Photo: Qandeel Baloch Official / Twitter
Photo: Qandeel Baloch Official / Twitter

The making and unmaking of a star

On the life and times of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s first social-media celebrity.

Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange and is a Contributing Editor for Himal Southasian.

Researching the life of 'Pakistan's first social-media star' is sufficient to induce an acute attack of 'Qandeeliya', an obsession with Qandeel Baloch, model and actor, who set the internet ablaze with her raunchy videos. She gathered fans and courted controversy in equal measure, until she was strangled to death by her own brother to preserve the family's 'honour'. "Mama ko Qandeeliya ho gaya hai!" declared police investigator Attiya Jaffrey's children, describing their mother's preoccupation with Qandeel after her murder on 15 July 2016. Writing this review was not confined to merely reading a book – albeit an excellent one – but led to days and nights of being glued to videos and Facebook Live clips, and scouring the internet for anything and everything on the mesmerising Qandeel Baloch.

In The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, author Sanam Maher brings alive this extraordinary young woman, telling the complex story behind the more obvious flamboyance. Qandeel kept social media abuzz for about five years until she was silenced at the age of 26, making  perhaps more headlines dead than while alive. Her risqué videos, however, live on – on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – still garnering both adulation and abuse.

Amidst a deeply polarised public discourse with Qandeel symbolising the bold and sexually free Pakistani woman on the one hand, and epitomising depravity and disrespect for tradition on the other, the murder case continues in court. Qandeel's parents are determined to ensure that their son receives the death penalty for the murder of his sister. In telling the story of Qandeel's journey from an obscure village in Punjab province to the metropolises of Islamabad and Karachi, to further a career in showbiz and launch herself on the national and global online platform, Maher asks an important question: "How did one family come to crystallize opposing views on how a Pakistani woman can and should behave and the consequences of departing from that norm?" The author offers no pat answers, but allows readers to come to their own conclusions, making sense of the Qandeel Baloch phenomenon through stories – the ones she herself wove, and the ones that others told about her. The authenticity of the story of the 'real' woman – Fouzia Azeem – ceased to be as relevant, as the flamboyant persona of Qandeel took over.

Qandeel, the light

Fouzia Azeem was born in a dusty village in Punjab province called Shah Sadar Din, got thrashed for dancing and singing in front of the television, loved to be fashionable, was married at 17 to an abusive husband and then ran away to a women's shelter in Multan with her infant son. She left him at his grandparents' home. "I need to make my own life," she told the woman in charge of the women's shelter.

Qandeel Baloch became all the more interesting to the media when her official name was revealed to be Fouzia Azeem just weeks before she was killed. But how 'real' was Fouzia, and how unreal Qandeel? The latter, using the ephemeral Internet, constructed a saucy, trendy image for herself. The former, now identified with a certain village, community and family, ended up dead, and now lies in an unmarked grave.

'The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch' by Sanam Maher. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2018, pp 235, INR 499.
'The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch' by Sanam Maher. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2018, pp 235, INR 499.

Maher's interviews with a range of people who were part of her life – including family and friends, models, agents, managers and journalists – present a varied picture of an individual grasping for more, who wanted to be someone and make a mark. And this she did by quitting her job as a bus hostess in Multan, which she had landed after she left the women's shelter. However, welcoming passengers aboard, reciting the safar ki dua (prayer at the start of a journey) and serving refreshments for a pittance was not what she had dreamed about.

Qandeel went to Islamabad in 2011, giving herself a glamorous makeover and trying her hand at various gigs, from singing naats (hymns) to ramp shows and modelling, earning just about PKR 10,000 (USD 78) for a job in the beginning. Soon, she met a media event coordinator (nicknamed 'Mec'), who, when speaking to Maher years later, remembered Qandeel as a hijabwali, a 'scarfian' from Multan. He thought her voice was not bad and she had a good face with a bit of "innocency". When he told her to lose some weight, Qandeel sulked but saw that it was her mentor, 'Mec Sir', who had recognised the "artist within". But first, she had to choose a stage name; she became Qandeel, the light, the flame.

