Qandeel Baloch. Photograph: Getty
Her risque videos blazed a trail for viral fame in Pakistan. But the price she paid for popularity was death. By Sanam Maher
Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media, Qandeel Baloch, was known for the videos and photographs she posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Her videos were a mixed bag – she had a headache; she was bored; she had a song stuck in her head – and for a few seconds every day, thousands watched her coo or feign annoyance or try on a new dress. The videos were mostly made at night, when Qandeel said she couldn’t sleep. And then, they became more risque – by Pakistan’s standards, at least.
Qandeel was killed in July 2016. Her brother confessed to the murder, saying her actions had brought dishonour to his family. She was 26 years old. Qandeel created a story about herself – part truth and part lies, fibs and exaggerations. The story allowed her to be whoever we wanted her to be. It allowed her to be whoever she wanted to be. And the small fibs are just as much a part of the “real story” of Qandeel – as important as the filtered memories of her friends and family, if not more so. (Qandeel’s words – at times translated by me, but otherwise unchanged – appear here as italicised sentences. I felt it was necessary to allow her to “talk” or ‘talk back” when something about her life or personality is presented as fact.)
At 11.25am on 16 July 2016, Adil Nizami, a 25-year-old rookie reporter from Multan, a city a little over 500km from the capital, Islamabad, broke the biggest story of his career. “Famous model Qandeel Baloch has been killed,” he blurted out in a live call that interrupted 24 News’s regular morning bulletin. As he stood in the lane outside Qandeel’s house, the words that had been on the tip of his tongue for more than an hour now rushed out. “Some are saying that she was shot dead. The police have just reached her house here in Multan. We should find out shortly how she was murdered. Her brothers, the murderers, were angry with her because of her behaviour and all the scandals on TV. Her family was angry with her. And we have found out this morning that her brothers have either strangled her or shot her … there’s conflicting information about how they killed her.”
After 40 minutes, a line of 12 news vans made its way down the lane leading to the house. Adil estimated that more than 100 people – police, reporters, cameramen, locals – were now buzzing around like flies in a jar on the rough sandy road.
When the ambulance arrived, it took the driver half an hour to cover the last few feet. No one wanted to give up their hard-won spot in front of the small house. Adil’s bright pink knock-off Ralph Lauren shirt was covered in dark patches of sweat. It was nearing 2pm. The reporters had been breathlessly relaying each drop of information as they received it from inside the house. They were getting restless. Their producers mined Qandeel’s social media feeds for quotes and photographs to tide viewers over until they had anything tangible. An officer had made a video of the body inside the room. The reporters scrambled for it.
Adil didn’t want that. “I want the real thing,” he thought. “If I’d only been here 10 minutes before … If I’d headed out right when I got that first call, I could have been here before the police. I could have got a shot of her.”
He knew exactly what he would have done: shoot footage of the body first. Blur the face, of course – but then again, that depended on what the bosses at the channel wanted. Maybe a good shot of her face, in case they wanted to run a still. “After that, I’d shift focus,” Adil told me. “She’s been murdered, she’s been identified, she’s Qandeel Baloch. OK! Done! Now the parents. How was she murdered? Who murdered her? The story they gave the police – that story could have been mine. I would have been the first to get it.”
All eyes were on the ambulance, now wedged up against the gate. “They’ll bring her out soon,” the reporters murmured among themselves. “Any minute now,” they told their producers reassuringly. “The body will come out any minute now.” Adil had the best spot, right next to the ambulance’s open doors. He spotted a photographer he knew from another channel. He called him over. He could hear someone behind the gate shouting for a sheet. It was time. Adil had a plan.
The gate of the house opened. Everyone surged forward. Adil helped the photographer up into the ambulance and told him to crouch at the far end. The body was loaded into the back of the vehicle. Inside, the photographer plucked the sheet off so he could quickly take photos of the body. I need to see for myself, Adil thought as he quickly slid open one of the ambulance windows. His hand, holding his mobile phone, snaked inside. He stared at the puffy, blue-lipped face for a split second. He began filming.
“Have some respect for the dead,” a police officer said as he grabbed Adil by the arm and pulled him away from the ambulance. “What do you think you’re doing?”
