For several years now, I’ve been aware of a female social media sensation based in Pakistan called Qandeel Baloch.
If you don’t live in Pakistan or India, you might never have heard of her. She rose to fame in her home country because she shared selfies and short videos through Facebook and Instagram that were often very unfiltered – so much so that she was often called “the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan.” Pakistan is a Muslim majority country where conservative values are pervasive. Existing against this backdrop as a social media star known for saying and doing provocative things was not the safest or more comfortable career path but Qandeel never backed down or hid away. She received death threats and was often mocked. Her social media status rose to such a point that she was often invited onto talk shows and other media events because she was good clickbait – but at those events, she was treated with little respect.
Sadly, Qandeel’s whirlwind life came to an untimely and tragic end in July 2016. She was murdered by her brother whilst visiting her parent’s home. She was aged just 26 years old. In death, Qandeel became more famous than she ever was in life. Her death put a spotlight on Pakistan’s entertainment industry, the treatment of women, the tribal mentalities of small villages in Pakistan and on honour killings (which is what her murder was labelled as). The murder of an outspoken, larger-than-life woman at the hands of her religious, conservative brother bought in international press attention, with many Western media outlets vying for that “she stood up to the patriarchy and died” angle. I remember reading this coverage and wanting to know so much more about this woman who had become an enigma over night. Like many people, I really wanted to know more about her life behind-the-scenes and behind the lens because to me personally, as a brown woman, Qandeel represented so much more than just another victim. She embodied brown women from my own family who also have had to exist in her society and their struggles. So, understandably, when I found out about Sanam Maher’s book about the life and times of Qandeel, purchasing it was a reflex.
Who is the author?
Sanam Maher is a Pakistani reporter based in the city of Karachi who writes for Al Jazeera, The New York Times, Buzzfeed and more. As a journalist, Maher had followed Qandeel’s viral exploits for years but never actually met or interviewed Qandeel herself. To write this book, Maher has done a superb job of researching and interviewing practically every key person that was at every key event of Qandeel’s life – from her currently overwhelmed parents to her agent. Maher recently mentioned that she was inspired to write this book because Qandeel’s death left her in a state of shock. Specifically, Maher was shocked by the image that Qandeel had crafted of herself: of a carefree, confident and liberated woman – when the reality was that Qandeel actually came from a very conservative, very poor family that was not supportive of her life choices at all. The reality was Qandeel was someone who had to fight most of her life against all kinds of oppression to get to where she was – and she made it look effortless.
What’s it about?
In the book, Maher traces Qandeel’s life story to the small village she was born and raised in and then meanders onto the different paths Qandeel took in her quest for fame and fortune: from working as a bus hostess, to a model, to enjoying viral fame. As Maher retraces Qandeel’s path, she interviews her family, her coworkers, her confidantes and even her critics. Through Maher’s travels and interviews, we get a cross-sectional look at Pakistani society and Pakistani culture and we get to see just how varied and different it is. Some notable examples include the strong and charismatic Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation who tries to help and empower Pakistani women caught up in any kind of cyber abuse and the story of Arshad Khan, a chaiwalla who inadvertently became “Insta-famous” and had no idea what to do with said fame given that he’d never even used the Internet. Through all this, we get a feel for the context in which someone like Qandeel was able to reach prominence and a real idea of the diversity that makes up the fabric of Pakistani society today.
Every. single. word. of. it. I know it seems like I’m not sparing the hyperbole here but I really do mean this. I didn’t hesitate a moment to pick up this book because like most people, I was so curious about Qandeel and what drove her. Maher does an outstanding job of trying to demystify Qandeel for us. However, the true beauty of Maher’s book is in the insights we get into Pakistani culture. Being of South Asian heritage myself, I often struggle with how Pakistan, India and other South Asian countries are appraised through the lens and perspectives of Western writers. It was so refreshing to read about a famous South Asian woman’s story from another South Asian woman – someone who gets the nuances and the context. You really get that the story of Qandeel is the story of isolated villages, of class divides and of the ‘Me Too’ generation.
Any not-so-great bits?
I’ll come in again with the hyperbole here: not. a. single. word. of. this. book. wasn’t. great!
10/10. Buy this book now. Read this book now. If you enjoy social media or are curious about it in anyway, you will enjoy this book. If you’ve heard of Qandeel, you will enjoy this book. If you like to read about scandal, you will enjoy this book. If you are curious about modern day Pakistan, you will enjoy this book. If you’ve never heard of Qandeel and you don’t even have a Facebook account, you will enjoy this book and I promise, you will turn the final page of this book feeling richer in mind and in soul.
You can purchase the book on Amazon here (this is not an affiliate link, I was not paid for this post in anyway).