This flame became a fire, especially when crossed. Qandeel's foray in 2013 into Pakistan Idol, a local version of the British reality show, had her sportingly standing up to the bullying judges, but then wailing and shrieking when she was rejected. Her five minutes on Pakistan Idol, however, went on to become viral; the clip has now racked up close to ten million hits on YouTube. She was a performer, a natural. At nights, when her sister was asleep in the apartment they shared in Islamabad, Qandeel went on to record hundreds of videos, most of them under two minutes, uploading them on Facebook and YouTube, where they went viral. Some had her writhing on her bed in passion with only background music, some had her pouting and gushing sweet nothings to her fans. There is something about her that Pakistanis wanted to see and hear – her flamboyance and in-your-face attitude, cocking a snook at male hypocrisy. She became one of the most-searched Pakistani personalities on Google. While her time in television – a bit role in a PTV drama Muhabbat Weham Hai in 2013 – was eminently forgettable, her selfie videos turned her into a sensation, and made her a sought-after personality, hiking up her price for appearances on television or at events.

She made scores of videos on a daily basis – most of them erotic, starring a confident, sensual young woman. Qandeel managed to make hard-hitting jibes at social duplicity, too. In one, she claimed that she was running a fever, but had recorded the video after 'heavy demand' from her fans. After a stream of online abuse, Qandeel, clad in a tiny black dress, her tattoo peeking out of her plunging neckline, responded by saying, "You have double standards, all of you watching this video – you love to watch me, and wish me dead too."

In another video, dressed in hot pink, her full lips pouting, she had a seductive message for politician Imran Khan – the only one, according to her, who had not come down heavily on Valentine's Day as a corrupting influence or 'Western import'. Speaking out in favour of love, she warned the "idiot" politicians: "You can stop to people go out, but you can't stop to people love". Her less-than-perfect English and put-on American accent became the butt of jokes and spawned spoofs, but there was no denying that she was speaking on behalf of those who no longer wanted to conform to rigid social rules.

Borders and identities

For Pakistan's 'Internet sensation', the first reference point for glamour was often the world of Indian celebrities. In her March 2016 video addressed to Pakistan's cricket captain Shahid Afridi, dressed in a pink polka dot top, she promised to do a strip dance if he won the series against India. She urged him to ignore popular Indian stars like Rakhi Sawant, Sunny Leone or Kareena Kapoor, and focus on winning the match. The trailer of the striptease video went viral in India, too, where she was called "Pakistan's version of Poonam Pandey" after a model who promised to strip for the Indian cricket team if they won the ICC World Cup in 2011. Like Pandey, Qandeel claimed that she released the video in order to "buck up" her team.

Pakistan lost the match, and Qandeel's dramatic video wailing at the loss was replete with threats: don't come back to Pakistan, she warned Afridi, wearing a green and white faux cricket outfit. "I hate you, Afridi!" she screamed, her affections now transferred to Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, whom she called "charming" and "handsome", asking that he "please please please please" leave fiancée actor Anushka Sharma for her.

But her infatuation with the Indian captain in no way diminished Qandeel's cricket patriotism. Her "special massage for BCCI [Board of Control of Cricket in India]" in April 2016 was a study in contrasts. Qandeel's deliberately languid pose on a leopard print bedspread, in a matching leopard print shirt, belies her anger at the BCCI for not considering Pakistani cricketers for the Indian Premier League series and for not grabbing the chance to promote harmony between the two countries. Meanwhile, due to the seductive Afridi video, her Facebook page was reported for "spreading vulgarity" in the Islamic republic. Qandeel's Facebook page was blocked, and more than 400,000 of her followers were left in the lurch.

Even as she was dismissed as a bimbo or worse, Qandeel was pushing the envelope for what it means to be a contemporary Pakistani woman. Her recordings shifted from singing to lip syncing to background songs, becoming increasingly sensual and sexually explicit. She began to reveal more and more of her personal space, inviting viewers into her bedroom, and even onto her bed, where she shot most of her videos, panning the room with her selfie stick. Qandeel seemed to be deliberately erasing the boundaries between the public and the personal, but she appeared to be in command, setting the terms, rather than a victim of a male gaze, as many of her critics declared. Later, in the last months of her life, her controversial interactions with cleric Mufti Qavi similarly challenged gender and class boundaries – dressed in a revealing short skirt and top, alone in a room with a much older Islamic scholar, the young woman from a poor family in a Punjabi village audaciously broke traditions, and in the process exposed the hypocrisy of those criticising her.

