The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch review: Through the glass darkly

How social media shaped and destroyed a life

They called her Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian. Like the American reality star, she had a carefully crafted public image, a brazen, commodified sexuality that constantly raised eyebrows and outrage in Pakistan.

Qandeel Baloch is a personality in her own right, albeit one fabricated from the phantasmagoric realm of cyberspace.

The book begins with her tragic murder: she was killed on July 16, 2016, by her younger brother Waseem, “in the name of honour,” as her father, Muhammad Azeem, writes in the FIR.

The news is broken by Adil Nizami, a rookie reporter from Multan who “blurted out in a live call that interrupted 24 News’ regular morning bulletin.” It then traces the life before it, the journey from obscurity to notoriety which includes an abusive husband, a discarded child, a stint as a bus hostess, an audition for a spot on Pakistan Idol to that video on social media where she utters that catchphrase, “How I’m looking?” ending with her killing, that catapulted her into the spotlight making her an unlikely feminist symbol.

But this goes beyond the life of the girl born Fouzia Azeem in “a room with baked mud walls, a mud floor,” where, “everything is functional, everything is shared,” who constantly assumes and discards identity like the clothes she offers to strip for Pakistan’s captain, Shahid Afridi, if he won the T20 match against India. Qandeel’s life also becomes a lens through which you examine pernicious evolution of social media in a society that is still coming to terms with its ability to democratise.

Entwined with her story are other narratives of people whose lives have been shaped in some way by the internet. There is story of Arshad Khan, “a beautiful, blue-eyes boy with a brooding stare,” the chai walah who becomes “one of the most recognizable faces in Pakistan,” before the National Database and Registration Authority of Pakistan alleges that he is an Afghan national living illegally in the country. Then you have Nighat Dad, founder of The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), the organisation that launched Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline, who has been “travelling across the country conducting training sessions for internet users — many of them women — who want to learn how to protect themselves and their identities online.” And the tragic death of Naila Rind, who was completing her masters at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, when she hung herself in her hostel room.

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 carrying, “weighty themes like honour, fame and violence with such deliberation and poise,” as writer Fatima Bhutto says.

The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch; Sanam Maher, Aleph, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 6:48:06 AM |

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