Reviews

Reclaiming Humanity from the Headlines

A review of Sanam Maher's new book, "A Woman Like Her."

American news junkies, preoccupied as they have been with domestic affairs, may only vaguely remember a story that made international headlines in the summer of 2016: Qandeel Baloch, nicknamed the “Kim Kardashian of Pakistan,” was murdered. Her brother openly admitted to strangling her, because she had dishonored the family name with her provocative videos posted across social media, viewed by millions. In the wake of her death, profiles in outlets like Vogue and The New York Times abounded, a BBC documentary on Baloch was widely viewed, and the international spotlight on Pakistan placed pressure on its government to reform the laws on honor killings, which offered easy impunity to perpetrators. In A Woman Like Her, a deeply researched and vividly written account first published in India and now adapted for American readers, Pakistani journalist Sanam Maher delves into the many controversies surrounding Qandeel Baloch.

Rather than piece together a straightforward biography, Maher amplifies and explicates the tensions that characterized the life and death of the internet celebrity through portraits, interviews, and media criticism. For example, after giving a brief account of Baloch’s flight from an abusive marriage and her move from her rural town to Islamabad to pursue a modeling career, Maher offers a profile of another woman, a fashion show organizer and former model she meets in the course of her research. This secondary story offers a window into who makes up the audience of Pakistani fashion shows, the difficult economics of surviving as a model, and the unofficially tolerated sex work sometimes involved. A chapter on Baloch’s rise to internet fame, involving a dramatic audition for Pakistan Idol and a funny clip she posts to her Facebook page, is followed by the astonishing story of a 17-year-old illiterate rural tea seller who skyrocketed to fame for, apparently, being handsome, after a photographer posted his photo to Instagram. The disjunction between the boy’s small world, where his main concern was helping ensure his large family had enough to eat, and the ironic, urban audience that sticks his image into funny memes is emblematic of the digital divide in developing countries, and of the conflict between traditional culture and fast-paced, anything-goes internet culture, a conflict Baloch was caught up in most of her life.

The wide-lens view of Pakistani society is fascinating, and Maher deftly fills in the necessary context for Western readers, from the political significance of certain surnames, to the media landscape of morning shows and newspapers, to the “violent strain” of religious fervor in the region Baloch came from, where murder to restore honor to a family is normalized. The book bursts with telling images—the ashen heels and jagged toenails of a cleric in a cream-colored, pressed shalwar kameez; the demure “bride walk” required of runway models; a viral video of a barber “applying flammable products to clients’ hair and whipping out a lighter to set their coiffures on fire before trimming them;” the yellowed, decaying files stacked in the corridors of the national cyber crime office.

Despite the polemical issues evoked by Qandeel Baloch’s story, Maher resists editorializing. While a point of view is obvious from the way the book contextualizes the murder within an exhaustive analysis of cyber harassment legislation in Pakistan and statistics on honor killings, Maher lets key figures in the story emerge in their own words, such as Baloch’s de facto manager, the cleric accused of sexually harassing the star, and the reporter who broke the story of the murder and illicitly filmed her dead body as it was transferred to the ambulance.

More academically minded readers may object to the fact that Qandeel Baloch’s own words are sprinkled throughout the book (in italics) without place or date attribution, and that the timeline of events in her life are sometimes muddied by jumps in time. In addition, given that—by the author’s own admission—many of the individuals surrounding Baloch may not be reliable witnesses, some readers may be left wanting more detailed explanations of how Maher arrived at her seemingly authoritative account of events. Given the thoroughness of Maher’s investigation and her care in distinguishing fact from spin, I was happy to suspend doubts raised by these editorial decisions and give myself over to the gripping account.

Maher humanizes Baloch by allowing her most intimate self to remain opaque; she relies only on the facts of the young woman’s life and the words she left recorded. The author doesn’t, for example, speculate on Baloch’s motivations for continuing to make sexually provocative videos and facing inevitable, vicious abuse in response, although it’s a central question many asked of her and one that remains unanswered. Instead, Maher traces the media narrative, which went from mocking the young woman’s antics as vapid and inappropriate to championing her as a feminist hero. There is evidence of Baloch’s cleverness—she herself picked up on the convenience of the “Kim Kardashian of Pakistan” moniker and repeated it, copied the publicity stunts of Indian actresses to keep herself in the spotlight and successfully crafted a spoiled, upper class, city girl persona online, all while working hard to earn enough to support her family in the provinces, including the brother who would murder her. There are also hints of her nascent awareness of how her strength and unapologetic attitude could serve as a positive influence on women.

By the end of the book, I found myself wondering who she admired, what videos did she watch for fun, how did she feel about giving up her child, who did she trust, what kept her going amid the torrents of abuse, what did she want for herself? The absence of any chance of a response from the person behind the persona drives home the loss of this extraordinary woman, a complicated human being who was much more than a “selfie queen.”

NONFICTION
A Woman Like Her
By Sanam Maher
Melville House Publishing
Published January 28, 2020

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