In February 2016, Issam Ahmed, a journalist from the international news agency Agence France-Presse, interviewed a twenty-five-year-old Pakistani woman for a story on how the country&;syouth interacted with social media. Qandeel Baloch, the country&;s first social media celebrity, had more than 700,000 followers on Facebook, 40,000 followers on Twitter, and a popular YouTube channel. &;Young people can communicate online in relative freedom,&; Ahmed reported. He described Baloch as a &;Kim Kardashian-type figure.&;
Ahmed was curious about whether Qandeel&;s social media posts had any greater intent beyond gaining likes and followers. He thought her photographs and videos were funny, refreshing and cool, yet every time she posted something, she would receive a flood of abusive comments. So why did she keep going? It was gutsy, he thought. What did she want people to take away from what she was doing? When he first spoke with Qandeel, she was suspicious of these questions. It was the first time she had been interviewed for the foreign press, but more importantly, it was the first time that she was hearing that her social media activity had meaning.
Qandeel had caught Ahmed&;s attention after a video she posted on Facebook mocking a presidential &;warning&; not to celebrate Valentine&;s Day&;deemed a &;Western&; holiday&;was viewed more than 800,000 times in less than two weeks. In the video, made on a cellphone as she lies in bed, Baloch wears a low-cut red dress, and her full lips are painted scarlet. The sheets match her outfit, and her dress rides up her legs to reveal her thighs. &;They can stop to people go out,&; she says in broken English, &;but they can&;t stop to people love.&; She says the same thing once more, this time in Urdu, with an exaggerated American accent, as though she is not used to speaking the language. &;No matter what they do, they can&;t stop people from loving.&; She whispers the message again: &;logon ko pyaar karnay se nahin rok saktay.&; These politicians are &;ghatiya&; (shameless) and &;idiots,&; she says with disgust. &;At least Imran Khan doesn&;t do this. That&;s why I always support Imran Khan,&; she notes. She adds a personal message for the former cricketer turned prime minister: &;Imran, happy Valentine&;s Day. I know you&;re alone and you don&;t have a Valentine. I don&;t either. I&;m also alone. And I don&;t want you to be my Valentine. I just want you to be mine . . . Forever.&;
The video shows us everything that Pakistanis loved&;and loved to hate&;about Qandeel: she played the coquette, dished out biting critiques of some of Pakistan&;s most holy cows, and gave her heart away to politicians, actors, singers, and cricketers. We snickered at her accent and the way she spoke, and marveled at her gumption. She was the stuff of a hundred memes and the butt of our jokes.
Qandeel&;s daily posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were a mixed bag&;she had a headache, she was bored, she had a song stuck in her head, she would try on a new dress&;and seen by thousands. Her posts went up at night, when Qandeel said she couldn&;t sleep, and they were forgotten by her viewers by the time morning came.
Until they became more risqué&;by Pakistan&;s standards, at least. In March 2016, Qandeel uploaded a video that couldn&;t be swept aside so easily. She promised a striptease for her viewers if Pakistan&;s cricket team won an upcoming match against India. For many of her fans, Qandeel had gone too far. &;Before you post these sort of videos think about your religion and your family . . . this is too much,&; one viewer commented. Others were not so polite. &;Please shoot her wherever you find her,&; wrote one user. &;You slut, if you love getting naked why don&;t you go sit in a brothel?&; asked a female Facebook user. &;Have some shame. I don&;t know what kind of family you come from, are they so dishonorable?&;
Four months later, she was dead. Her brother Waseem confessed to strangling her in their family home, in what would be described as an &;honor killing&;&;a murder to restore the respect and honour he believed Qandeel&;s behaviour online robbed him of. &;You know what she was doing on Facebook,&; Waseem said when he was arrested and asked why he murdered her. She was twenty-six years old.
In the days after her death, many Pakistanis expressed happiness that Qandeel had been &;punished&; for behaving the way that she did. When he was asked about Qandeel&;s murder, the leader of one of the largest religio-political groups in Pakistan, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, stated, &;We are Muslims and Pakistan has been made in the name of Islam . . . shamelessness and exhibitionism are a scourge in our society, spread through women like her.&; I saw acquaintances in my own social media feeds having arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Qandeel &;deserved&; what had been done to her. On social media, many women who condemned the murder or confessed that they had been fans of Qandeel faced a torrent of abuse&;some temporarily shut down their Facebook or Twitter accounts after receiving threats. Offline, many of the men and women I knew condemned Qandeel&;s death but then, in the next breath, followed their statements with &; . . . but if you think about it . . . &;
In the year before Qandeel was murdered, 933 women and men were killed for &;honor&; in Pakistan, according to the country&;s Federal Ministry of Law. Those are only the number of cases that were reported by friends and families&;many honor crimes are not reported or covered up as a family can collude to protect one of their own. The victims are often believed to have broken a code that their community or family lives by, and their &;crimes&; can include anything from chatting with a member of the opposite sex on a cell phone or marrying someone of their own free will rather than having a marriage arranged by their parents. The average Pakistani would find it challenging to recognize the faces or remember the names of any of these men and women. Their stories and our dismay at yet another killing fade with the newsprint from our fingers as we read about them.
