More than a year after she made her last video or uploaded her last photograph, we are not done talking about what Qandeel did.
I’m so, so glad Sanam Maher wrote this book, because someone needed to. Pakistan is, let’s face it, a country bursting with issues that we don’t talk enough about. We’ve got more problems than we can count, and on top of that, we’ve got those who will choose to ignore our problems in favour of pointing at other countries and screaming ‘but they’re so oppressive/racist/RAPE CAPITAL!’ because apparently if we’re bad, all that matters is that we not be the worst.
But I digress. I’m glad someone wrote this book because the only places where we discuss the horrors of being a woman in Pakistan are the bland, overused stock phrases of newspaper articles. I’m glad because a smart, insightful look at the Pakistani social media scene in the form of a full length book is a very rare thing. I’m happy because the writing was controlled and the narrative structure well-formed. It was organized and not boring at all and it talked about all the right things without veering off into melodrama or too many facts one after the other. And mostly, I’m ecstatic that there were whole chapters dedicated to people like Arshad Khan (the Chaiwalla, for those who never bothered to learn his real name) or Nighat Dad, cool woman personified.
I thought the whole book would be about Qandeel herself. That’s what everyone who has seen the TV show about her life says, as an excuse to not read this text. But it isn’t, not really. Maher’s focus is not just on the linear life path that Qandeel followed but also all those who are affected by her, who interacted with her, orbited in her circuit. It’s about people who looked up to Qandeel as a role model or those who lost their credibility by affiliating with her. The focus of the story constantly circles wider, talking about people who, like her, shot to fame on social media, or like her, knew what cyberharrassment felt like. The woman who was in charge of the investigation after Qandeel’s death, the man who trained Qandeel in self defense, the parents who registered an FIR against their son, the woman who worked as a model and wanted to follow in Qandeel’s footsteps, the man who introduced Qandeel to the modelling business. They all feature in detail, talking about their own selves and most of all of how stark a presense Qandeel was in their lives.
Overall, though, it feels sort of pointless to talk about the content of the book itself, because doesn’t everyone already know about Qandeel? We’ve, after all, seen most or at least some of her interviews or YouTube videos. We all remember Mufti Abdul Qavi and the offer to Shahid Afridi and the appeal to Imran Khan. Most of us also remember when Qandeel’s real name was revealed across all the channels and the absolute madness that erupted every time her name was mentioned after that. But the way Sanam Maher has tackled her source material is extraordinary. I don’t claim to have read a lot of nonfiction, and memoirs or biographies have never managed to retain my interest, but Maher isn’t interested in just Qandeel’s life. We talk not only about Qandeel but about the society in which she lived and how it in turn was obsessed with and horrified by her. And by horrified I mean enough to have been happy when she was murdered. And enough to threaten Saba Qamar, the actress who willingly chose to portray Qandeel in a TV serial based on QB’s life.
Qamar reportedly received death threats for taking on the project and when the Express Tribune ran a trailer for the new series on its Facebook page, the post was flooded with hateful comments. ‘Like Qandel’s murder, Saba Qamar should also be murdered in the same way,” one male commentator wrote while another called Qandeel and Qamar ‘strippers and prostitutes’.
Maher’s work is also unflinching in its depiction of the media that some argue are what contributed to her death. If not the actual murderers, than accomplices for certain. It wasn’t, seemingly, the shame of what Qandeel had done, but how widespread that fame became, that led to her brother killing her. Our media isn’t exactly a responsible and conscientious medium on its best days. The slightest hint of a controversy is enough to send them into a mad frenzy. Once Qandeel’s real name was revealed, pictures of her passport appeared on almost every channel.
If Daily Pakistan is responsible for what happened to Qandeel, then so it every other newspaper and TV channel that ran a story on Qandeel’s real name and where she was from.
Other equally horrible stuff crops up elsewhere as well. The honour killing laws and their treatment, and the fact that they haven’t actually managed to make any substantial changes in the number of deaths. Cybercrimes and how Nighat Dad is spending her days dealing with the utter craziness that is Pakistan’s web. Social Media, and how fame from these sources can be dangerous and toxic. The modelling industry, and how it crosses over into blatant prostitution. The villages where women are killed for any number of ridiculous reasons. Patriarchy and how it dictates the life of the majority of Pakistan’s population.
"We have a tradition here that every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown in the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing."
I think the only thing that makes me sad about the existence of this book is that the people who should be reading it are probably not going to. I know loads of people who picked the book up and looked horrified at the (very cool) illustration of Qandeel’s face. And these are the very people at whom I wanted to shove the book to force them to read it. I feel like there’s a very tiny crowd, the ones who defended Qandeel in the first place, who’ll read this book and actually learn from it. The rest of Pakistan, misogynistic and patriarchal, will continue living in ignorance. And that is the saddest thing about this whole endeavour.
Today, two years after her death, the conversations still continue in the same veins, with the same groups saying the same thing. To us, she’s either a fighter, taking on patriarchy and misogyny front and centre, a woman who escaped the clutches of a horrible marriage and made a life for herself, or she is a wanton woman, an insult to our culture and a threat to our religion. Even with all the adoration and the vitriol poured on her in tandem, she still fascinated, with scores of Pakistani audiences unable to look away from the sort of drama the name Qandeel Baloch could stir. These two teams represent not just those whether we were with or against Qandeel but are also extensions of the Pakistani mind set, in conflict with itself over everything. Here’s hoping that this book changes the landscape in terms of making everyone a little less ignorant about the realities of the world we live in. Definitely recommended.
Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.