But Adil had got his shot.
Over the coming months, Adil would lose count of the number of times his jerky footage of Qandeel’s body in the ambulance would be seen by viewers around the world. Even when his phone crashed and he lost the original video, he could pull it up from thousands of sites where it continued to be shared.
“What was I doing?” he said, repeating the police officer’s question, four months later. “In that kind of moment – when you don’t have control of your senses, can’t control what you will do, what you must do and what you shouldn’t do – you don’t think about this question until later. Then you ask yourself: ‘What could I have done differently?’”
It is October 2016. Three months have passed since the day Qandeel died. Any meeting with her parents must now be organised through a man named Safdar Shah, who describes himself as their lawyer. Shah waits at the door to Qandeel’s house in Multan. He wears a starched black shalwar kameez that puffs around him and rustles when he moves. His shoes have been scrubbed to a dull glow, down to their pointed tips. He probably slicked down his hair this morning, but it has buffeted into wispy clouds. His light skin is flushed pink in the heat and his moustache is jet black, straight from a bottle. He looks like the kind of man who, if you ask him his age, will coyly reply: “How old do you think I am?” He looks like he is in his mid-50s.
Inside, Qandeel’s father, 80-year-old Muhammad Azeem, perches on a black, imitation-leather sofa. His legs, stick-thin within the loose folds of a dhoti, are pulled close to his chest. He absently strokes the puckered nub of flesh where one leg abruptly ends. He lost his foot six months ago when a car ran over it. “The daughter came here to get his leg fixed,” Shah explains. “She came to Multan on the second day of Eid and she planned to get his treatment done and then fly back to Karachi. She said she was going to leave for India after that.”
Qandeel’s mother, Anwar, looks as if she is in her 50s. She is small, the hard rise of her collarbones under her kameez hinting at a thin frame. She sits on the edge of one of the two charpais – a type of woven bed – in the room. Her feet dangle inches above the floor.
While Anwar seems to understand and speak some Urdu, Azeem responds only in Siraiki. He tends to mumble, his words gummy and sloshing, and are often unintelligible when he cries, which is frequently and in small bursts. Azeem and Anwar stare at the television as Shah speaks to me.
They watched their daughter on that screen in a handful of dramas and morning-show appearances. She would call them to let them know what channel and what time she would be on. “In those moments, while we were waiting to see Qandeel, life would feel great,” Azeem says. He and his wife always refer to their daughter by her adopted name, not the name they gave her. As a child, she had told them she wanted to be a star. And now that she was singing, dancing and acting, they were happy for her.
Shah sighs. “She didn’t talk to them for years. Didn’t talk to the father for three years.”
“I supported her,” Azeem pipes up. “I used to send her money.”
Shah continues as if he hasn’t heard him: “Didn’t talk to the mother for six years.”
“She would call us sometimes,” Anwar says quietly.
“Oh, she just ended all relations with them,” Shah says. “She thought they wouldn’t like what she was doing. She said she would never look back.”
Qandeel’s six brothers knew about the television shows, and they didn’t like it. “Tell her we never want to see her again,” one of them told Anwar. Qandeel had two sisters, and when she returned to Shah Sadar Din, 100km west of Multan, for her younger sister’s wedding around 2010 – years after she herself had left the village as a bride – her parents tearfully welcomed her home, but said she couldn’t stay. “Leave, or your brothers will pick a fight with us,” Anwar told her daughter.
Qandeel’s neighbour in Shah Sadar Din remembers a night, perhaps during that visit, when Qandeel appeared at his house out of breath. Her brother had a pistol and was threatening to kill her.
“Our sons, their wives and children didn’t bother with us after that, and we didn’t bother with them,” Anwar says. “Our daughter took care of us and no one else paid us any attention. We didn’t know much about what she did, and we didn’t really understand it. She travelled to Malaysia, Sharjah, Dubai and South Africa, but we had no clue why. What she’s doing, what she’s not doing – we didn’t bother asking. It was her life.”
By June 2016, they were alarmed. Their daughter’s face and voice seemed to be on TV almost every week. These were not appearances that she called to tell them about. “We saw these photos on the news,” Anwar says. “They said Qandeel did an interview with a cleric. There were photographs of her sitting on his lap. Wearing his cap. Every day those pictures were shown on every channel. Over and over again.”
