The following is the third 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. Stay tuned for part four, where Maher discusses the media’s role in influencing the audience’s perception of Qandeel, how concerns for her safety and security were overlooked and the ethics of interviewing those who knew her.
Have you experienced any blowback on Twitter while promoting the book, similar to the vitriol she would receive?
Obviously not on the same scale, but have you been on the receiving end of ‘aap kiun likh rahi hain? Mat likhein!’ [Why are you writing about her? Don’t write about her!]
Oh, yes. Online, the blowback happens mostly on Facebook and Instagram.
For example, when I shared the cover and the book was made available for preorder, I got a lot of comments on Instagram.
One person messaged me in all caps and just wrote, ‘LAANAT’ [Curse you]. I thought okay, I don’t even know what you're mad about and what’s bothering you.
A lot of people were saying you're clearly an atheist because this is against Islam, and then a lot of people were very angry about why I went with an Indian publisher, because that’s something that annoyed them.
Surely, they would be happier that you went with an Indian publisher because ‘Qandeel tou Pakistan ka honour compromise karti hai na’ [Qandeel compromises Pakistan’s honour].
It’s really weird, I wondered if I went with a Pakistani publisher, would that have made it better?
A lot of women were angry about the book and would send me messages saying you're cashing in on a dead woman, and why do you need to write about someone like her.
One person commented on a picture I shared on Instagram and she got into a long fight with people who follow me and they were going back and forth.
She was like, can’t you find something else to write about? Why would you write about this person? She was being very rude.
There was a lot of that, but I expected these reactions.
In the real world, I get a lot of aunties asking me in a very concerned manner, ‘beta tumhain aur kuch nahin mila likhnay ke liye’ [Could you find nothing else to write about?] and it’s not even said in a rude way.
They're like, ‘ispay likhnay ki kia zaroorat thi matlab, yeh jis tarah ki larki thi tou aapnay ispay poori kitab likhi?’ [What was the need to write about her? You wrote an entire book about a girl like her?].
It’s almost like her disrepute is contagious and is catching on.
I don’t know what else I should have been doing, or what would have been a good thing to write about.
A lot of women also told me, you spent a year and a half on this? ‘Iss time mein tou tumhara baby bhi hojata’ [You could’ve had a baby in all this time].
I think it really wasn’t a choice to have either/or, but that’s how they look at a woman’s use of her time.
You could’ve just said, ‘yeh mera baby hai’ [this is the baby].
No, I hate it when people say that, because why is women’s work talked about in that way? The book is my baby, this project is my baby. I don’t want my work talked about like this!
I think it’s a way to make women working palatable, but you’re right — it’s gendered and unfortunate.
So many people did the baby thing and that kind of surprised me. It was weird, but I didn’t realise people thought there was genuinely a better use of my time.
When people ask what’s the use in writing about this subject, I think it shows our understanding of how not only nonfiction but also investigative work is perceived.
I think we tend to think of investigative work as political drama, scandals or uncovering something. It’s always very political and based on horrible things that are going on in the country, and getting to the heart of that.
But there’s little follow up in terms of the place that we’re living in: what is this place like; how are we functioning; how are we thinking about things?
We are a generation that’s connected to the rest of the world like never before. We all like to complain about social media and ‘aaj kal ke bachay’ [kids these days] and what they're doing online. How about we pull back and actually look at what’s going on?
I don’t think there is a sense that work on this subject is actually important. If I had spent a year looking at a political event or a politician, that would have made more sense to people, but when they ask me this question, I think it tells me a lot more about what most people consider ‘serious work’.
This is what I love about the book, because it features a constellation of characters. You have Arshad Khan (infamously dubbed Chaiwala by the internet), you have Khushi (an upcoming model), you have Mec (event organiser, friend and participant in the How I’m looking? video), you have Nighat Dad (founder of Digital Rights Foundation), Mufti Qavi, obviously, and Attiya Jafri (the policewoman who investigated Qandeel’s murder).
All these competing narratives add such richness and texture to the book and inadvertently provide insight into Qandeel and, more broadly, Pakistan.
Did you intend for this book to be a sociocultural account of contemporary Pakistan, or did the interviewing process organically lead to the content of the text?
I think if I had started off by saying, ‘I'm going to make a sociocultural comment through the book’, I would have frozen and panicked, because that’s a really tall order to begin with.
It takes a certain kind of person to say something like that without any irony, and I think those people sound terrible; I really can’t say that with a straight face and be that pompous.