Qandeel also received criticism for her use of the 'Baloch' identity. Once her official name was revealed after an investigative journalist dug out her passport and official identity card and published them, she was put on the defensive. But she fought back with élan – many artists had taken stage names, she declared. Some even questioned whether she was Baloch at all, claiming that she was bringing a bad name to the Baloch people. But she insisted that the Ma'arah tribe, to which her family belonged, was very much Baloch. In an interview to BBC Urdu on 31 May 2016, she said, "I wanted to show Baloch people in a different light, otherwise they're known as people who suppress women, kill them for honour."  Maher's interviews with Qandeel's family show them to have been supportive of their daughter, even proud of her achievements. She contributed financially to their upkeep ever since she left her husband and began making a little money in Islamabad from modelling. In fact, it was the house in Multan that she set up for her parents where she was murdered.

Whose honour

Qandeel's predilection for courting controversy set an inexorable set of events in motion, ultimately ending in her death. In June 2016, selfies of her with Mufti Abdul Qavi, a cleric who fashioned himself as a fun-loving religious scholar, appeared all over the Internet. The cleric's karakul cap was atop Qandeel's head, and she was posing with him in a hotel room with an air of familiarity that caused conservatives to take great umbrage. He implied that he had been seduced and that Qandeel was somehow using his discomfiture for her own ends.

On 21 June 2016, on a popular current affairs television show called Khara Sach, Qandeel (with a little help from host Mubashir Luqman) ensured that Mufti Qavi got his comeuppance. Viewers witnessed his rapid descent from a learned scholar to just another man misusing his power over women. It was not the first time the mufti – presumably representing Pakistani culture – had been pitted against bold women who had defied conservatism. In 2011, his televised confrontations with actor Veena Malik, too, had ended with him looking foolish and hypocritical.

Soon after the show, in view of the mufti's 'controversial' selfies with Qandeel Baloch which by then had gone viral, the Ruet-e-Hilal committee (responsible for announcing sighting of the new moon on Eid) and National Ulema Mashaikah (comprising of religious heads of various seminaries) suspended Qavi's membership. Taking on Mufti Qavi was probably more dangerous than Qandeel imagined. Vilification, abuse and direct threats on social media followed. But Qandeel was not one to give in without a fight.

Clad in a demure salwar kameez, outsize glares and an auburn wig, Qandeel addressed a press conference in Lahore on 28 June 2016, less than a month before she was finally silenced. She set out to defend herself against the claims in the media about her allegedly seducing Mufti Qavi and bringing a bad name to Islam. Proclaiming her respect for religious leaders who have kept aloft the teachings of Islam, Qandeel pointed her finger at Mufti Qavi and condemned his shady doings behind closed doors which were bringing a bad name to religion. "Why am I being singled out? Because I chose to expose the truth?" she asked plaintively. She dismissed the charge that this was one more publicity stunt, revealing that she feared for her life ­­– having been subjected to countless threats – and had asked the police for security.

When Maher met Mufti Qavi while writing the book, she found a cleric desperate to clear his name, who blurted out contradictory stories about his relationship with Qandeel and what transpired in the hotel room in Karachi. He claimed he was trying to help Qandeel, that he was trying to get her into the Bigg Boss reality show in India through his contacts there, that he was trying to set up a meeting with her heartthrob Imran Khan and so on. The police later scanned his phone records, and his nephew was named an accused in the Qandeel murder case. Meher's staccato style encapsulates the contradiction that is Mufti Qavi: "He [Mufti Qavi] wants to write a book about the practice of 'honour killing'. He wants the world to know that he believes a woman like Qandeel, allegedly killed for honour by her brother, is a shaheed, a martyr. His sisters tell him, he should stop talking about this book."

Mufti Qavi disappeared from television after Qandeel's death. He maintains a low profile. In October 2017, he was arrested in connection with Qandeel's murder and released on bail.

Telling the story

Sanam Maher's deft handling of the subject of 'honour' killing saves it from being yet another narrative of horror. Indeed, the book is as much an exercise in the craft of storytelling, which is no mean feat, given the larger-than-life presence of the main character. Maher begins her narrative following Adil Nizami, a 25-year-old rookie reporter from Multan who broke one of the biggest stories in Pakistan's media history, Qandeel's murder. Following a tip-off soon after her body was discovered, he was with Qandeel's family and quickly managed to make an exclusive recording, ahead of all the news-gathering vans which soon jammed the narrow lane outside the house. The shaky footage of Qandeel's body in the ambulance would soon be aired all over the world, many times over.

