Rafia Zakaria | Longreads | December 2018 | 13 minutes (3,450 words)
It happened in July, amid the sweltering summer heat of the plains of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. It was one of those days when sweat flows in streams, the beads of depleted moisture dripping down backs and armpits and foreheads as people walk and talk and complain about the heat as if it were a newcomer among them.
The murdered woman was Qandeel Baloch, a 26-year-old Pakistani YouTube sensation, whose risqué videos, laden with erotic subtext, had so angered her brother that he strangled her to death. The deed was done late on the night of July 15th. It was late in the morning of the 16th when the first reporter from Pakistan’s rapacious 24-hour news media arrived in the neighborhood.
That journalist was Arif Nizami. After receiving an anonymous tip, he raced to the area and demanded of passersby that he be taken to the “Karachi Hotel.” “This is Karachi-Hotel,” some sympathetic soul finally told him, “the whole neighborhood is Karachi-Hotel.” The comic absurdity of this moment, while an apt metaphor for a country bewildered by looking at itself — especially in the new ways made possible by the internet, ways at which Qandeel Baloch excelled — is a contrast to the tragic scenes that were to follow, all painstakingly recreated in Pakistani journalist Sanam Maher’s book The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch. The book tells an extraordinary story: Qandeel Baloch’s internet fame was built almost entirely from suggestive innuendo-laden videos, shot and shared late at night when millions of Pakistani men go online in search of sexual satisfaction. Qandeel knew that this audience was out there, and in speaking directly to them she captured their erotic imagination.
Tragically for Qandeel Baloch, what Pakistani men love to love in private, they love to excoriate in public. Sexual fantasies, or the women who are part of them, must be shamed with the same ferocity with which their bodies are lusted after. It was this truth which led to Qandeel’s death that summer day, a grisly mix of rage and misogyny ending with her brother’s hands around her neck. In the hours after Arif Nizami arrived at the scene, a sweaty mob of media men crowded before the door of the house where Qandeel lay dead, her body already swollen from heat and decay as the temperature rose. The male gaze, lust-laden in life, had turned voyeuristic in death, the journalists, most of them men, clamoring and pushing and shoving to get a shot of her corpse. Read more…