The following is the first of a four-part interview with Sanam Maher, author of The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, a biographical account of Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in 2016.
The interview has been edited for clarity. Read part two here, as Maher explores piecing together the different versions of herself Qandeel cultivated, her childhood and attempts to erase her even after her death. Read part three here and part four here.
My first question is that Qandeel strikes me as mythical more than human, and this is compounded by the fact that all of us, and by that I mean all of Pakistan, seem interested in narrativising her. Why do you think that is and what led you to write her story?
Firstly, in terms of the mythical persona she’s taken on, a lot of that comes from the reaction to her death.
When Qandeel died, you would have seen news of it even if you only looked at your social media accounts and hadn’t talked to people offline.
Everybody had an opinion about it, whether it was ‘acha so what else did she expect?’ and ‘yehi hona tha iskay saath’ or, especially among women from our generation, just feeling this burden that women have to take on of reputation, and the family’s honour.
Qandeel’s death triggered a strong reaction on both sides, and especially on one side, Qandeel stood for a lot of issues that women were generally thinking about in their lives, especially issues that women face on digital platforms. Her death became a way to speak about these issues.
You also had people coming forward who criticised her before but suddenly her death became a moment for people to acknowledge that they felt bad about her passing, and that they felt exactly how she must have felt, inadvertently making her into an icon for certain struggles that women go through and we have interpreted her to suit our needs.
In a lot of instances, people were going back on their statements about her and the horrible things they said or the fact that they slut-shamed her and called her names.
So I think our reaction has created this mythical status and what I wanted to do was to not feed into that.
I can’t write a book where I put Qandeel on a pedestal, and say, this woman was the feminist icon of our time, and therefore I’m only going to write about her from that perspective. She was a real human being and you find out things about her that are great, and things about her that are not so great.
I was never interested in that mythical persona of hers and I was more interested in, where is this reaction towards her coming from? What does this say about us as an audience, that this woman would reach such a level of fame and go viral, and then we are the same audience that looked down upon her, watched this takedown, and took a lot of pleasure in it.
For me, the interest was not Qandeel as a persona and as a feminist icon, but in who we are, and that’s why the book is also structured that way and it looks at where she comes from, the place that made her, and the place that also ended her life.
That was my interest.
That’s an interesting observation, because that ties in with what you say in terms of the trajectory her life was taking towards the end of the book: where she was invited to an awards ceremony after she had said things about Mufti Qavi and challenged him. As soon as she made a statement that people could categorise as unequivocally liberal, they sort of picked her up and said ‘acha ab aap hamaray pass ajayen’ [Okay, you can sit with us now].
Exactly, there was a moment when Qandeel was something everybody was talking about, particularly those images of her with Mufti Qavi in that hotel room that went viral, and she was on a lot of talk shows because of that.
She was insinuating that he had done something and then it was a he-said she-said, and it became a drama that was playing out in front of us.
I also think it fed into a lot of our stereotypes about ‘oh this is what these men are really like and this is what they do. See, we knew it all along.’
I think she went viral and was in the spotlight and it became a great moment for others to capitalise on, because previously they weren’t inviting her to these shows to perform and to sing, or to be on fashion shows or entertainment shows at the level of the Lux Style Awards.
Things just got together perfectly at that moment. And suddenly it was okay to say, ‘let’s hear what Qandeel has to say,’ let’s actually listen to her rather than just make fun of her or make dubsmashes about her.
I want to ask you about the choice of material at your disposal. I was wondering about her various social media profiles and the remnants that are left. If we think of Qandeel’s social media presence as a massive, dispersed archive — and you mentioned in the book that even if they delete specific parts of her Twitter and Facebook, they’ll pop up elsewhere — and all the abundance of information that was available; how did you organise the material, and decide what content goes into the book?
The Instagram posts were particularly difficult to access.
So she did have an Instagram account?
Yes, and a lot of the pictures got deleted. For example, when her Facebook account disappeared for a bit and then came back up, some stuff had been scrubbed. The same thing happened with her Instagram account.
I don’t think the official Instagram page is still there, but I might be wrong because I haven’t checked in a while. But a lot of the pictures from there were also scrubbed off.
It was Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and it was this weird conundrum where I had this flood of information and I became a hoarder because I was just trying to find anything that she had ever put out there and trying to find some clues because I had never met this person, never talked to them, and then everybody I was talking to was also iterating a version of her.
Qandeel Baloch: Exposing patriarchy in death
I think we are all different people with our partners, with our parents, with our siblings, and with the people we work. And when you factor that someone has died and died in a horrible way, so the way people recall them is tinged by nostalgia, it’s tinged by guilt, and for some people it’s tinged with relief, ‘ke shukar hai [what a relief] she’s gone and we don’t have to worry about what she’s doing anymore.’
So that’s also a lot of filtered memories that people were giving me, facets of her, and then her social media persona, which is also a version of her.
