Image of a Woman - I

Saba Karim in conversation with Sanam Maher on policing women’s desires, privilege, publishing and all things Pakistan

Image of a Woman - I
Saba Karim Khan: Before we jump into the book, let the starting gun be, what is it like being a woman in Pakistan–the power and the obstructions that come with the territory. I’m trying to de-exoticize some of the easy impressions drawn up, without downsizing the problems and threats.

Sanam Maher: I think my reality and my experience is that I’m part of a minority in Pakistan. The amount of privilege that I have, the fact that I’ve been able to choose a career and the work that I do, being able to do it - there are so many parts of my life that aren’t the norm for women here. I wouldn’t say that my experience is the average experience. Keeping all of that in mind, when I look at how women are living here or the things they’re concerned about, the ways in which they are treated, the things you encounter even within family and friends, you see in the news - the overwhelming feeling is sadness and exhaustion and frustration. I think women here have a great deal to bear.

We try and make the most of it in but as I get older there is this sadness, particularly this year. I think the biggest case recently for me was the woman who was raped on the highway, just looking at how that played out, how that was covered, then the protest, the response on an official level, privately what people were saying - I think there is just an exhaustion and you do really wonder what has to happen for things to get better. And I’m not even an activist; I look at so many women who are organizing this on a day-to-day basis, I cannot imagine the level of burnout that they have.

So, I don’t know if it’s quite a depressing answer in terms of what my experience is like; I recognize the privilege that I have and the fact that I don’t have to contend with so many problems that millions of women do. But at the same time, even just encountering it in the newspaper, there is a fatigue that’s set in this year.
“What does her image reflect back to us? What are we seeing of ourselves in this thing that we cannot stop looking at? How did she understand us so well and manage to keep giving us something that we couldn’t look away from? So, as I got into the research, I started understanding, this is a much bigger thing. This isn’t just a biography”

SKK: Coming to the book. As a reader, the book didn’t just open up a window into Qandeel’s life, it did much more. It opened the tightly sealed windows - about the society we’re immersed in yet so removed from, behind the gated oblivion of our own lives – compelling you to think about who we are and what we have become. Moving beyond the sordid, biographical gossip of her story, and layering over it, the problems of our times - is this what you were hoping to do?

SM: When it started, I only knew the basic facts around what had happened. I knew what all of us were seeing at that time, that there’s this young woman who has been making headlines for weeks. She’s been fascinating for many people, and they’ve been following her and making fun of her. She’s the butt of our jokes. And now this young woman is dead. And I remember the day that it happened, seeing the news come up on my phone and thinking, this is probably fake or it’s a shooting. But she survived. And because she’d been in the news for a bunch of things, the Mufti Qavi incident, news about her child and husband came forward and her real name, and I thought, something has happened within the family.

But then when I saw that she’d actually been killed, I was really surprised by the reaction that I had. I felt very saddened by it. And almost immediately after to see these reactions coming in online was very confronting, where people were making fun of her or saying she got exactly what she deserved. There were people who were taken aback, they were shocked, and they felt terrible about it, but the louder voice was, she got exactly what she asked for.

I didn’t know anything else about her story, I’d never met her but I just knew that I wanted to do something on this story. How is it that we’ve reached this point where a young woman is dead and we are somehow able to explain it away, rationalize it, accept it? Everybody was covering it at that time and a couple of places that I worked for, reached out to me and said, can you do an obituary? I didn’t want to just do a thousand words on it and be done. There is so much here, how this story has played out, how this young woman managed to get our attention. How we were fixated by her image and then somehow also repulsed by it. And to the extent that we feel the need to completely erase her from the picture, to allay some anxiety that we have where we feel relieved that she is no longer there. A lot of stuff had been sort of simmering for me in terms of the experience of going viral in Pakistan. How I see women being talked to online. I was really fed up of seeing journalists explain our situation and our stories to us and reading them back to us. And I hadn’t seen anything that was speaking to me as a reader.

So, I was fascinated by the story, and I didn’t care if ten people read it or ten thousand people read it, for me, it was, I am a young woman living in this country encountering a lot of the behavior that this young woman faced, obviously on a much smaller scale; why am I not seeing anything that’s speaking to me? And who is this person? Where did she come from? How did she manage to fool all of us? How did she have the courage to do that? Then, as I started to get into it, I knew it wasn’t just going to be a story about her. It was going to be a story about us as an audience and this as a place that enabled something like this to happen. What does her image reflect back to us? What are we seeing of ourselves in this thing that we cannot stop looking at? How did she understand us so well and manage to keep giving us something that we couldn’t look away from? So, as I got into the research, I started understanding, this is a much bigger thing. This isn’t just a biography.

SKK: Qandeel was complex, contradictory, cipher-like, a patchwork of different people, different lives, amalgamated within her. However, we mostly expect our women to conform to a cookie-cutter mould. Did her murder then, whilst instantly intimate, become a metaphor for the shrinking space for expressing desire, vulnerability, sexuality, and embracing complex, “unconventional” women? What of women’s desire when pitted against this fetish for purity?

