How the murder of a social-media star triggered activism for women’s freedom in Pakistan

  text: How the murder of a social-media star triggered activism for women’s freedom in Pakistan 

  © Shubhashish How the murder of a social-media star triggered activism for women’s freedom in Pakistan

For more than a decade, Karachi-based journalist Sanam Maher has covered stories on Pakistan’s art and culture, business, politics, religious minorities and women. Her book The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch (Aleph Book Company, 2018) – which was later published under the title A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch (Bloomsbury, 2019) – pieces together the life of Pakistan’s first social-media star, Qandeel Baloch, also known as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, who was murdered by her brother in the name of ‘honour’ in July 2016 in central Pakistan.

We spoke to her about her book, how Qandeel’s life and death became a case study for women’s rights in Pakistan, and its aftermath.

What inspired you to write a book about the life of the Muslim world’s rebellious social-media icon, Qandeel Baloch?

I was working as an editor in a newsroom at a daily English paper in Karachi when I first heard about Qandeel. A couple of colleagues were talking about her viral “How I’m looking?” video. I thought I could do a piece on how young women are using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to push the envelope on how they can dress, speak or present themselves in Pakistan.

I’ve long maintained a fascination with what we as Pakistanis do on social media, and I thought Qandeel would be a great person to focus on for a piece exploring this.

In July 2016, I remember staring at the television the day news of Qandeel’s murder broke, and feeling stunned. The idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us – her audience and the media – and who had created this persona that we had bought into wholesale took root. I admired her gumption and the courage it must have taken to create the persona that she did.

Then, in the hours and days after, it was terrible to see the reactions online from many Pakistanis who were very happy that she had been “punished” for behaving the way that she did. It was a moment when I was seeing friends and family members draw a line and very firmly position themselves on either side – a moment that calls for definition or clarity on the question of how we see ourselves as Pakistanis and what we hope for or believe we deserve.

I wanted to tell a story about that moment. It wasn’t just about Qandeel, but about the place that enabled her to become who she did, and the place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her.

Tell us about the scale of research that went into putting together the book.

The book doesn’t just focus on Qandeel. It tells her story, but also uses each part of her life to open up into a story about Pakistan at this particular moment. For instance, when looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online to speak in ways that we may not be able to “offline”? What happens when we behave in a way online that seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, “in the real world”?

In exploring these ideas, I met Arshad Khan aka the Chaiwallah, as well as men and women who are trying to patrol our activities online and monitor and censor us, and others who are determined to keep us safer and more vocal online – particularly in the case of women and marginalised or minority communities. That meant meeting everyone from trolls and hacktivists to Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline.

I divided the book into sections. I started out with Qandeel, and the bulk of my time was spent in Punjab, where she came from. I met people in her village, spent time with her friends and family, those who loved and missed her as well as those who were glad to be rid of her.

Honour killings to punish socially unacceptable behaviour, particularly for women, are common in South Asia. Pakistani activists say there are some 1,000 honour killings in the country every year. Did Qandeel’s case become a symbol for women’s rights in that sense?

It would be a challenge for the average Pakistani to recognise the faces of any of the hundreds of men and women killed for honour every year. Sometimes we don’t even read the stories about honour crimes buried in the third or fourth page of the newspaper.

But Qandeel was different. There was a sense of having known her as many of us engaged with her frequently online, whether that was to bait her, shame her, secretly watch her videos at night, or share her videos with friends, imitate her and make a meme of her.

So it was incredible to see women engage with the subject of honour killing very vocally online at the time of her murder, to see that they felt they could not stay silent, to talk about how a Pakistani woman can and should behave and what happens when she is believed to misbehave.

What kind of challenges did you face while writing the book?

With all the news reports, gossip, TV shows and documentaries, I think many of us feel we already know Qandeel’s story. But ultimately, I realised just how little I myself actually knew, even after poring over every piece of information I could find out about her before I travelled to Punjab and started my own research and interviews. What we know so far has been coloured by the media frenzy around her murder.

Do you see a simmering conflict between a conservative society and liberalism in Pakistan, whether in its streets, institutions or cyberspace?

I don’t think that conflict is “simmering” anymore, and the dissonance is something I was very interested to explore in this book. I wanted to see how we might be connected to a global space of ideas and possibilities online, but we’re still very much grounded in the society and culture we live in here in Pakistan. Through Qandeel’s story and some of the others in the book, you see the terrible ramifications that a clash between the two can have.

Do you think that trolling has become a weapon in the hands of people who want to maintain patriarchal status quo? Is a helpline really a solution to this?

As is the case in many other countries, social media is helping us build communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to “offline”. This has been vital for younger feminists – at least those who have easy access to such platforms, which, we have to remember, is a minority in Pakistan – to come together, organise, support, mobilise.

At the same time, our “offline” tendencies, such as our kneejerk reactions to women who don’t behave or look or talk like we might want or expect them to, are creeping online and manifesting on social media.

I think a helpline is a good, much-needed start to keep women safe online. We definitely need more women included in the process of registering a case of harassment, more women able to speak with and counsel young men and women who may need to discuss harassment or bullying or threats online, and greater gender sensitisation at official institutions that deal with this kind of harassment.

The ways in which women are targeted online, and more importantly the ways in which misogynist tendencies have trickled over from “real life” into the online space, are discussed at great length in the book.

One of the key things that we see over and over again is the higher level of sexual harassment that women have to face online when compared with men, the quick jump to threats of rape or sexual violence when a woman is trolled online, and the very real question of whether such threats online can spill over into real life – at the time of Qandeel’s murder, female BBC journalists in Pakistan spoke out about how they were harassed online at different points, receiving everything from threats of acid attacks to rape to warnings that their home addresses or phone numbers were known and could be shared.

Who are some contemporary South Asian writers whose work you admire?

I’ll read anything Mohammed Hanif writes. I’m always curious about how he sees Pakistan in all its weird and wonderful glory. Sonia Faleiro, Fatima Bhutto, Meena Kandasamy – I’m really looking forward to reading what they write next.



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