Nizami shares what an exciting time it was to be a local reporter – covering the story, and working as a fixer, interpreter and driver with endless possibilities. He also relates the villagers' bemusement about the attention this particular killing has attracted: "every second or fourth day some girl is killed and thrown into the river. You media guys are creating hype for nothing." Qandeel was supposed to have landed at the bottom of the river, too, wrapped in a gunny bag. But a neighbour's death that very night, and the subsequent crowds gathered in the narrow lane prevented her brother from sneaking Qandeel's body out into the waiting taxi. The Oscar-winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015) by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy tells the story of Saba Qaiser, shot by her father and uncle and thrown into the river to die. She managed to survive, unlike Qandeel.

The story of Malik Azam, reporter with Daily Pakistan in Multan, is a crucial link in the events leading to Qandeel's death. Maher peels the layers off this reporter's quest for the 'truth', a truth that turned out to be lethal. "The best stories uncover truths, no matter how cleverly hidden," he says. He, like a few other reporters, had deduced that Qandeel was a girl from Shah Sadr Din called Fouzia. He sat on the story until 23 June 2016, after the photos with Mufti Qavi had hit the headlines. Azam had laid his hand on her passport and National Identity Card number, and these featured the next day on the back page of the paper. The story also ran on the paper's English website. Maher says that there was never any editorial conversation about whether to run the photo of Qandeel's passport or not. Azam's story was picked up by several other English and Urdu papers. "The day she was murdered, I got a phone call from a friend," Malik Azam tells Maher. "He said, 'It's you. You did this'". The Daily Pakistan story revealing Qandeel's identity triggered a chain of events that would end in her murder, Azam's friend said. Azam's bureau chief Shaukat Iqbal, however, dismisses such accusations and doesn't regret the story: "Someone else would have run a bigger story, made a bigger deal of it."

 Sanam Maher's attempt to understand the phenomenon of Qandeel Baloch draws her into the dynamics of online stardom. Not everyone seeks fame – like the young blue-eyed tea seller whose piercing eyes and good looks earned him the moniker of 'Arshad Chaiwala' after his photo was uploaded by photographer Javeria Ali on Instagram in October 2016.  He instantly became a 'viral star', catapulted into modelling and reality shows. He was bemused, and wondered how one moment, just one click, completely changed his life. "Sometimes I think it is all a dream and it can go away any minute," he tells Maher. He was prescient, because his fall from grace was rapid, once it was discovered that he was an Afghan living in Pakistan without documentation. Once the law caught up with him, he no longer graced the television screens.

Burning bright

Within a week of Qandeel's murder, an anti-honour-killing law was fast-tracked through Parliament. The Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences in the name or pretext of Honour) Act of 2016, which came into force on 22 October 2016, repealed the loophole that allowed perpetrators of honour killings to escape penalty if they were forgiven for the crime by a member of the victim's family. Yet, so-called 'honour killings' continue. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded 460 cases of such killings in 2017, with 194 male and 376 female victims, triggered mainly by relationships outside marriage or due to choice of marriage partner. Like in Qandeel's case, an overwhelming 93 percent of the perpetrators were family members. Her parents have stood firm in their accusation of their younger son Waseem Azeem, refusing to 'forgive' him. Maher describes how Qandeel's mother covered her hands and feet with henna, wrapped her body in a white shroud and gave her a martyr's burial. In her death, from an obscure aspiring starlet, Qandeel has gone down in history as a victim of 'honour' killing, gaining international recognition.

 Qandeel, ever-aspiring for fame, wanted to be one-in-a-million, and social media gave her a stardom she could carefully shape. "There will never be another Qandeel Baloch born in a hundred years," she once predicted. Would she have been pleased that a young model named Bushi, interviewed by Maher in an Islamabad studio, had earned the moniker 'Qandeel Two' or QB2? The comparison to Qandeel thrills Bushi, says Maher, quoting her exclaiming, "I love it". But Qandeel was probably right. The world has hardly heard of a model called Bushi.

Qandeel will see neither the numerous documentaries nor the television series Baaghi (Rebel) based on her life. Released in June 2017, the series became one of the most-watched on YouTube, and has been subjected to vilification and controversy comparable to what Qandeel faced. Nor will she know she came second in Herald magazine's vote for 'Person of the Year 2016', gaining after death the recognition she craved for with all her being. In the end, Qandeel Baloch, with her flamboyant persona carefully crafted for public consumption, echoes millions of youngsters in her sassy question immortalised in one of her earliest videos: "How I'm looking… beautiful… sexy… or… hot?"

~ Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, and is a Contributing Editor with Himal Southasian. She is currently coordinating a Zubaan-Panos initiative on sexual violence and impunity in Southasia through theatre and other performing arts.

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