SM: I think we’re very nervous about women’s desires when they’re expressed. If we think about something as simple as Instagram and there is an actress and she’s dressed a certain way, if you just start going through the comments – “what kind of woman dresses this way”, “why are you wearing these clothes?” Even if we consider, for instance, the Turkish soap operas and what they’re wearing - a good Muslim woman does not dress this way, does not behave this way. But at the same time, you go to any newsstand and look at any regional language newspaper. And the same happened with Qandeel. The pictures of her body were put on the pages of those newspapers. We’re more comfortable with the image of a dead woman than an overtly sexual one. Why is that? Which one feels more manageable and palatable to us?

When a woman presents herself as an object of beauty or desire, it is seen as shameful. She is seen as shameless. I think that’s why Qandeel angered so many people, because even when they said you’re so shameful, she presented herself almost in a way that didn’t affect her. And that angers people further because they wondered what kind of woman doesn’t feel shame when you criticize her. What kind of woman doesn’t take it on board and change herself? And it’s a form of control, so, how do you then exert control? So, I think it makes us very nervous because we also seem to have this moral panic, that if women start behaving this way, if women start divorcing their husbands, if women start refusing to have children and have a job instead, where are we going to end up? This is nothing new, but we’re just seeing it manifest in more public ways now. And we’re engaging with it a lot more.
“I know when it came to Mufti Qavi and a lot of the men who were in Qandeel’s life and in her village, who I talked to, they were just immensely relieved that this woman was no longer around, that they no longer had to deal with the problem of her”

Even when we see a woman as an object of desire, it is desire in a very particular context and a particular kind of woman. We cannot stand the idea of Mahira wearing a short dress, standing with a man smoking. You can see her legs or see her shoulders or her arms. It makes us angry. But another woman, perhaps, who is on a stage dancing, that is palatable to us. Why is there that binary? What kind of woman is allowed to be desirable and how do you how does that desire play out? So, I think where we still have to go a long way towards even seeing particular women as desirable without purity interfering with that.

Qandeel Baloch


SKK: Which is a segue way into talking about the “f” word! There’s often a temptation to take what has sparked in the west – and without duly processing it – clone it to our surroundings. Do you find feminist movements trickling down in Pakistan?

SM: There’s this incredible book called the ‘Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy’ by Ayesha Khan. I was stunned. She goes through the history of the Women’s Action Forum and all these activists that got together from the 70s onwards, based on these incredible interviews. But we are not encountering any of this as children and not being told that this is a part of our history. Why is it that I’m reading this and being surprised? I should have been learning this at the all-girls private school I attended.

So, I think that when we turn around and we look at #me too or at women’s marches and see it as filtering down from the west to us, this activism has existed here for decades. It’s just that we are now encountering it with younger feminists, taking it forward in really clever, thoughtful ways, trying to bring a diverse group on board. They are so cognizant of their own privilege, who they should reach out to? I think we’re becoming much better about how we can make women across the board understand that when we are talking about these things, they are very applicable to their lives. At its core, these are questions of power and questions of how you are treated as a woman in this country.

Sanam Maher

SKK: And now to men. You spoke to male members of Qandeel’s family and other men too as part of the research for the book. Did it offer insights into the politics and pressures surrounding masculinity in our country?

SM: If I think about a specific instance, when I interviewed Mufti Qavi, I was never going to interview him to try and do a “he said”, “she said” about what happened during his meeting with Qandeel. For me, the interesting thing is, there is a woman who has been harmed, in this case, there’s a dead woman and you have played some role in that. Are you able to see yourself as responsible in any way? And what happens when a woman accuses you of behaving badly? What happens when a woman says she didn’t like the way that you treated her?

These are things we see playing out in a lot of media cases as well, where there is this real fear of what happens if you admit that you may have done something wrong. What comes after that? I don’t think we have a blueprint for that. And I think if you admit to doing something wrong or behaving badly, where do we go from there? Is there space to make amends? In some instances, there’s absolutely no space, no room, because you’ve irrevocably changed someone’s life. But what happens if you accept responsibility? I think we are very quick to counsel people and to say, no, we’re done with you and now we don’t want to hear from you ever again. And you’re canceled. Again, I want to emphasize I’m not talking about instances where you have done irrevocable damage, but then, who has the definition for that?

I know when it came to Mufti Qavi and a lot of the men who were in Qandeel’s life and in her village, who I talked to, they were just immensely relieved that this woman was no longer around, that they no longer had to deal with the problem of her. I think that was really depressing to deal with. Also, when you’re in these spaces where men say to you, well, the women that we know wouldn’t have been allowed to talk to us in this way, they’re specifically commenting on your presence and the fact that you’ve come from this city, you’re asking them questions about things that are just taken as a given. So, I think the things that we’re really trying to understand in the wake of this and even with the me-too movement and how it played out in Pakistan, is this unwillingness to even accept the possibility that you may have done harm. So where do we go from there, then? I don’t know that I have an answer to that.

(to be continued)