The book is definitely driven by the interviews and the people that came forward to tell the story of the place that created Qandeel, and they did it really well.
I wanted to pull back and look at the media landscape that she’s functioning within and how we as an audience consume, receive and tell these stories, how we became interested in the Chaiwala, and then a month later it’s old news and we don’t care.
What happens to a person who is suddenly dropped from the limelight and can’t go back to their old life? This is something I was hoping to look at.
Finding someone like Khushi was a complete accident. I had gone to a fashion show rehearsal looking for Mec and I thought the whole chapter was going to be about him.
Then I met this woman while waiting there. We got to talking and I thought, her story is incredible, the stuff she’d done and how she’s surviving in this industry and how she’s become a huge part of it.
A lot of material came from the interviews I was doing, but a part of it is driven by a sort of selfishness, because I’m a reader myself.
When this murder happened, I had all these questions about us and about the people involved. I really wanted to know more about Mufti Qavi, and I wanted to know more about the reporter who actually broke the story.
How do these journalists tell their stories? How do we consume a person’s life on TV and in the news?
I wanted to know more about the Chaiwala and what this guy is actually like. How does he live and what is his story beyond dressing up in a sherwani as a bridegroom on a talk show?
Those chapters were fantastic. The one on Arshad Khan and Nighat Dad were revealing. I don’t know if this was intended, but Arshad Khan seems almost like he’s framed as a foil to Qandeel, because despite being plunged into similar circumstances, they have a completely dissimilar reaction to fame.
With Nighat’s journey, it seems that despite having similar histories, her story reads like a wistful counterfactual; she got ahead while Qandeel couldn’t.
The dream scenario would’ve been if you could have connected a woman like Qandeel to someone like Nighat.
While going through Qandeel’s social media, I had to go through the comments she was getting on a day-to-day basis.
Those are public comments and I didn’t have access to whatever she was getting in her inbox, but can you imagine the level of hate she would be getting? How do you even process that?
I barely received two per cent of the hate that she was getting and there were days where it really shook me.
I thought, why are people being so hateful or vile about this or making assumptions about me or my work?
Now imagine if Qandeel could access Nighat, but also on a lower level, if someone like Naila (a student who allegedly committed suicide because of harassment and blackmail) could reach out to Nighat.
What happened to her was on a micro level when compared to Qandeel, but blackmail is something that’s a common experience with girls.
What happens if they can’t access other women who could help them, like Nighat?
I want to focus on the nature of the harassment Qandeel received during her life and, on a smaller but equally troubling scale, the comments and vitriol that you’ve received.
You mention in the last chapters that she’s oscillating between putting up increasingly risqué posts and then worrying about the consequences.
This points to the contradiction that although people are slutshaming her, they are simultaneously consuming her content. What do you think this hypocrisy speaks to?
Something that fascinated me is that we’ve started using the internet and want to relentlessly consume content that irks and disgusts us.
After this, we frantically write messages shaming women on how they're dressed or what men are doing just down to appearances.
What I am amazed by is how we’ve become so focused on calling out and publicly shaming and cancelling places.
For example, you can tell someone, ‘I was eating at this restaurant and the food wasn’t good’, and immediately people ask, ‘What’s the name of the place? We need to call them out’.
There’s a need to post this publicly and we need to name and shame and then cancel them.
It’s a vicious cycle that we’re really obsessed with and I don’t really know where this comes from.
I don’t know if it’s the ease with which you can do it on the internet, how it’s public and has very little consequences once you’ve said something.
It doesn’t require you to write a letter to the editor and it’s so instantaneous and gratifying, especially when people can call out someone, particularly women, for what they're wearing or how they're speaking.
It’s an easy outlet for our frustrations, for things around us that don’t look the way we want them to look, or people that aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave.
I don’t have a clear answer to that, but it’s something that fascinates me.
Those Mahira Khan photographs of her smoking in a dress triggered such hatred and such anger towards this person who is just behaving in a way that you did not like, and the whole situation escalated so quickly: ‘This is not the image of Pakistan! This is not the image of women! This is not the image of a mother!’
Just all these very conservative ideas that we have and something sparks them and then it’s a flood of information where we can get all of it off our chest and find like-minded people who are saying the same thing.
It’s a conundrum, because while the democratisation of the internet is great and people should be able to say what they want, it tends to encourage a sense of vitriol that can be spewed anonymously without any consequences.
Yes, let’s think about something that’s common: how women get attacked for how they dress, how actresses, models and fashion brands post their images online. Where were you encountering that kind of stuff, say, even 10 years before?
