‘You’re going to miss me when I am gone. Kitnay gunday ho aap log waisay, double standard log. You like to watch me, and then you like to say, ‘Why don’t you just die?’’’
As a society, we have systematically suppressed women for so long that even an act of silliness or self-indulgence on their part, is considered as rebellion. One that is tantamount to an immediate dishonour to her family. From celebrities to working-class women, this scrutiny subsumes us to varying degrees – from what we wear to where we work, from what we share on social media to whom we are seen with – even subconsciously, we choose to tread carefully. Sometimes we crave to be invisible, put on blinders and keep trudging on, just to be able to live our lives on our terms.
Pakistani actress, model and social media sensation Qandeel Baloch was the country’s viral star, so to speak. She first shot to fame with her audition on Pakistan Idol and kept returning to media spotlight – promising to strip for Shahid Afridi if he won a T20 cricket match against India, wanting to marry Imran Khan after his divorce, and her meeting with senior cleric Mufti Abdul Qawi in his hotel room, where she interviewed him using a selfie stick, sitting on the armrest of his couch, and then promptly proceeding to wear his hat.
Baloch was not afraid of seeking attention. In her videos, she’d lie on her bed with her cat-winged eyeliner and ask you in a slow voice – ‘How I’m looking?’ Beautiful, sexy or hot?
In July 2016, journalist Sanam Maher remembers staring at the television on discovering that Baloch had been a victim of honour killing – she was choked to death by her younger brother for “bringing disrepute” to their family. Earlier she had thought that Baloch would be a great person to focus on while writing a piece about how young women in Pakistan are pushing the envelope on how they can dress speak or present themselves in Pakistan. The piece was never written, lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs, but on finding out about her death, Maher didn’t want to let go of her story once again.
“In the hours and days after, 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 saw acquaintances in my own social media feeds having arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Baloch “deserved” what had been done to her. ‘Offline’, many of the men and women I knew were condemning Baloch’s death but then, in the next breath, following their statements with “… but if you think about it…”
She realized that reactions to Baloch’s murder had 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. Maher feels that this definition is not static, but ever evolving, depending on who you’re talking to. This contradiction forms the crux of her book, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch – “I wanted to tell a story not just about Qandeel, but about that definition. I knew that this book wasn’t just 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.”
While the book is very much about who she was, it doesn’t just focus on Baloch. Maher adds, “Since she created a persona that she knew would appeal to us, what we saw reflected back to ourselves when we watched Baloch’s videos or looked at her photographs? So the book uses parts of Baloch’s life in order to open up into a story about Pakistan and young Pakistanis at this particular moment.”
So for instance, when looking at Baloch’s fame as a viral star, she began to think about how her generation of Pakistanis was connected to the world like never before – what they were doing online and what did it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How were they building communities online in order to speak in ways that were not permissible “offline”? What happened when rules of the offline world are broken online, particularly as women?
Maher met everyone from trolls and hacktivists to Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline to learn “how our “offline” tendencies, such as our kneejerk reactions to women who don’t behave or look or talk like we might want or expect them to, are creeping online. 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 Baloch’s story and some of the others in the book, you see the terrible ramifications that a clash between the two can have.”
The author finished researching and writing this book in about a year’s time; it was a very tight deadline to not just tell Baloch’s story, but also find a way to talk about the world that she lived in Pakistan. That meant trying to squeeze in more than 100 interviews across the country within a couple of months. But at times, she also felt helpless in trying to report about someone she had never met or spoken to in her life. With all the news reports, gossip, TV shows and documentaries, it didn’t help that everyone she interviewed or spoke to felt convinced that they knew the ‘Baloch story’.
Maher also became pretty used to people asking, “Why would you waste your time writing on someone like Baloch?”, or, “Don’t you have anything more important to work on?” But often, she realized, naysayers can also prove to be helpful.
“Many times I would be interviewing someone and they would be scornful or confused about why I was bothering to write a book when ‘Pakistanis don’t read’, and so they end up telling you a lot more than they would tell a TV reporter or documentary film crew, for instance, because they’re so confident that no one will pick up your work,” she says.
The author feels that people at large didn’t hate Baloch because she was supposedly “bringing dishonour” to her family. Her relatives or people in the village she came from may have felt that and passed judgement on her for that. But in terms of her haters, she thinks some were just amazed that she didn’t seem to give a damn about what people said. In many of her interviews, news anchors repeatedly asked her to stop posting provocative photos or videos – “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 would behave this way?”
She says, “She didn’t neatly align with our ideas of how women can and should behave, even in the face of criticism, and we just could not stop looking at what she did next.”
In the book, police officer Attiya Jaffrey who was investigating the homicide, asks Maher, “Is becoming Baloch Baloch ‘freedom’?” In her opinion, no matter how headstrong a woman is, she should also be mindful of the society she lives in. In the larger context of women’s emancipation in Pakistan, what is really the answer to this question?
“The answer to the question of what it looks like to have freedom lies partly in our willingness to stop prescribing what it looks like.”
An Anti Honour Killing Bill was passed soon after Baloch’s death (the same year recorded a 1000 deaths by honour killing in Pakistan), but has there been a visible deterrent, keeping families from taking the lives of women who defy them in any way?
Maher thinks that it is going to take a lot more time to see significant, lasting change on the ground, and that change can only come when there is a cultural and social shift when it comes to the motivations for honour crimes against men and women – “Legislation alone cannot bring about the change.”
Ever since the book’s release, the author has been getting messages from readers in Pakistan and all over the world – typing out their thoughts or trying to start a conversation about the questions raised in the book. They send pictures of the book from all over, “Qandeel has been travelling the world!” she says.
Soon after Baloch’s death, her Facebook page had disappeared. The author writes in the book that while it might be impossible for someone to find her unmarked grave in her hometown of Shah Sadar Din, her videos and photographs have been copied and shared across social media platforms, blogs and websites countless times.
“They cannot be erased.”