Many in Pakistan were left in a state of shock on 15th July 2016 when social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother. After many Pakistanis welcomed the killing as a form of punishment for a woman who posted sexually provocative videos to over one million social media followers, a debate began on how Baloch’s death, and the support for it, had exposed the country’s conservative ideas about the role of women. Ahead of the UK publication of her new book on Baloch, Zainab Najeeb (LSE) speaks to author Sanam Maher about Baloch’s life, murder, and what her death reveals about the place of women and the prevalence of honour killings in Pakistan.
Why Qandeel Baloch? Why this particular topic for your first book?
The first time I heard about Qandeel was in the newsroom, when a couple of guys who worked at the desk with me were talking about her viral “How I’m looking?” video. They were snickering over some of her photographs on Facebook, and I looked her up. The little that I did see led me to want to do a story – I thought the piece would look at 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.
Of course, the piece was never written. It was lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs, but the idea stayed with me, and I told myself I’d have time to do it later, to meet her later and to find others like her. I remember staring at the television the day news of Qandeel’s murder broke, and feeling stunned. I didn’t want to let go of her story once again, and immediately, the idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us, who had created this persona that we had bought into wholesale took root.
In the hours and days after we found out about her death and her brother’s role in it, 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. I had acquaintances in my own social media feeds having vicious arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Qandeel “deserved” what had been done to her, there were men and women condemning Qandeel’s death but then, in the next breath, following their statements with “… but if you think about it…”
It was a moment when I was seeing friends and family members draw a line and very firmly position themselves on either side, and I think the last two times I’d seen something like that happen – 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 – was when the governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer was shot and killed in 2011 after being accused of committing blasphemy or when Malala Yousafzai was attacked in 2012. The reactions to Qandeel’s murder have revealed two very different answers to the question of what it means to be Pakistani, and more crucially, what it means to be a woman living in Pakistan today. I wanted to tell a story not just about Qandeel, but about that moment and that definition.
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.
Pakistan is notably obsessed with its ‘image’, and the question of who is good enough to represent the nation or what face we should show the world has dogged us for decades. We’re seeing that manifest itself right now as women like Meesha Shafi add their voices to the #MeToo movement, only to have their detractors accuse them of trying to “shame” Pakistan or “bring a bad name” to the country. Pakistani women seem to bear the weight of expectations when it comes to determining how we would like the world to view us, and with Qandeel’s murder, many women were coming forward to say they were fed up with shouldering that burden.
So Qandeel is the focus of my book, but this is not a straightforward biography of her. I wanted to focus on all of the above, and since Qandeel created a persona that she knew would appeal to us, what did we see reflected back to ourselves when we watched her videos or looked at her photographs? That’s what I wanted to answer. I knew that this book wasn’t going to be only about Qandeel, but about the kind of place that enabled her to become who she did, and the place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her.
Why do you think most people in Pakistan loved to hate her?
It was easier than understanding her or honestly answering the question of why we couldn’t stop looking at her. I think some people were amazed that she didn’t seem to give a damn what people said about her – in many of her interviews, you’ll see that the talk show host or news anchor repeatedly asks her why she just doesn’t stop posting provocative photos or videos on social media. They would ask, “Don’t you see what people say to you in the comments?” They seemed to constantly be asking, “What kind of woman are you? What kind of woman – Pakistani, Muslim woman – would behave this way?” She didn’t neatly align with our ideas of how women can and should behave, even in the face of criticism, and we couldn’t wait to see what she did next.
Photo: Sanam Maher | Credit: Shehrezad Maher
Do you feel like Baloch’s case falls under intersectional feminism? Do you think factors like ethnicity, social and economic class and gender all played into her embodied experience and consequential demise?
Absolutely. After her death, Qandeel was praised by many men and women as a feminist and an example of a liberal, modern Pakistani woman, but many of those people had vilified her or simply ignored her while she was alive, even when she spoke out about death threats she was receiving. Qandeel used to say that she was the daughter of a very rich landowner – it’s a little fib that she would tell about herself in many interviews and in videos that she made – and she would often choose to speak in English or put on an accent when speaking Urdu, as if it was not the language she was comfortable speaking. I think she knew the double standards we have as an audience about who is “allowed” to behave in a certain way and get away with it, and who is criticised as “low class” and “cheap”.
