In 2018, my first book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, was published in South Asia by Aleph Book Company. The book will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2019.
Bold’, ‘Shameless’, ‘Siren’ were just some of the (kinder) words used to describe Qandeel Baloch. She embraced these labels and played the coquette, yet dished out biting critiques of some of Pakistan’s most holy cows. Pakistanis snickered at her fake American accent, but marvelled at her gumption. She was the stuff of a hundred memes and Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media.
Qandeel first captured the nation’s attention on Pakistan Idol with a failed audition and tearful outburst. But it was in February 2016, when she uploaded a Facebook video mocking a presidential ‘warning’ not to celebrate Valentine’s Day, that she went ‘viral’. In the video, which racked up nearly a million views, she lies in bed, in a low-cut red dress, and says in broken English, ‘They can stop to people go out…but they can’t stop to people love.’ The video shows us everything that Pakistanis loved—and loved to hate—about Qandeel, ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’. Five months later, she would be dead. In July 2016, Qandeel’s brother would strangle her in their family home, in what was described as an ‘honour killing’—a punishment for the ‘shame’ her online behaviour had brought to the family.
Scores of young women and men are killed in the name of honour every year in Pakistan. Many cases are never reported, and of the ones that are, murderers are often ‘forgiven’ by the surviving family members and do not face charges. However, just six days after Qandeel’s death, the Anti-Honour Killings Laws Bill was fast-tracked in parliament, and in October 2016, the loophole allowing families to pardon perpetrators of ‘honour killings’ was closed. What spurred the change? Was it the murder of Qandeel Baloch? And how did she come to represent the clash between rigid conservatism and a secular, liberal vision for Pakistan? Through dozens of interviews—with aspiring models, managers, university students, activists, lawyers, police officers and journalists, among them—Sanam Maher gives us a portrait of a woman and a nation.
Some of the praise for the book:
‘Only one of Pakistan’s finest young writers could carry weighty themes like honour, fame, and violence with such deliberation and poise.’
— Fatima Bhutto
‘Qandeel was a marvelous blaze. She set our dark world on fire and made enough light to expose the hypocrisies of Pakistan’s pious patriarchy. In Sanam Maher’s terrific and necessary book, those flames burn brighter than ever.’
— Bilal Tanweer
‘A powerful and deeply moving account from an important new voice in non-fiction.’
— Sonia Faleiro
‘Maher’s well-researched, engaging narrative containing numerous voices, including Qandeel’s, makes for an excellent read. She brings in strong reportage coupled with an impartial, sensitive voice…’
‘ (The book)…tries to tell (Qandeel’s) story on its own terms, peering behind the Instagram filters to reach Baloch herself. Maher’s account stems from interviews with dozens of people close to Baloch and follows her from early childhood through to her first viral video and tragic death… (This) powerful book reveals the strange and important ways that social media can circumvent traditional media and challenge the hypocrisy and oppression it upholds.’
‘The book is an engrossing, entirely accessible work on the lives of young women from rural Pakistan trying to eke out a living and a place for themselves in the world. This is the sort of non-fiction one hopes to see much more of in coming years.’
“The book also makes one wonder about the voyeuristic culture we live in, where threats in the online world are made against hundreds of women with no shame. It never makes Qandeel into a caricature as did so many anchors who invited her on their shows, or patronizes her in the way she was on the now infamous Pakistan Idol audition that went viral.”
— The News