While Anwar and Azeem were in Multan for a visit, they found out that some people were taking photos of their home in Shah Sadar Din.
“These kameenay [bastard] mullahs,” sputters Azeem.
“Those bearded men,” Shah suggests.
“Those bloody bearded ones!” Azeem continues. “They asked people: ‘Who is Qandeel? Where is she from? What do you know about her?’”
Qandeel was worried. “Don’t think badly of me,” she told her father. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m just fighting with someone.”
Anwar scolded her daughter. She didn’t want her to do any interviews or talk about the cleric. “These people are bigger than you,” she remembers saying. “Don’t meet these people who are above your stature,” she cautioned. Remember where you come from. Whose daughter you are.
A few days later, in the last week of June 2016, everyone found out who she was, where she came from and what her father’s name was when stills of her passport and national identity card were shown on the news. People in the village were watching her videos and sharing photos of her from Facebook. Her brother Waseem refused to leave his home. People were coming to the mobile phone shop he owned in the village with their phones. “Can you download your sister’s latest videos on this for me?” they’d ask, sniggering.
When Waseem’s friends came to his house to inquire about him, why he hadn’t been out drinking with them, why he wasn’t coming to the shisha spot any more, he told his mother to say he wasn’t in.
Qandeel called from Karachi. “I want to come home,” she told her mother. Then she vacillated, changed her mind. She would send them money for Eid. She didn’t want to leave Karachi.
A week later, she said she would come. “She said: ‘I am so tired, I am so worried,”’ Shah prompts.
“I am tired, I am worried,” Anwar repeats.
“I am tired of this life. I want some peace.”
When she finally did come to the house in Multan, Qandeel was perpetually on the phone. Azeem heard her talking to someone one day. “What have I done for you to hound me like this?” she snapped. “Why are you after me? Why do you keep calling me?”
“These media people hounded her,” Anwar says. “They just wouldn’t stop. Hounded her beyond all limits.”
By 2015, Qandeel was moving between Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi in search of work. She had done some modelling, some singing, and had even auditioned unsuccessfully for Pakistan Idol. She worked with a manager, Mec, to try to forge a career in show business. She had started to post photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter, but remained relatively unknown. She had a brief stint acting on TV, and was invited to sing on a few morning talk shows.
She wants to go to the hill station of Murree, just a short drive from the capital, because she has never seen snow in her life. She pleads with Mec to take her there. “I doubt there will be any snow now,” he warns her. It’s not the season. She insists. Her skin has reacted badly to the heat of Lahore and humidity of Karachi. A brief spell in the cooler green climes of Murree is exactly what she needs.
They manage to get a tiny room in a guesthouse in Murree. Qandeel plays with her phone constantly, taking selfies and videos. She is happy there. When they sway in a chairlift above the mossy hills and the gossamer mist brushes her hair, she feels as though she could reach out and touch the sky. She makes a video for her fans.
By the evening she is running a fever. They ignore it until it peaks at 104 degrees, and then they have to find a hospital. It is raining hard and Mec has to return to Islamabad for a photoshoot. Back at the guesthouse, Qandeel tells Mec to leave, and to lock the door to their room from the outside. She wants to take her medicines and just sleep. She doesn’t want any food.
When he is done with the shoot, Mec calls her from Islamabad. “Come pick me up,” she says. “Bring something spicy with you, please.” He gets a curry made and drives for almost two hours to get to her. The door to their room has not been opened since he left. “Let’s get some coffee,” she says after she has eaten. Having slept off the fever, she has been playing with her phone while waiting for Mec. She lies in bed and swipes through all the photos and videos from the trip. She uploads some of them to Facebook and Twitter.
In one video she is messing around with Mec in the market. Her eyebrows peek out above her big black-rimmed sunglasses, and she has the hood of her Barca jacket pulled up to loosely cover her hair. She pushes up her sunglasses and tilts her head from side to side, trying to find her best angle. Mec, in a yellow shirt and sunglasses, leans in behind her.