But Qandeel was different. Her murder was splashed across the front page of every newspaper. She had appeared in our social media feeds every day, her videos nestled among photographs, status updates, or tweets by our friends and family. Whether we loved, loathed, or ignored her, it was difficult to turn away from the image of her shrouded remains, her hands and feet covered in henna by her mother&;a ritual from Shah Sadar Din, the village she was born and then buried in, that declares that this woman left the world with honor. Her family did not close ranks around their son and brother, the murderer. Even in death, Qandeel was exceptional, it seemed.
When I began working on this book, I asked myself how one woman could crystalize such disparate views on how a Pakistani woman can and should behave and what happens when she breaks the rules. I felt that in Qandeel&;s story&;her journey from a village in Punjab to the metropolitan city of Karachi and nationwide fame&;lay the answer. A media frenzy had followed her death, locally and internationally. While she had been alive, Qandeel had largely been ignored by the foreign press. In death, she captivated it. She was written about by every major media outlet, including the New York Times and Vogue. Her obituaries praised her as a woman who &;gave voice to a generation of Pakistani women,&; and &;an incredibly fearless Pakistani women&;s rights campaigner who had zero fucks left to give.&; It was the opportune moment to discuss Pakistani society, culture, and an apathetic government that didn&;t seem to care about the violence committed against women. The men and women in Qandeel&;s life were quickly given roles to fit the news cycle&;s narrative: a Pakistani woman who had tried to live life on her own terms and was brutally murdered by her own brother; a father who wept on camera as he praised her as better than his sons; a mother who talked fondly about her whispered confidences with her daughter, the way they would share every detail of their lives with each other. A short documentary introduced us to the benevolent friend of the family who was acting as their lawyer and representative. After months of reading and watching everything put out about Qandeel, I thought I knew what my book was going to be about. I thought I knew the whole story.
But after my first week of interviews with her family and friends, I was bewildered. By the time I met them in November 2016, Qandeel&;s parents were weary of the media attention, and their resolve to punish their son was weakening. The lawyer was not so benevolent. After months of interviews and camera crews and photographers and sound bites, most of the people who had known Qandeel were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear about her. Their memories of her were coloured by grief, or by their desire to appear a certain way. In Shah Sadar Din, the village that Qandeel was from, many people were irritated by the media attention. It was &;bringing them a bad name.&; As interest in Qandeel&;s story grew outside Pakistan, it became more common to encounter people who claimed to have been very close to Qandeel and would swear that they had extensive proof of their friendship with her, although phones were always damaged, stolen, or lost, and the messages they contained from Qandeel irretrievably, conveniently gone. I had conflicting accounts of her life and personality, and I now also had my own perceptions, as a consumer of her photos, videos, tweets, songs, and interviews. I felt frustrated by my inability to verify what I was told about Qandeel, but at the same time was fixated by the idea of truly knowing her, of finding some thread that would lead me to unravel her story.
It took me some time to realize that even if Qandeel had been sitting right in front of me, it would not have made a great difference to my understanding of her. Many of the articles and documentaries about her that have been published and aired since her death have promised to tell us the &;real story&; of Qandeel Baloch, and I have been asked many times in the course of researching this book about the inside story of her life and death. Today, Qandeel cannot speak for herself, and even when she could, she said very little about her life. I realized that it isn&;t my job to provide the reader with every dirty little detail of Qandeel&;s life, but to ask why they would want them at all. I began to ask other questions. What kind of place created a woman like Qandeel? Why did her story receive such great attention? Why are we still so fascinated by her, and when we watched her videos or saw her latest photograph, what was her image reflecting back to us?
Qandeel&;s every appearance, video, interview, tweet, or Facebook post was in character. She created a story about herself&;part truth, and part lies and exaggerations. The story allowed her to be whoever we wanted her to be, and the small fibs are as much a part of the real story of Qandeel&;if not more important&;as the filtered memories of her friends and family. Qandeel&;s words, translated by me but otherwise unchanged, appear as italicized sentences throughout the book. I feel it is necessary to allow her to have a voice as we tell the story of her life and death.
I knew that this book wouldn&;t only be about Qandeel, but also about the kind of place that enabled her to become who she did&;a place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her. The book uses parts of Qandeel&;s life in order to open up into a story about Pakistan and young Pakistanis at this particular moment, when, with the touch of a button, we are connected to the world like never before. While we might tread in a global space of ideas and possibilities online, we&;re still very much grounded in a society and culture that may not allow for those possibilities. In Qandeel&;s story and some of the others in the book, I have sought to reveal what happens when those two worlds collide.