The following is the second of a four-part interview with Sanam Maher, author of The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, a biographical account of the social media star, who was murdered by her brother in 2016.
The interview has been edited for clarity. Read on for part three, where Maher talks further about the reaction to writing about Qandeel, the blow back on social media and meeting “the frank maulvi”.
Going back to something you said earlier, you've put forward the idea that there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an authoritative version of Qandeel’s story. That’s interesting because there were different iterations of herself that she put forward to the public. In terms of the competing narratives about her life, she said her father was a landlord, that she hailed from a Baloch family and, at some point, she said the family disowned her as well.
Yes, she said they're angry with her, they don’t want to talk to her or have anything to do with her.
For example, when her song Ban came out, she said her family doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. She would go back and forth with the stories.
What level of calculation or forethought do you think she put into creating these stories? Or do you think she was just rolling with events as they transpired and reacting in real time?
I think it was a mix of both.
If you think about it, Qandeel was our first big social media celebrity. It wasn’t just one viral moment; it was someone consistently giving us viral moments or things to talk about.
When you're writing about someone like that, you do have to take in how we operate on social media. It’s a very curated appearance and it’s a very specific version of yourself.
Discussing this in the book was something I was more than happy to continue to do for her. I didn’t want to pull back the curtain on anything and I didn’t want to just take part in that process of looking at this person’s life.
A lot of it is about how you curate your life on social media, and how I could continue to do this for her and continue to interest people in this person in a way that they were interested before. What was your question? Sorry, I forgot.
My question was, what level of calculation or forethought do you think went into this and do you think she was curating like the rest of us?
I think it was a bit of both, definitely. But when she says her father is a landlord or when she would say her family is very rich and she doesn’t need to do this and that, she does this for fun and for her own pleasure. I think that’s also her projection.
There are certain things that people who are well-off or wealthy can get away with. If you're a rich, upper-class person, dressing up a certain way and posting selfies online is something you can do with a lot more ease than someone who is not from that background.
I think Qandeel was really aware of this and she knew that certain kinds of people get away with certain kinds of behaviours.
When you add that aspect of monetary gain from a selfie or from a video, it becomes a lot grubbier.
In one of the videos, she says she is making this video while her whole family is asleep downstairs, so there’s this mystery that there’s this girl doing something slightly naughty, something she is not supposed to.
There’s an interesting aspect where she is trying to create this persona of herself in opposition to someone on the other side of the spectrum.
The way we look at theatre actresses or the way we look at women who aren’t ‘well-off’ ... if they present a certain image, or dress in a certain way, or talk in a certain way, we tend to judge them a lot more.
I think she was aware of this and so she created this persona. I think a lot of it is her having fun and saying, ‘this is who I am, this is what I like to do, and this is how I like to dress.’
That’s perfect because it segues into my next question. The categories you mention, for example, if you're an actress, a singer, a model, a social media activist — these are categories that are considered traditionally disreputable. These are the same categories invoked by Mubasher Lucman in the epigraph of the book.
That’s the one thing I felt uneasy about: on one hand, I think the epigraph perfectly frames the discussion that is to follow, but then I wondered, what’s the effect of ventriloquising her at the beginning of the book through the words of a man who was arguably the kind of journalist that hounded her to her death?
Given that you had so much material, I was wondering about the choice of epigraph, and also the choice of title, actually.
With the epigraph, what I think he was asking her is something I saw constantly in interviews with Qandeel.
There were a lot of people, especially women, who were interviewing her and they were very confused about why you would continue to do something when you get so much hate for it.
Women would ask her about the comments people left for her, specifically men, and I think there was this confusion and bewilderment about why wasn’t she shamed into silence.
There was a lot of confusion — how do we categorise this person? What do we say they are? Because the minute that you do that, you can then judge what they're doing.
So if you say, ‘Qandeel, you're just a singer, why are you putting up pictures of yourself half-naked. Why are you offering to do a strip tease?’ then you're able to define their behaviour a lot more.
Qandeel Baloch: No one gives me any credit for speaking about girl power
This was something I saw Qandeel do a lot as well, especially towards the end of her life.
It was amazing to see her faze us because, to be honest, I have only seen someone like Beyoncé talk in this way: she says, I'm not going to limit myself as a performer or as an artist in any way. I'm a singer, I'm a model, I'm a fashion icon. These are all the options available to me and I'm going to give my fans exactly what they want.
And with the epigraph, a lot of it was this need for people to categorise her. There’s this constant need to tie her down, and I think for me, what Lucman was asking was just something that got asked of her a lot: who is this person, really, and how can we categorise them?
