The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch is journalist Sanam Maher’s biography of Pakistan’s first social media star. Prior to reading the book, I wasn’t all that familiar with Baloch or her viral content. The only distinct memory I had of her was the floods of articles reporting her death on my social media two years ago. Before her death, I had occasionally come across videos of Baloch draped across her bed, lips pursed in a pout, whispering sweet nothings to her viewers. I never really paid them much attention, but in Pakistan an ever-growing audience delighted in slut-shaming her and consumed her content like addicts. This suited Baloch just fine. She amassed a following of one million followers, was booking slots on talk shows and became the national voice for female empowerment.
But by testing the power of the patriarchy, Baloch was playing a very risky game that ended in tragedy. She was strangled in her parents’ house by her brother as an act of honour, to cleanse the family of the ‘shame’ her celebrity had imposed on them. Her death divided public opinion: some claimed she ‘deserved it,’ whilst others mourned. This split was not surprising, but what came as a shock was the news that Baloch was not who she claimed she was.
Her name was in fact not Qandeel Baloch, but Fouzia Azeem. She did not come from a cosmopolitan city. She was from a feudal village in rural Punjab. She was not educated, and she had been married off in her late teens. More and more details of her real life trickled out, casting a shadow of doubt over the Baloch the audience thought they knew; the Baloch who had promised her viewers a strip dance if Pakistan won the cricket match against India, and had purred numerous covers of Bollywood hits for her viewers.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Sanam Maher’s book. How much is it possible to uncover about somebody who had forged their entire identity and fooled a nation? But this isn’t Maher’s objective. Her book is not a narrative chronology of Baloch’s life. She goes deeper, using Baloch’s life to examine not only notions of celebrity in Pakistan, but the very core of societal values and hierarchies of power.
Maher takes us into the lives of the girls striving to become media sensations akin to Baloch. Using Baloch’s journey as her guide, Maher navigates through the complex web of patronage, the strategic use of social media, and worst of all, the relentless beast that was Baloch’s Pakistani audience. Of course, Maher also provides us with the salacious details of the star’s life that we crave; the stories of the child she abandoned and the sugar daddies that doted on her. But we are also introduced to her provincial hometown and her parents, whose world was thrown into tumult by their daughter’s outrageous career.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that we will never know Qandeel Baloch, because she did not want to be known. She shifted her persona like a chameleon to fit her situation. Her life was extraordinary in that she made a career of defying cultural norms, but equally tragic in that her potential as an activist for women was never realised. Maher’s book is a skilful work which uses Baloch’s life as a lens to scrutinise contemporary Pakistan. Although we may never know Qandeel Baloch, Maher’s work allows us to applaud and commemorate the enormity of her defiance.
Image: Jason Parrish via Flickr