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.
The video from Murree has been viewed thousands of times. By the end of the year, the words ‘How I’m looking?’ would be the first phrase mentioned in an article about ‘10 notable quotes that defined Pakistan’s entertainment scene in 2015’. Qandeel would be called an ‘insta-celeb’. People are turning to Facebook and Twitter to find the ‘How I’m looking’ girl and they want more and more of her videos. They like to laugh at her.
Mec says he has never seen anything like it in all the years he has been in the industry. He would think about that video when she was no longer around and would wonder what people had seen in it. He would remember that Afghan woman who had been on the cover of a magazine in America and then became famous all over the world. ‘It was her eyes,’ he would say. That was it. ‘That’s what got everyone. Show people something different. They don’t want to see the same old stuff.’
Qandeel disagrees with him on how her career can progress. He takes her to every single event, books her for any show he can and introduces her to everyone they meet. Sometimes she complains that all of it is a waste of time. People take photos with her at these events, but she isn’t getting paid for that. She doesn’t just want to make friends—she is looking for connections.
She stumbles across the Facebook profile of a man in Karachi, Mansoor, who had been a model when she was just a girl in Shah Sadar Din. His Facebook feed is full of photographs taken at dinners and parties with girls Qandeel has seen on TV. She recognizes some of the names from his friends’ list. He seems to have the connections she needs. She sends him a friend request. He is used to these requests from strangers, usually women, who hope that he knows all the right people and will be able to help them break into the fashion industry. In fact, it happens so often that he now has a policy of asking any girl who sends him a friend request on Facebook for her phone number to confirm whether she is indeed an aspiring model or an actress, and not some man who is trying to fool him. The ones who willingly give their phone numbers are legitimate. Qandeel sends him her phone number.
‘Hi must talk to you,’ he texts Qandeel. ‘Call now.’
She is travelling. She is unable to speak with him then. ‘Let me come too then I talk.’ He notes that her English is not very good. ‘Take care.’
They continue to exchange messages and soon she is affectionately calling him ‘baby’ and ‘jaan’. When she tells him she is back in Karachi and feeling lonely, they meet for the first time and he takes her to a friend’s house so she can have some company. She messages him on WhatsApp late at night and asks, ‘What are you doing?’ He is usually fast asleep. She likes Dubsmash, an app that lets users lip sync phrases or songs, and sees that the video from Murree has also become popular there. She sees actresses and singers mimic her words in videos that they post to their social media feeds.
She uses Dubsmash to make a few videos of herself singing songs she loves. Mansoor’s phone glows in the darkness of his room as she sends him these clips. ‘Chura liya hai tum ne jo dil ko…’ she sings sweetly. ‘Put it on your Facebook timeline,’ she encourages him. She makes kissing sounds and calls him ‘jaanu’ and ‘my darling’ in the clips and pouts, ‘I can’t sleep.’
These are not like the clips that she now puts up on her Facebook page.
Guys, who want to watch my next nasty clip?
There, she is often mute and plays a handful of roles: sexy girl lying on her stomach, grinding against her bed while her fingers clutch a red teddy bear; regular girl drying her wet hair after a shower, her lips painted a glossy baby pink; sad girl stroking her cheek against the soft head of a white teddy bear and holding it close as she sighs and looks beseechingly at the camera to let you know ‘I mishhhh you ’; angry girl bowing her head, furrowing her brow and blinking rapidly as though feeling the hot tingle of tears because ‘I’m angry with someone’.
In other videos, she is cooing good morning and rubbing her eyes and yawning. At night, she makes a video in which the lace curtains puff at the windows in her room as she lays her head on a white furry pillow and whispers, ‘This is how I like to sleep.’
She likes to line her eyes with a thick stroke of kajal, winged at the corner like the tail of a tick mark. ‘Good night,’ she whispers, looking into the camera on her phone, much of her face covered with the sheet of her thick hair. ‘Sweet dream. Bye.’ She puts up a video in which she nestles against the curve of a man’s body and hugs his arm between her breasts. She crops him out of the frame. ‘Did you guys know that today I don’t have a teddy bear?’ she says with a grin. She kisses the man’s hand. ‘Instead of a teddy bear, there’s someone else here today. Today I’m so much happy. You know why? Should I tell you?’
The commenters don’t care.
‘She was rejected in Pakistan Idol since than loose her mind.’
‘This guy is your pimp.’
‘You’re a slut and I know it.’
If people say something bad about you, judge you as if they know you, don’t feel bad, just remember, ‘Dogs bark if they don’t know the person.’
‘You’re happy he’s fucked you without a condom.’
‘I love you.’
‘After fucking all girls feel v v v much happy.’
‘Finding a gun send me her address LOL.’
