Dubbed ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’, Qandeel Baloch was a social media maverick, the very personification of scandal. Thousands followed her on social media, watching videos of her as she danced, sang, and lisped outrageous promises—to strip for Shahid Afridi if his team managed to defeat the Indian cricket team, for instance—in broken English with a fake American accent. Thousands (millions?) more hated her. They hated her ‘shamelessness’, as they called it. They thought she besmirched the name of Pakistan, of Islam, of ethics and culture.
There were perhaps not quite so many who could read between the lines, who could see Qandeel for neither the slut she was labelled, nor the star she perhaps wanted to be. She was a human being,
who did not deserve to be murdered, and that too by her own brother, just for the sake of ‘honour’.
In the beginning of her biography of Qandeel Baloch, Sanam Maher writes about the conflicting accounts surrounding Qandeel’s life. Accounts that have become more convoluted and contradictory as time passes. Yes, we know she was born Fouzia Azeem and grew up in a Punjab village called Shah Sadar Din, and that having gone through an abusive marriage, eventually wound up as model, singer, and social media celebrity. Beyond that, however, it’s hard to conjecture about Qandeel’s motivations.
So Maher takes an interesting route to show us not just the journey of Qandeel Baloch, but of present-day Pakistan: she takes us down related roads. The life of a bus hostess, for instance (Qandeel probably worked as one). What it is like to be a model. How a similar rags-to-riches, overnight-fame story—that of the blue-eyed chaiwallah, Arshad—bears a resemblance to Qandeel’s, but could well be a contrast, highlighting Qandeel’s ability to remain in the spotlight.
Maher goes into the world of the journalists who unearthed parts of Qandeel’s life, and who broke the news of her murder. She introduces us to the police officer who spearheaded the investigation, and a woman who runs a helpline offering support for women who are victims of cybercrime. She even interviews Mufti Qavi, who appeared with Qandeel on a talk show and later visited her at a hotel, sparking off a scandal.
What Maher manages to achieve through this is a brilliantly insightful, thought-provoking look at Pakistan. How its media, its religious leaders, its politicians and administrators help create, build up, and break down people like Qandeel. The role of society and its ideas of what is moral and what is not. The complex and nuanced character of Qandeel herself, of whom so little is known, even though—almost two years after her death—she is still all over the net.
If you’re looking for salacious gossip on Qandeel, go online. If you’re looking for an intelligent, informative and extremely entertaining look at Pakistan today, read this book instead.