By the end of it, you're not able to fit her into any of those categories because even when he asks her that question, she says she calls herself a singer first and foremost, but people say whatever they want about her.
She gives her answer: you guys can call me whatever you want, I really don’t care. So that’s the story with the epigraph, it’s not that I have some great love for Mubasher Lucman.
I think you're right in saying she confounded our sense of categories, and in this context the epigraph makes a little more sense, because I think Mubasher Lucman is also sort of echoing the audience’s disorientation — ‘yeh kaun hain? kya karti hain?’ [Who is she? What does she do?].
We constantly say, ‘yeh kia cheez hai’ [What is this?] like ‘tum kia cheez ho?’ [What are you?] What are you doing? Why are you putting up selfies of yourself? Why are you offering to do a striptease? What is this?
I remember this reporter I interviewed in Multan, Adil, who said the first time he saw Qandeel, she was singing a song and just sitting on her bed and was feeling herself up, and he had never seen a woman behave that way.
And so for him as well, it’s like like 'tum kis type ki aurat ho?' [What kind of woman are you?] Who does this?
And if you say, well, I'm a social activist, or I'm a model or a singer, I'm an actress, then people are able to say actresses and models don’t behave like this.
Even when Qandeel said she’s getting threats at a press conference after the Mufti Qavi incident, a lot of journalists at the press club said that other models aren’t complaining about this, so you must have done something to deserve this.
I think we were constantly trying to fit her into these categories and it was just amazing to me that this woman refused to do that.
The title of the book was a real battle because it took ages to settle on one, and I had to defer to my publisher because obviously they have been doing this for far longer than I have.
When it comes to the title, you also have to consider what your sales and marketing people are saying. At the end of it, the sensational aspect is meant to be sensational in all senses of the word. There’s also the fact that she was a sensation.
She was a sensation, and she courted sensation.
Absolutely. I have grown to like it now, but it took some time and it was something that I really struggled with initially.
I couldn’t just consider the market over here that’s familiar with her because I also had to consider the Indian market, and now it’s going to be distributed in the UK as well.
I'm happy they're keeping her name in the title for the UK edition. I also didn’t want it to be a book that didn’t have her name on it and I wanted her face on the cover.
I was thinking of the reporter who broke the story of her death, Adil Nizami, and the fact that he said he had never seen a woman behaving like that.
With women like Qandeel or Mathira, the overt expression of sexuality unsettles people, and that also speaks to Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with women expressing their sexuality.
How did that link to the prologue because that’s an interesting impressionistic account of Qandeel in the third or the fourth grade when she’s dancing and is consequently shamed by her brother?
Just in terms of process, how did you conceive of that prologue and what was it like to write it?
All of that actually happened and isn’t made up. In fact, I get asked about that a lot.
I figured it was based on real events, but I was wondering what the process of writing it was like.
The story about her brother came from an interview with her mother. A lot of other material that’s in there was directly narrated to me by her mother and what she was saying. I'm a little confused by what you mean; why did I decide to start with that?
Yes, why did you decide to begin with that? It’s a very evocative passage, or set of paragraphs rather, because it’s also an experience most women are familiar with, of having to reckon with your sexuality without sort of reckoning with it, or the experience of being sexualised when you don’t necessarily understand the motions of what you're going through.
What was it like to write the prologue and what led you to begin with this story?
When I met Qandeel’s mother, she told me this because I was asking her about what Qandeel was like as a child, and out of all the memories that she had of her, this is one that she kept coming back to.
Qandeel wanted to be one of the boys, she wasn’t like the other girls that she knew, she wasn’t like her friends or her siblings.
She liked dressing up in her brother’s clothes, but she also really took pleasure in certain things, for example, dancing in a certain way or taking pleasure in singing.
Being very — I don’t want say loud — but being very vocal about the things she liked, and not being the shy kid in the corner. She liked to dance and wanted to perform for people.
Her mother was telling me the story about her brother watching her, and just watching the girl take pleasure in whatever she was able to with her body, even by imitating something, and not necessarily doing it in a sexualised way. She was just having fun and her brother is watching that and is taking offence.
Something that worries people a lot when they see girls, especially young girls, behaving a certain way, there is this fear ‘keh ja ke kia karengi, ya haath se nikal jayegi’ [What might they go on to do when they’re older? They might get out of hand/step out of line].
That gaze that preemptively sexualises them rather than children behaving a certain way.
Yes, it’s like, ‘don’t take pleasure in dancing or hearing your own voice or singing’. It’s the impulse that says, ‘don’t talk this way, don’t laugh this way, don’t laugh so loud, don’t sit this way…’
Don’t take up space!
