Who wants to read a book on Qandeel Baloch? We who live in Pakistan already know the story, right! The extreme reactions that neatly divide this society and were crystallised even more starkly after her murder, are still fresh in everybody’s mind. There have been quite a few documentaries on her, trying to navigate the social media star’s life and circumstances of her death (though a teary-eyed reporter in one of these films does preclude the possibility of looking impartially at the subject).
A book on her that appeared close to her second death anniversary, with a title containing the word “sensational”, wasn’t particularly inviting. It was out of pure curiosity that I picked the book, more to see how a journalist chooses to tell the all-too-familiar story. Once I began to read though, it was hard to put down.
Sanam Maher uses her brilliant narrative skills to give a broad sense of the milieu — Qandeel Baloch’s growing up years, the possibilities she grabbed to change her life, and her transformation — in which her murder became possible. She has put together memories of Qandeel, selective no doubt, from people close to her, and turned them into a chronicle that makes one want to read till the end.
The Prologue sets the tone: “She is in the third or fourth grade when it happens. She is inside a room with baked mud walls, a mud floor. There is little of beauty in this room… But there is a television, and she moves and writhes her body like a woman on this television…” The information must have come from the mother but it begins like fiction and, going by the subject it depicts, aptly so.
As the first chapter begins with the news of her death being broken to a local journalist in Multan, you know that it’s a book straight out of a journalist’s mind. Maher keeps the necessary distance from her subject and reports things as she sees and hears them. This dispassionate tone is maintained till the end, which must have been quite a challenge considering how partial people are to the issue.
There is no linear order to the narrative, with a lot of back and forth between other stories and Qandeel’s own, in order to understand what was happening in the country around that time and where her story fits in. Broadly, it’s a here and now story; it goes back only a few years before her death and a few months after. There are no historical references, if only because they are not required. What is required is a description of the state of electronic media and web versions of print dailies along with the lives of journalists especially in small towns; what is also told in detail is the advent of social media, its potential for women emancipation and the ease it offered Qandeel Baloch to build herself into an iconic image that she became.
As Qandeel’s own life is traced back to one of the poorest regions where women are powerless and marginalised, the book attempts to unpack what motivated this young girl to break free of that mould — not just of poverty — even if it meant seeking a fake identity, far away from her reality.
This could not have been understood in isolation. Maher decides to paint a parallel picture of the country in this period where women were being exposed to new ideas and technological inventions. She follows Qandeel’s footprints to discover other young women who, like her, are not ready to live with the restrictions imposed on them anymore.
Sometimes, they do so with equally tragic results because all other factors, including society’s prejudice against women, remain the same. Like Naila Rind, the promising 22 years old student at University of Sindh Jamshoro, who hanged herself to death in the university hostel, about six months after Qandeel’s murder. The incident did not make as forceful an impact as a news item as it does in the book. This is what makes it a multi-layered narrative.
Rind’s mysterious suicide was allegedly a consequence of her harassment and a reflection of the failure of country’s cybercrime laws. There is a whole chapter devoted to Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights Foundation that also launched an anti-harassment helpline for women. Dad’s own life offers a fit parallel and is narrated persuasively; because, here is a woman who beat all odds to be where she is and does all that she can to help empower women.
Maher moves around and keeps coming back to Qandeel life and death. The potency of social media was felt a few months after her death when, in October 2016, a chaiwala’s picture became a huge sensation. Arshad Khan the chaiwala was both hounded and promoted by the media, turning him into a star overnight. His experience is retold in this book with empathy and somehow leaves one sad.
The author wants to look at everyone’s human side, including Mufti Abdul Qavi’s, the man who is believed to be responsible in some way for Qandeel’s murder.
What exactly happened in the room between Qavi and Qandeel? No one really knows. There is a hint of unreality about most facts in the book — Qandeel’s early marriage, divorce, her baby, her becoming a bus hostess, the underworld of modeling, girls from poor background and so on. The strength of the book lies in projecting this unreality because there is no way of getting to the bottom of real facts or truth, so to speak.
Qandeel Baloch can rightly be credited for bringing the taboo subject of woman sexuality into the open. Was it deliberate or was it impossible to do it in any other manner on the medium she used? Perhaps, a bit of both; but she was duly punished for this.
To me, this book is in a way an affirmation that the taboo subject does not or should not die with her. This is the kind of book that every journalist would want to write at least once in their careers. Sanam Maher has done it already.
(Today is Qandeel Baloch’s second death anniversary)
The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch
Author: Sanam Maher
Publisher: Aleph Book Company