By Sonya Rehman
Released this month, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, explores the life of one of Pakistan’s most popular social media celebrities, whose life was tragically cut short in 2016 when she was brutally murdered by her brother over ‘honor.’
Based in Karachi, journalist Sanam Maher says that she was keen on writing about Baloch when the social media star’s popularity was at its peak on the internet.
While many were avid followers and fans of Baloch’s Facebook page, the star was consistently condemned for the kind of content she was uploading; labeling her posts as ‘vulgar’ and ‘un-Islamic.’
“It would be a challenge for the average Pakistani to recognize the faces of any of the hundreds of men and women killed for honour every year. Their stories and our dismay at yet another killing fades with the grubby newsprint from our fingers as we read about them,” states Maher, speaking about how Baloch’s murder opened up a much-needed dialogue in Pakistan – both online and in real life – about the subject of honor killing, “But Qandeel was different. There was a sense of having known her – or a facet of her personality – as many of us engaged with her frequently online, whether that was to bait her, shame her, secretly watch her videos at night, or share her videos with friends, imitate her and make a meme of her.”
For her debut book, Maher knew she didn’t just want to shed light on Baloch’s life, but to also scrutinize and understand the workings of Pakistani society, its imperfections and duplicity included.
“For instance, when looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to ‘offline?’ What happens when we behave in a way online that seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, ‘in the real world?’”
Since her passing, the author mentions that it is crucial to remember Baloch as a woman who had her own fair share of quirks, endearing qualities, dreams and ambitions. “It is easy to put Baloch on a pedestal now and use her as a hashtag, but it is important to never forget the living, breathing heart of any story about her: a woman who was funny, catty, charming, a wonderful friend who never forgot a birthday or a Valentine’s Day, a woman who told little fibs about herself, someone who was loyal, someone who was a naughty child who did very well at school and loved to play with the boys even when her mother scolded her for doing so, a woman who had played dress-up in her brother’s clothes as a little girl and who desperately wanted to learn martial arts.”
And for those hoping to read her debut book, the author states that she’d like her readers to first ask themselves what prompted them to buy a book on a slain social media celebrity.
“When I’m asked, even now, for a definite, incontrovertible answer to, ‘But who really killed her?’ I wonder what the person asking that question is hoping to get from my answer. I’ve tried to remember always that when the details of Baloch’s ‘real life’ came forward, it was by force – she never wanted to reveal her real name, or the fact that she had a son and an ex-husband – and something that was deeply distressing for her. I hope that by the end of the book, my [readers] leave knowing a bit more about themselves and the place we’re living in, rather than every juicy, dirty detail of a woman’s life.”