Exactly! A lot of this fear that comes very early on with girls — how they dress, how they look, how they speak, where they're going — has to do with what they might choose to do if given the chance.
When her mother was talking about Qandeel, this is something that I kept coming back to: you're talking about a girl who’s very headstrong, who really wanted to create a certain kind of a life for herself.
There’s a lot of fear from people around her, that what if she actually goes and does something? What if you don’t get to control the person? What is she capable of doing?
So opening the story in a way that poses the question, what if this girl did go and do exactly what you feared, without any control, to create exactly the kind of life she wanted to, or do all the things she wanted whether they’re right or wrong?
What if she did just want to be famous, singing, dancing, and performing for people? What’s the worst case scenario?
A question I kept coming back to was, what is something that a woman can do in Pakistan that is so bad that your natural response to it or the action that seems most normal is to end her life? And not just normal to you, but also to the people around you.
For a lot of people, this was the normal conclusion to her life. ’What else did she expect, iskay saath yehi hona tha [This was bound to happen to her] and woh jis rastay pe chal rahi thi tou yehi hona tha [This is the logical conclusion to the path she was on].
It was expected this will be the likely end. A man in the village said, “If it wasn’t her brother, it would have been somebody else.”
The reaction in the village seemed very blasé ke matlab yeh tou hona hi tha [This was bound to happen].
A lot of people were relieved. They were glad that they don’t have to think about her anymore.
And coming back to her brother who’s watching his younger sister behave a certain way, there’s the fear that, if given the chance, what is she going to do next?
Let’s say, Qandeel had not been killed. Let’s say, she did go to the LSAs; let’s say, she started talking about life in the village, or actually started naming people, the things they did and the ways in which she has been wronged, or the way the entertainment industry works.
Let’s say, she was free to do what she wanted to do. There’s a great fear of what a woman can do if given the opportunity.
I mean, it was amazing to me that if a woman does something bad enough, the natural response — that doesn’t shock us — is to kill her.
We have become so immune to violence against women that our response now is that, this couple went and did a freewill marriage – oh okay, 'maar diya' [They were killed].
It’s become so commonplace. So connecting this back to the prologue, a lot of what transpired came from his fear that lot of people share that, 'agar larki haath se nikal gai' [If a girl gets out of hand/steps out of line], what can happen?
Fear generated by something as innocuous as a child dancing.
I think children, particularly little girls behaving in certain ways, prompts questions: why are you wearing your brother’s clothes? Why do you want to play with boys? Why do you want to play outside?
If a girl behaves slightly differently, people get fearful.
Which probably points to the fact that we haven’t even gotten to the place where we can talk about women and their sexuality.
No, no, no, no.
Even while trying to market the book over here, I would get asked questions like, 'why did you put Qandeel’s name in the title?' Not from journalists but from people actually stocking the books — from shops that refused to put the book out because they say, 'we don’t want to stock books with her face on the cover.'
They’d ask why I did that and say, 'agar uska face nahin daala hota tou ham book ko bilkul saamnay rakhtay' [If you hadn’t put her face on the cover, we’d have displayed the book front and centre].
They're literally trying to erase her from the public sphere.
Absolutely. People ask me whether it’s been depressing working on this book and actually what has been depressing is other things that you don’t even consider or anticipate.
When I was talking to this man who owns a chain of bookshops, he asked why did I put her name in the title because, if you didn’t do that, we would’ve had an event for you. I asked if he was serious, and he said he didn’t want his bookshop associated with her.
...with that woman. We will happily sell the books but we wish she wasn’t on the cover.
A lot of people have asked me why I’m not doing events over here or why I only did events in Lahore and it’s because all the other events were cancelled!
People who were happy to do events earlier pulled out when they saw the cover and her name in the title. It’s been a nightmare just trying to market the book over here.
I asked someone, can you just share it on your Facebook page and this person said, 'nahin loug buray comments likhtay hain' [No, people will write bad comments] and we don’t wish to be associated with that.
I thought, this treatment of her hasn’t ended, but has just taken on different forms. I would never have expected this from actual bookshop owners.
At 11.25 a.m. on 16 July 2016, Adil Nizami, a twenty-five-year old rookie reporter from Multan, broke the biggest story of his career. 'Famous model Qandeel Baloch has been killed,' he blurted out in a live call that interrupted 24 News' regular morning bulletin. As he stood in the empty lane outside Qandeel's house, the words that had been on the tip of his tongue for more than an hour now rushed out.