“Ummmmm,” she says into the camera. “How I’m looking?”
Mec grins. “Tell me,” she whines. A demand, the lilt of a petulant child: “How I’m looking?”
There are more than 44 million social media users in Pakistan. Qandeel Baloch’s How I’m Looking? video created a blueprint for the kind of fame that viral stars in Pakistan could achieve. The question – with her intonation and accent – was parodied endlessly by the average Pakistani social-media user and some of the country’s best-known singers and actors. It is impossible to know how many times the original video was watched – it has been copied and shared to hundreds of pages – but it led to Qandeel’s inclusion in Google’s list of the top 10 Pakistanis searched for online in 2015.
By the end of the year, Qandeel is being called an “insta-celeb”. People are turning to Facebook and Twitter to find the “How I’m looking?” girl, and they want more 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. Later, when she was no longer around, he would think about that video and wonder what people had seen in it. He would remember that young Afghan woman who had been on the cover of a magazine in America and then become famous all over the world. “It was her eyes,” he would say. “That’s what got everyone. Show people something different. They don’t want to see the same old stuff.”
Qandeel disagrees with Mec 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. People take photos with her at these events, but she isn’t getting paid for them. She doesn’t just want to make friends – she is looking for connections.
She stumbles across the Facebook profile of a man in Karachi called Mansoor, who was a model when she was just a girl in Shah Sadar Din. His Facebook feed is full of photos taken at dinners and parties with girls Qandeel has seen on TV. He seems to have the connections she needs. She sends him a friend request, and her phone number.
“Hi must talk to you,” he texts Qandeel. “Call now.”
She is travelling and is unable to speak with him just 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 calling him “baby” and “jaan” (sweetie). When she tells him she is back in Karachi and feeling lonely, they meet for the first time. She starts messaging him on WhatsApp late at night, asking: “What are you doing?” He is usually fast asleep. She uses the app Dubsmash to make videos of herself singing songs she loves. Mansoor’s phone glows in the darkness of his room as she sends him each clip. “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.”
But these are not like the clips that she now starts putting up on her Facebook page.
Guys, who want to watch my next nasty clip?
In these, she is often mute and plays a variety of roles: sexy girl lying on her stomach, grinding against her bed while clutching a red teddy bear; ordinary 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, holding it close as she sighs and looks beseechingly at the camera to let you know that “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 others, she coos “Good morning”, rubs her eyes and yawns. She makes one in which the lace curtains billow 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 kohl, winged at the corner like the tail of a tick mark. “Goodnight,” she whispers, looking into the camera on her phone, much of her face covered with the fall 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 [sic] 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.”
“I love you.”
“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 on to the morning shows, she is singing less and talking more about the videos she puts up. The English-language newspapers have also taken note. “Who is Qandeel Baloch and what is she doing on my timeline?” asks an article on the website of the newspaper Dawn. “Facebook has a new bug and its name is Qandeel Baloch.” There is 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 millions. I’m not desperate for money.”
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 a burger 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 harassing 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 “selfie queen”. Qandeel isn’t like the other models Mansoor knows. They are all sluts. She is not a slut, he says. She just wants to be in the limelight.
She is struggling to find work despite Mansoor’s connections, and there aren’t many offers for the notorious selfie queen to be the face of a brand or the star of a television show. Some people promise work in exchange for what Mansoor calls the “cast couch”. But that is a trick; there is never any work. Mansoor feels Qandeel is fighting to survive. She is making some money from morning-show appearances, and she goes to Dubai for a few days to do a photoshoot, but it isn’t enough. She calls Mansoor one day and says her brother is visiting and she needs some money. Can she borrow some? While he is trying to arrange that, he receives a message from her. “Don’t worry, she says. I’ve got 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, some girls came over to Mansoor’s friend’s house with a boy who “looked like a fag” and they danced for everyone and then people gave them $100 each. He likes that Qandeel never begs, and he will remember this when he sees photos of her after she has died, and almost doesn’t recognise 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.
Ten seconds is all it takes to unravel what she has been working on for years. A ten-second video. On 14 March 2016, four days before Pakistan plays India in the ICC World T20 match, she uploads a video to her Facebook page. “If Pakistan wins, I will do a strip dance for the whole nation,” she promises. “And that dance will be dedicated to our captain, Shahid Afridi. Just defeat India once, and whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do it.”
