Sanam Maher’s debut “A Woman Like Her” unfolds like a thriller, only it’s true. The book tells the story of Qandeel Baloch, a woman from a small village in Pakistan who became a social media celebrity, and at age 26 was killed by her brother.
Throughout her life, Baloch (whose real name was Fouzia Azeem) courted both attention and scandal, angering not only her brother but hordes of threatening commenters both on- and offline. Her brother Waseem was also taunted for his sister’s behavior. He wanted it to stop, so he took matters into his own hands. “She just wouldn’t listen,” Waseem told police during his interrogation. “I had no other way to deal with this.” In July 2016 he put a sedative in his sister’s milk and strangled her. In his confession, Waseem said he had done so to protect his family’s “honor.” Waseem was sentenced to life in prison in September.
“Honor killings,” as they are called, take place throughout the world, but nearly half of them occur in India and Pakistan. Pakistani activists say there are some 1,000 honor killings in the country every year. They can happen when a relative, often a woman, is perceived as having brought dishonor to the family; honor is regained by killing her. Maher describes an honor killing as “the perfect crime,” because so many of them go unpunished.
But Qandeel Baloch was different. Her murder played out on an international stage; the foreign press had dubbed her Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian. Her parents, instead of pardoning the killer, as can often happen, were appalled, distraught and took her side. Baloch’s father vowed not to forgive his son. Her mother covered her daughter’s hands and feet in henna, a sign that she had left the world with honor.
Maher’s investigation of Baloch’s life and death is remarkable: It is not just the story of one rebellious woman but a study of an entire country and culture in collision with the new demands of the Internet, reality TV and women determined to shake off old strictures. Maher, a journalist based in Karachi, is a patient and transparent narrator, telling us where accounts conflict, which interviewees are unreliable and what questions must go unanswered. Her style of writing — stark and sometimes poetic — befits her subject. Maher also weaves in Baloch’s own words, presumably taken from media interviews. “I feel it is necessary to allow her to have a voice,” Maher writes, which is commendable when so many journalists got Baloch’s story wrong.
“A Woman Like Her” begins in Baloch’s small village, when she is just 8 or 9 years old. She is dancing, writhing even, along to the moves of a woman on television. When her older brother sees her, he is furious and “knocks the breath right out of her,” writes Maher, who conducted hundreds of interviews for the book, including with Baloch’s parents. Waseem’s behavior is a dark foreshadowing of how her story will end.
At 17, Baloch is married, by arrangement, to a man who turns abusive, and she has a child. Baloch rejects this life — she runs away, gives away her child and says she wants a job and to stand on her own two feet. Most of all, she wants fame, which she proves particularly adept at attracting. It starts with Baloch’s 2013 audition for the TV show “Pakistan Idol,” which draws viral attention.
Next unfolds a series of events that Maher describes as a “very public middle finger” to much of conservative Pakistan. Baloch records a Valentine’s Day message to Imran Khan, a prominent politician who’s now prime minister, after the president says the holiday is a Western concept and shouldn’t be celebrated. She promises a striptease if the national cricket team wins a championship against India. She takes suggestive photos with a Muslim cleric. Each stunt is more suggestive than the last. “Whatever you try and stop me from doing, I’ll do that even more,” Maher quotes Baloch as saying. Baloch gains hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, but the backlash is swift and brutal. She is called a slut and worse — and her life is threatened. No one listens when Baloch says she fears for her life.
Maher does not glorify her subject. At times, Baloch seems immature and attention-seeking; at others she is nervy and eloquent: “No one tells me, ‘Qandeel you have gone to war against a society, against a kind of place where men think women are as lowly as their shoe. The kind of place where it’s so common for a man to hit a woman, that if some man doesn’t hit his wife, people call him beghairat [dishonorable].’ Why don’t people see that?” It’s a refreshingly complicated portrait.
Maher’s portrayal of Pakistan, meanwhile, shows a place that is changing, but unevenly. Although men and women can go online and see just about anything, Maher writes, “they must remember one thing: they are still rooted here in the land of the pure.” Maher describes Baloch’s region, in South Punjab, as particularly conservative, even violent in its religious fervor. For women, “even a whiff of disrespect can get you killed,” she writes. After Baloch’s murder, national legislation was passed to tighten a loophole around honor killings, so that a family member can’t pardon a killer. But Maher is skeptical. As one local reporter tells her: “To break the law is nothing at all. These laws can be written and rewritten. But the rules of our culture have been around for centuries.”
“A Woman Like Her” takes detours from Baloch’s story, exploring a helpline for Pakistani women who face online harassment, the lives of other female models in Islamabad and the ephemeral nature of Internet fame. Maher’s strongest section comes at the end, in her scathing indictment of the media. During Baloch’s life, TV hosts mocked and shamed her. In death, local journalists cheered her demise.
Maher’s book is both intimate and sweeping: It gives readers a deep sense of who Baloch was, about the world that created her and why so many people couldn’t stop watching. Admirably, Maher gives us no easy answers. But one takeaway is clear: In a place where worlds are colliding, and honor is on the line, it is often women who pay the price.
Elizabeth Flock is a journalist and the author of “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai.”
A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star
By Sanam Maher
Melville House. 235 pp. $27.99