I guess tabloids, maybe?
If you saw photographs, maybe it was in magazines, and only if you were buying those magazines, or maybe you saw them on billboards, but not to the extent that you do now.
You weren’t exactly getting glimpses of how actresses party, what they do and how they dress on their vacations.
You just weren’t getting that level of information and it was something that one only wondered about.
Are you referring to that awful Daily Mail section with headlines like ‘So-and-so actress looks a little worse for wear’ on a night out and horrible before-and-after photos of models and actresses entering a club early in the evening, along with a shot of them from later on? The person in question might be a little tipsy and it’s horrible.
If you look at the Pakistani context, people will say, ‘dekho hamein pata tha saari actresses fahash hain’ [See, we knew all the actresses are obscene] and ‘hamein pata tha yeh sab chotay chotay kapray pehen ke India jati hain’ [We knew it, all these actresses they go to India/Bollywood and wear skimpy clothes].
These are suspicions people have and suddenly, when presented with photographs, people will say, ‘I knew it, I was right’, and this is followed by moral outrage where immediately you on your phone can say, I knew all these actresses were sluts.
Absolutely. In the Pakistani context, some people upload a video with a photograph on Youtube and be like ‘XYZ actress is at a dance party wearing sleeveless’ in an attempt to shame women.
It’s the ease with which you can consume content that stokes your conspiracies about how these “liberal” women or men behave and you're outraged by it.
You can say something and actually have a voice, whereas before, you sat around and gossiped about actresses — and while you know they get up to stuff, you didn’t have information beyond rumours.
Now, you get a picture, you share it with 10 of your friends, you're going to talk about it and say, ‘tumnay uski photo dekhi thi, woh dekho Mahira smoke karti hai aur usnay dress pehna hua tha’ [Did you see her photos? See, Mahira smokes and she’s wearing a dress].
Instagram is particularly bad in this context. For example, they have a page called Modern Pakistani Elites where they put photographs of people wearing various items of clothing and the comments section underneath is just terrible.
If you look at Sunday Times’ Instagram, they’ll post a photograph of an actress on a red carpet at the LSA or some awards ceremony where she’s wearing a gown, and suddenly people will be fighting it out in the comments section.
It’s interesting, because there’s this constant back-and-forth going on, where some people will say, ‘What does it have to do with you?’ and ‘Let them dress however they want to’.
People will be fighting each other, and the pages hosting these photos don’t need to do much and don’t need to intervene because people are just having conversations.
A lot of people who think that a model wearing a dress looks like a slut aren’t encountering people in their life who’ll turn around and ask, ‘What right do you have to criticise?’
Instagram is worse, because there’s no sense of culpability. Instagram comments don’t turn up on a Google search, so as soon as you type a comment it’s lost in an abyss and nobody can hold you to it unless they screenshot it and publicly shame you, which is another hoopla.
It’s amazing and I'm fascinated by the stuff we’re doing online.
It’s terrifying, but coming to Mufti sahab, this self-styled ‘sexy man of God’ goes from being the man who publicly berates Veena Malik to someone presents himself as a quasi-liberal maulvi. What was your interaction with him like?
I might be projecting but it initially felt as if there was a mild sense of discomfort when he said, ‘qareeb aa ke beth jayen’ [Please come sit closer]. Maybe, that was just me experiencing discomfort.
Oh no, that was very strange.
I don’t think he thinks of himself as a quasi-liberal maulvi, but he wants to come across as sympathetic.
He wants to be seen as someone who knows how men think and, specifically, how men think about relationships, sex or their love lives.
Not liberal but a “frank” maulvi.
Exactly, that’s the word he loved: frankness.
It was definitely intense and one of the most full-on interviews I have done. It went on for around seven hours with this man constantly talking and there were maybe 10 or 15 minutes in between when I wasn’t with him.
It was definitely pretty intense, and when he told me to come sit next to him, you get clues into the kind of person that he is and how you can get him to start talking; how you can get him to be comfortable and what he thrives on.
He thrives on attention and he thrives on women behaving a certain way towards him, women needing him for help or advice, for example.
As the DRF training sessions continued, Nighat started to hear from girls who were attending them. The messages would arrive late at night, on her personal Facebook account and the Hamara Internet account. They were desperate: 'If you don't reply to me in an hour, I'm going to kill myself,' one girl said. These girls were being blackmailed, harassed or threatened online and they did not know whom to turn to. Often, Nighat used her contacts in the tech world or within social media companies to try to resolve problems. She would speak with the girls for days, counselling them or providing emotional support.