Who really killed Qandeel Baloch?
Journalist Sanam Maher takes a deep dive into the controversial life and death of Pakistan's 'Kim Kardashian'
In July 2016, a 26-year-old woman was allegedly murdered by her younger brother in an act of “honour killing" in Pakistan’s south Punjab region. With a woman being killed and five falling victim to domestic violence on an average each day in the area (according to a 2017 report), her death would have probably gone unremarked had it not been for the fame—or rather, notoriety—that trailed her for the last several years of her short life.
Qandeel Baloch, described by international media as the “Kim Kardashian" of Pakistan, had incurred the wrath of the orthodox lobby for her boldly revealing posts on social media. Islamic clerics deplored her guts, socially conservative Muslims were appalled by her sexually charged videos and no-holds-barred interviews on television. To women, especially from lower-middle-class backgrounds like hers, she was a figure of awe as well as outrage—just as they were stunned by her defiance of patriarchy, they found her courage brazen, if not outright indecent. And the person who most enjoyed, even encouraged, fanning the flames of these ambiguities was Baloch herself.
“Qandeel was a chameleon," says Sanam Maher, Pakistani journalist and author of a new book, The Sensational Life & Death Of Qandeel Baloch, in an email. “She presented different parts of herself to different people." Tracing Baloch’s life back to her family home in Shah Sadar Din, a small town near Multan, two months after her tragic death, Maher hunted out the people who had scripted her phenomenal rise. From her parents and brothers to the reporter who broke the news of her death to Mufti Qavi, who was propelled into the eye of a media storm by Baloch’s provocative selfies with him in a hotel room—no one is spared Maher’s sharp, investigative eye.
Along the way, Maher encountered half-truths, lies and subterfuges, more grey areas than those etched black and white—not only from those who were close to Baloch, but also in the testimony she left behind in her posts on social media, videos on YouTube, and the messages sent to friends and strangers from her mobile phone. “It’s very easy to judge her and feel like you have her pinned down," adds Maher, “but what if all you know about her was challenged?"
Indeed, Baloch didn’t make the task of decoding her identity remotely easy for the media, which hounded her while she was alive. Her real name, Fouzia Azeem, was exposed in a dramatic, albeit problematic, coup when the details of her passport were printed on the front page of a national newspaper. The revelation led to an outcry of protest from the Balochis, who claimed she had fabricated her family’s links with the region. The details of her early life, including a reluctant (and possibly) abusive marriage (or two) and the birth of a son, were suppressed by Baloch, perhaps understandably, during the years she was desperate to break out as a model, actor and singer.
She bent like a reed with the way the winds blew on the internet: One day, she would be pledging her undying love to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the next day, she would promise to do a striptease for Shahid Afridi, the skipper of the Pakistan team, if his team was able to defeat India on the field (Pakistan lost that match). Her signature greeting to her fans and detractors on social media was conveyed in three magical words: “How I’m looking?"
Like pop singer Taher Shah’s Angel, her deprecatory address to Prime Minister Narendra Modi created a sensation in India. She scoffed at Modi for being a former tea-seller before asking him to revise his opinion of Pakistanis. Contrary to India’s belief, she said, people of her country were not aggressive and violent, “Hum pyar karne wale log hain (we are a loving people)."
If the media, especially members of the entertainment industry, were quick to turn Baloch into a hashtag and put her on a pedestal as a feminist icon after her death, she was heaped with scorn and disdain, across the board, when she was alive. Extending the scope of the biography, Maher not only delves into Baloch’s impact on Pakistani society, but also amplifies and casts a deep perspective on what it means to go viral in her country. Her enquiry into Baloch’s career, Maher says, led her on to one of the key questions that frame her narrative: “How are we (in Pakistan) building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to ‘offline’?"
Two striking offshoots from Maher’s interest in this question are the chapters on Arshad Khan, the blue-eyed chaiwallah who became an internet celebrity for the proverbial 15 minutes after being spotted purely by chance, and Nighat Dad, the creator of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline, respectively. While Khan’s sudden and unexpected rise to celebrity left him more confused and dazed than elated, Dad fought an unrelenting battle against patriarchy to help women across Pakistan stand up against internet bullies and harassers. The internet is a bottomless pit—of deception, desire, double-dealing. But it could also turn itself into a vehicle of redemption, from social and economic hardships, opening doors to the whole wide world, usually while exacting a dire cost.
The internet is burgeoning with individuals like Baloch, living a fiction, inspired by a figment of their imagination or by someone they have caught sight of in the vast stretches of the cyber world. Yet, there is only one Qandeel Baloch, buried in an obscure and unmarked grave near her home in the real world, her traces apotheosized in the world she inhabited most freely—the internet.
“My book tried to answer why we were transfixed by Qandeel and we simply could not turn away from her," says Maher. “Whether we watched her videos to make fun of her, to secretly admire her, to share those with friends and imitate her made-up accent or to have fuel for our next barrage of hateful tweets to her." In the end, our fascination with Baloch speaks more of who we are, than who she really was. “What did we see reflected back to ourselves when we watched her or looked at her photographs?" Maher asks. “In that we’ll find the blueprint for the next sensational story."