In one of her last messages on Facebook, when it had been revealed that she had a former husband and a child, it seemed like Qandeel was trying to appeal particularly to the women who were watching her videos and checking out her photos. “As a women we must stand up for ourselves,” she wrote. “As a women we must stand up for each other… As a women we must stand up for justice.” In her last interview before her death, Qandeel spoke for the first time about this kind of feminism and said, “I’m a girl power.”
These words would probably have been largely ignored had Qandeel lived, but after her death, they served as a rallying point for those who defended her choices. There have been so many op-eds and interviews and social media posts about her, and in death, Qandeel seems to be represented by many women who enjoy the security she craved and hoped to attain with enough money, enough fame. Recast as a feminist and as an “icon”, Qandeel has been embraced by those who once scorned or ignored her. The violence with which her life was ended also made it okay to sympathise with her without seeming to “condone” what she did or who she was, and you’ll see many people say, “That shouldn’t have happened to her.” But there’s very little discussion or understanding of why that did happen and how we created the perfect circumstances for that violence.
How would you explain the national obsession and simultaneous denial of sex projected by a majority of Pakistanis?
I don’t think this is a particularly Pakistani problem, but when I think about my work or this book, I found it’s a pertinent question to ask about a place where a dead woman is often infinitely preferable to an overtly sexual one.
What do you think is the role of social media in the feminist movement? Did social media amplify the appeal of Baloch? Or did it turn her into an easy target?
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 knee-jerk 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. Its easier now to see and share and build awareness about this – I think its been eye-opening for many people, especially men, to see how women can be policed or harassed, and has underscored the need for a strong feminist movement and feminist allies.
Social media was both a conduit and a threat for Qandeel. So when I was looking at her 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 as she did? 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”? I wanted to explore 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, and 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. Something important that Qandeel’s story shows us about the ways in which we engage with social media is the constant trickle of information from online spaces into the greater public sphere – conversations and movements online are discussed on talk shows and in the news and so even if you aren’t on social media, you’re probably still going to receive information being spread there. What effect does that have and what role did that play in Qandeel’s murder? What happened once people from her village found out what she had been doing online?
What do you think stories like Baloch’s can teach us? Or add to our national development as a society divided in variant binaries, in perpetual competition?
I don’t think we’re quick learners and I don’t like using Qandeel’s story as a “teaching moment”. In one interview shortly before her death, Qandeel responded to a caller who asked why she didn’t do “something good” with her popularity. “I would like to,” she said, “but there are a lot of issues in my life right now. I am in the middle of dealing with not one, not two, but three cases filed against me, I’m dealing with controversies, and, then, my brothers want to kill me.” The host and the caller didn’t skip a beat and moved onto the next question. I wonder if we would disregard a woman in this way again or if we’ve learned to listen and see beyond the clickbait to the red flags, such as the ones that should have been raised when Qandeel did this interview. If there’s anything to be learned here, its that we need to look at how complicit we are in a woman’s undoing.
What other steps can the present government take to make social media safer for women in Pakistan?
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, as is the government’s response to these threats. 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. There is often little to no support at an official level when women come forward with these threats – in police stations or with cybercrime units. For instance, one female journalist I spoke with told me that when she received threats of an acid attack after she published a story about such attacks, the police officials she approached were sceptical – they were convinced she was having a quarrel with a boyfriend and was blowing things out of proportion or making the whole thing up. We definitely need more women included in the process of registering cases of harassment/doxxing/threats/blackmail, 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 these cases. That’s just a starting point.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Sanam Maher is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. For more than a decade, she has covered stories on Pakistan’s art and culture, business, politics, religious minorities and women. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Caravan, Roads and Kingdoms and Buzzfeed. A Woman Like Her is her first book. @SanamMKhi
Zainab Najeeb is studying for a Masters in Gender, Development and Globalisation at LSE. Her current research interests are migration and forced displacement, conceptions of sovereignty and citizenship in relation to notions of identity. She is from Lahore, Pakistan. She tweets @najeebz18