some detail about in A Woman Like Her.

Mec was Qandeel's manager, although it's quickly evident that Qandeel largely did what she wanted, against the advice of Mec and others. That rebellious, over-the-top nature would come to characterise her work.

Qandeel's fame can be pinpointed to her appearance on Pakistan Idol; her audition for the show is, as Maher describes, "ratings gold", and racks up "well over a million hits on YouTube in just a few days but fails to get her more work".

That combination of momentary yet almost meaningless fame is not unusual; in one chapter of A Woman Like Her, Maher looks at the journey of Arshad Khan, who became famous after a photographer took a photo of him serving tea.

But while Khan's fame fizzled out, Qandeel's grew after she uploaded a video to her Twitter and Facebook in which she asks Mec: "How I'm looking?" The clip is followed by more videos, but it's her promise to strip on video if Pakistan wins a cricket match against India that sees her thrust into a new level of fame.

The video goes viral, but also garners Qandeel threats and abuse.

"Today, the world might be available at the tips of any Pakistani's fingers with the press of just one button, but they must remember one thing: they are still rooted here in the land of the pure," writes Maher.

It's the conflict between Qandeel's actions – her refusal to apologise for who she is, her confidence in her own body, her lack of guile – and Pakistan's conservative values that make up much of the discussion central to A Woman Like Her.

It's the conflict between Qandeel's actions – her refusal to apologise for who she is, her confidence in her own body, her lack of guile – and Pakistan's conservative values that make up much of the discussion central to A Woman Like Her

Maher interviews Mufti Abdul Qavi, who was caught up in a scandal after meeting with Qandeel in a hotel room. He protests his innocence, but at one point was accused of being involved in Qandeel's murder.

Maher's book is at its strongest when it's looking at the context of Qandeel's death, from the interview with Qavi to a chapter on Nighat Dad, who launched Pakistan's first ever cyber-harassment helpline, and a section on the media's role in exposing Qandeel's real name and past, and whether this played a role in her death.

It all paints a portrait of a country which is in flux, one that is still culturally and religiously conservative and does not yet know how to deal with the ways in which social media and the internet will change that.

Qandeel means "the light", Maher says in the opening of A Woman Like Her. The brightness of Qandeel Baloch has been snuffed out, but with her book, Maher shines a light not just on the woman Qandeel was, but on the dark corners and the hypocrisy that built Qandeel up before knocking her down in the most brutal of ways.

A Woman Like Her by Sanam Maher, Melville House, $27.99.

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is books editor at Phoenix Magazine. She is a judge for the Jhalak Prize 2019. Sarah is editor-at-large at independent children's publisher Little Tiger Group. She regularly chairs author events, and is co-founder of BAME in Publishing, a networking group for people of colour in publishing. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahshaffi

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