With her Twitter profile, I took it one step further with the hoarding because it just so happened that Twitter has this policy where you can only access a person’s old tweets up until a certain point.
There’s a cutoff point and after that you have to pay Twitter in order to access the full archive.
So they're already monetising internet archives.
Yes, this was something that I didn’t know but encountered because, like I said, I became a hoarder and wanted to see everything from the moment she arrived on social media.
From her Facebook posts and how she was talking and presenting herself because that also evolved a lot. She became a lot savvier and smarter with her social media usage. And also just the pictures she’d post, they became a lot more professional over time.
I found out I couldn’t get past a certain point in her old tweets because you had to pay to access the archives. It just so happened that in January 2017, when Trump became president, this issue of accessibility was a problem that a lot of journalists were encountering.
I randomly came across a link where this hacktivist in the United States had created an algorithm as a way to get all of Trump’s tweets without paying for them.
I emailed the person and said, “Listen, I'm writing this book about this woman who’s died and I really need all this information and I don’t have the money to pay for accessing stuff right now and I don’t know how to get around this.”
He tweaked the algorithm for me and he sent me link that allowed me to access her tweets.
It was really kind of him to do this, and I'm sure my technical terms are all wrong. It unfolded like a movie and I thought, this is incredible.
So I had all the tweets, I had all her Facebook posts, all her Instagram posts, even the ones that had been deleted. A couple of people that followed her had taken screenshots and they were very kind and sent those to me as well.
But at the end of the day, despite having this glut of information, I did not feel like I knew this person. I never came away from it feeling like I know 100% what this woman is all about.
And I feel a lot of the work that was coming out and continues to come out about Qandeel really tries to get to this point: What is the real story of Qandeel? Who is the real Qandeel?
And at some point, I asked, why am I chasing this idea of who this person is, given that she never wanted us to see that real person?
She had so many opportunities where she could have talked about her past, she could have talked about her parents, or could’ve talked about her marriage. All of that information came out by force, right?
She was from a village, they revealed her real name, publicised information about her husband and that she had a child. And every time new information was revealed, those were moments in interviews she’s sobbing or really distressed and unhappy.
I determined I don’t want to feed into this further; if this person held this part of themselves back, then they didn’t want it to come forward.
People chased the story so relentlessly, and sometimes it was gross where I would get people wanting to talk to me about her sex life, or wanting to talk about people she had been with, and I really didn’t want to put that information out.
I have all of that and there’s a lot that didn’t get into the book, because it’s not my job to feed that curiosity.
It was my job to look at why we are so fascinated by her, and at the end of the day if she’s still a mystery to you, if she’s still a bit of a cipher, then that’s great.
Ultimately, knowing who this person is, what does that get you beyond feeding the need to know every single detail?
So I had all this information and sifted through how I wanted to use it. A lot of sentences in the book, you may not even notice this, but those are sentences that Qandeel had said at some point.
The sentences that are italicised?
Not just those ones. She had a certain way of speaking, and there were certain words that she used a lot, so I made that a part of the writing.
I would take full sentences from her interviews, her tweets or from her Facebook posts, and I just put them in. And the whole point is that those chapters, which are just Qandeel, should have as much of her voice as possible.
The voice is in as much of her idiom as it could be.
Exactly. Sifting through the information was a nightmare, but at the end I thought I don’t need to sort it in an order for someone who is looking to read every single thing because they want to know this person; maybe it’s great to have some questions that remain.
Plus, there’s going be so much work coming out after this and each new project will promise you that it’s going to tell you the real story. I think a lot of people can do that but I just didn’t want to.
That’s really interesting and maybe a sequel for this text, which I’d like to read, could be about the process through which you wrote the book itself — the choice of narrative techniques and the archival process itself because it’s so fascinating.
It was really lo-fi!
But even the story you're narrating of this hacktivist in America who was able to pull up all of Qandeel’s tweets; that’s amazing right?
I really lucked out with that one because I was so sure he was going to be like, ‘why should I help you?’
Even the room that I work in — my study — whenever my friends or family would come over, they’d say, you're like a really amateur serial killer, because every wall was covered with information that I couldn’t just keep in folders.
The best thing to do is just put it all up where I can see it.
You know how serial killers have a red line connecting things? Well mine did not look like that. My walls looked super amateur, but every wall was covered with information because that’s just how I organised it.
It was really, really lo-fi. I asked, how do I make these connections? How do I do it? The best thing is it just stayed up on the wall.
'I want to stand on my own two feet,' she pleads as she clutches her child and waits at the gates of the women's shelter in May 2009.
Main iss liye paida nahin hui thi ke kissi mard ki jooti bun ke rahoon.
'Name?' asks the woman sitting behind a glass-topped desk inside the Darul Aman, the government's shelter home for women.
She gives her real name. The name her brother had chosen for her when she was born.