RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The story of Qandeel Baloch was a harrowing one that gripped her home country of Pakistan. She was a social media star, ambitious, beautiful and daring. Her posts were often sexy – or for many in Pakistan, scandalous. That included her own large family, though they welcomed the money she sent home. Yet all that fame could not protect Qandeel from a tragic end. In 2016, one of her brothers murdered her in what’s known as an honor killing. She was just 26. Journalist Sanam Maher is now out with a book on Qandeel’s life and death. She joins us from Karachi. Welcome.
SANAM MAHER: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Tell us more about Qandeel and her social media persona, which could be quite risque in what is a socially conservative country.
MAHER: That’s absolutely right. Qandeel was one of the first social media celebrities that we had in Pakistan. She became famous for the videos that she would post online to platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And the videos and the photographs, the selfies that she put up, they were a mixed bag – I mean, just sort of ordinary things. She bought a new dress. And she would put it on. And she’d ask, do I look sexy? She would make videos about her thoughts on everything from politicians to movies to her crushes on certain cricketers. So we liked to watch her. We liked to make fun of her. We liked to see how this young woman was just expressing herself. And she became famous for doing pretty much that – like, just entertaining us.
MONTAGNE: Though there were other people – women – online at the time, what was it about Qandeel? What was the thing that pushed her right to the top?
MAHER: We do have a lot more women that we’re seeing online now doing the sorts of things that she did. I think that she created a blueprint for the social media celebrity over here in Pakistan because at the time that she became famous, we weren’t really seeing a lot of people who understood their audience as well as she did. She really understood that, to be a viral star, it really didn’t matter what you were putting out or whether people were praising you. It was just important that they were talking about you.
MONTAGNE: Well – and at her peak – and this was in the year she was killed – the BBC profiled her. Let’s listen to a clip where she calls herself an open book.
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QANDEEL BALOCH: (Non-English language spoken). Everyone know me. I’m, like – I’m not a fake person. (Non-English language spoken).
MONTAGNE: Yeah. She wasn’t a fake person. She revealed everything. How does that feel in Pakistan?
MAHER: So it’s interesting, the clip that you just played right now, she’d scripted this very elaborately. And these two young women that I spoke with, they said, you know, it was the first time that we’d seen a woman on television doing something as simple as just being in a swimming pool, wearing whatever she wanted to with other men there in the pool.
MONTAGNE: So when she went home on what you might call this fateful day, she went back to the village to be with her mother, really. And it was because she had reached kind of a peak controversy moment. And it involved an altercation she had with a cleric.
MAHER: A few weeks before she was killed, Qandeel had met up with a cleric who she had been on a TV show with. And when he was visiting Karachi, where Qandeel lived, he said, why don’t you come over and meet me? She went over to his hotel. She posted a couple of pictures from their meeting. But afterwards, she tweeted that he had behaved inappropriately with her. She didn’t specify what had happened. And it became a he said, she said moment.
So Qandeel wasn’t actually her real name. It was a name she’d made up for herself. And she’d never shared where she came from, any details about her family life. That’s what Mufti Qavi, the cleric – that’s what his followers started to do. And then they shared her real name. They shared information about where she came from, where her parents lived. And then suddenly, the people in their village who didn’t know that this woman was online promising strip teases or dressing in certain ways or saying certain things – they found out about it. And they turned on Qandeel’s family and her brothers.
MONTAGNE: Her brother – he basically confessed the crime, took full responsibility. And he did so, saying his life was ruined, and his honor was gone. His life was ruined. He would have been able to expect no punishment when he made this confession.
MAHER: Because the way that the legislation worked at the time, his parents could have forgiven him for murdering his sister. And so he would’ve been able to walk free, which is why he confessed so willingly and so proudly.
MONTAGNE: And – but here is the twist in her story. Of course, she was amazingly famous. So her story is different from all the other hundreds and hundreds of women who’ve been through this. But her parents turned on her brother and demanded justice for their daughter.
MAHER: They did. And, I mean, that was amazing to see because this is something that you rarely hear about in these cases. But Qandeel’s father turned around and said, you know, even if it means that my son has to hang for this, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And I want him punished.
MONTAGNE: Given that and all the publicity around her really tragic death, what changed in Pakistan?
MAHER: I think that Qandeel’s murder – it’s what comes out of a system that has such deep roots. And honor killing takes place not just to punish a person who is believed to have stepped out of line. It also serves as a warning to other people in that community or in that society. So it’s almost to say, you know, if you do something similar, this is what could happen to you. And in Pakistan, it’s going to take, I think, a long time before we start to dismantle that system. But we’re definitely working towards it. And I think, especially, a lot of young women have become a lot more vocal online. It’s safest online. They’ve become better at organizing themselves, speaking up when they feel like something is happening that they don’t agree with. But I do think it’s going to take time for a system to completely change.
MONTAGNE: Sanam Maher is the author of “A Woman Like Her,” the story behind the honor killing of a social media star. Thank you very much for joining us.
MAHER: Thanks so much for having me.
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