I used to make funny videos just to make people laugh. People would abuse me so much I would wonder, ‘What have I even done?’ When they say you are so bad, then you might as well become bad.
She is being noticed. Now, when she is invited onto the morning shows, she is singing less and talking more about the videos she puts up online. ‘I saw your videos because one of my dear friends is a very big fan of yours,’ explains a host on one show. ‘She used to post so many of your videos (on Facebook), so I thought I really needed to check out what was going on.’ She asks Qandeel about a video that has been shared more than 500 times on Facebook alone. In it, Qandeel lies back on her bed, hot with a fever. My head hurts, she sniffs. My eyes are smarting.
‘Perhaps it’s because you were wearing so much eyeliner?’ the host suggests.
‘I love lining my eyes,’ Qandeel explains, ‘and I only use imported things. That was a Chanel eyeliner. Not local.’
The woman hoots with laughter and begs her to show the audience how she complained of the pain.
‘But my head really was hurting in that video,’ Qandeel insists. They don’t care. She droops her head in her hands and sighs, ‘Ufffff, I’m running such a high fever. My eyes are burning.’
‘Marvellous!’ the host cries out. ‘Marvellous!’
She can act it out at any moment.
The host shares a clip of Qandeel playing with a goat she had ‘adopted’ as a pet. A little boy scampers near her in the video.
‘Who is that boy?’ the host demands. Qandeel explains that he is her nephew.
The host laughs and says, ‘Oh, I was wondering if this would be something exclusive we could reveal—that you have a son.’
It isn’t just the morning show hosts—the English language newspapers have also taken note. ‘Who is Qandeel Baloch and what is she doing on my timeline?’ asks an article published online by Dawn, one of the oldest media houses in the country. ‘Facebook has a new bug and its name is Qandeel Baloch.’ There is some curiosity. Who is this girl? Is she really this cartoonish in real life?
People think that I have become famous overnight. That I have won the lottery overnight. What I did on social media just clicked. They think I didn’t have to work for this. I didn’t have to struggle.
‘I am the daughter of a huge landlord,’ she says in interviews. ‘I have property worth crores. I’m not desperate for money.’ She makes the videos late at night, when she is sure that her whole family is fast asleep. It is just for fun. ‘I like to bother people, to point out things to them. I like to comment on some people or to give reviews on things. I do it from the heart. Not to be famous.’ Some people believe her. ‘This is exactly what happens when you’re the brat of some rich man,’ one of the comments on her videos read. ‘These rich brats do stuff like this and bring shame to their parents and their country. She’s just another spoiled rich girl.’
Sometimes she calls Mansoor and whines, ‘I’m hungry.’ When he is free, he picks her up and takes her out for burgers or chips or chai and they eat sitting in his car so that people do not bother her for selfies while she is eating. One time, he is on his way to a dinner when she calls and says she is hungry and he stops at a fast food joint, buys her a pizza and pays to have it delivered to her apartment.
Mansoor knows that men are hitting on her and want to sleep with her. She doesn’t tell him about the kinds of messages they send her on Facebook, but remarks, ‘Every horny guy out there has some line for me. And none of them are worthy of me. They’re all liars.’ Some of them start by complimenting her and telling her they are her biggest fans. Then they ask, ‘How much for a night?’ She wants someone who will help her, who will take her out when she feels alone. Mansoor has grown to like her. He calls her the ‘selfie queen’. Qandeel isn’t like the other models Mansoor knows. They are all sluts. She is not a real slut, he says. She just wants to be in the limelight.
She is struggling to find work, despite Mansoor’s connections. Some people promise work in exchange for what he calls the ‘cast couch’. But that is all mischief. Once she does the ‘cast couch’, the girl realizes there is no work to be had. Mansoor feels Qandeel is fighting to survive. She is making some money from the morning show appearances, and for a few days she left for Dubai to do a photo shoot there. But it isn’t enough. She calls Mansoor one day and says that her brother is visiting and she needs some money. Can she borrow some from him? While he is trying to arrange that, he receives a message from her. Don’t worry, she says. I’ve gotten it from someone else.
He knows money changes hands easily among the people he parties with. If Qandeel needs money, it isn’t hard to get. Just the other night, these girls came over to Mansoor’s friend’s house with what he calls a ‘fag type larka’ and they danced for everyone and then people gave them $100 each. It’s not a big deal. He likes that Qandeel never begs, and he will remember this when he sees photos of her after she has died and he almost won’t recognize her because she looks just like the maids who clean his house. She came from that type of background, he would marvel. You really had to give her credit, he would say. Look where she came from and where she ended up.
About the author
Sanam Maher is a journalist based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, BuzzFeed, The Caravan, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, Roads & Kingdoms and the New York Times’ Women in the World.
This is her first book.