A few nights later, she uploads a trailer for the promised dance. She stands on her bed, wearing nothing but a bright green and yellow bikini and a white bathrobe stolen from a hotel. The robe has been pulled down and tied loosely around her waist. In the video, she cups her breasts and caresses herself. She sways her hips like a belly dancer while an Enrique Iglesias song plays on her laptop. She draws the robe close to her like a matador’s cape and then flicks it back to reveal a smooth, uncovered leg. The “full film” will be released online if Pakistan wins the match, she promises.
When Mec sees the video, he tells her: “People here don’t let others live their lives the way they want, and you think you can do these kinds of antics? You’re only going to get into trouble.”
She weeps after she reads some of the comments on her Facebook and Twitter posts.
“Please shoot her wherever you find her.”
“You ugly bitch. People like you should go die.”
“You have no shame so why are you even wearing this bikini? Take it off, you can earn some more.”
“You uneducated bitch … you’re giving Pakistan a bad name. Your pimp family won’t even shoot you. Your father must be just like you that’s probably why he doesn’t say anything to you.”
“You give the Baloch people a bad name.”
“Shame on your parents.”
I’m 99% sure that you guys hate me.
She hides her face in her pillow and sobs.
And I’m also 100% sure that even my shoe doesn’t give a damn.
Qandeel’s trailer goes viral. It makes the headlines not just in Pakistan, but in India, too. She is called “Pakistan’s hot new internet sensation” and “Pakistan’s very own version of Poonam Pandey”.
Pandey, an Indian model and actor, promised to strip for the Indian cricket team during the ICC cricket world cup in 2011. Qandeel would go on to repeat what Pandey said at the time, almost verbatim, when asked why she released the trailer – she did it to “buck up” the team. It was a patriotic gesture.
To become popular, you have to do a lot. It’s necessary to do some bad things. You have to show yourself, take off your clothes.
An online campaign to shut down her Facebook page is launched. On 18 March 2016, Farhan Virk, a blogger and self-proclaimed social-media activist with more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, makes a request: “Report [her] Facebook page and share this message. We can’t see a retard like her shaming our nation. Keep sharing this message and reporting her page. We need to get it banned.”
Virk is often accused of operating fake Twitter accounts to spread rumours or impersonate politicians and celebrities. He has a significant following, particularly among supporters of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, as he frequently launches campaigns against those critical of the party or its leader. His message about Qandeel is shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook by his followers.
“We should have drowned in shame the minute we heard her say [she would strip],” Virk tells his followers. “In an Islamic state, what kind of thing is that to say?”
Pakistan loses the match, but the campaign against Qandeel’s social media pages doesn’t end.
There are so many problems in Pakistan, so why is everyone focusing on me? I’m just an innocent girl. Why am I being made a target of judgment?
Two days pass. Virk urges his followers once more, “We need to stop her from spreading vulgarity in our Islamic state.”
On 22 March 2016, Qandeel’s Facebook account is suspended. She loses an audience of more than 400,000.
Soon after, she is invited to appear on a talk show alongside an actor and a religious scholar. The host asks the scholar if in his opinion it is permissible for Qandeel to push the limits of freedom of expression in the way she does. Should she really be allowed to make the kinds of videos that she does? Should she have offered to strip for the Pakistani cricket team?
“So many evils are being born on social media,” he replies. “She shouldn’t have done this. It’s obvious.”
“I’m very happy her Facebook page was removed,” the actor says. “In the future, if anyone tries to do something like that, they will think about the reaction first. The public, the people, will not be silent. They will say what is right and what is wrong. I don’t think she should behave this way ever again. No one should follow her. People like her should just be made to disappear.”
You’re going to miss me when I’m gone. You’re so terrible, with your double standards. You like to watch me, and then you like to say: “Why don’t you just die?”
Will you be happy when I die?
When I die, there will never be another Qandeel Baloch.
- This is an edited extract from A Woman Like Her: the Short Life of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher, published on 11 July by Bloomsbury and available at guardianbookshop.com