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Journalist and author Sanam Maher reflects on her book and adjusting to life in Iowa

Non-fiction writer, journalist Sanam Maher.
The International Writers Program, University of Iowa
Non-fiction writer, journalist Sanam Maher.

Since 1967, about 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have spent time in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP). A group of 18 established writers from around the world has just arrived in Iowa to take part in fall residency for the IWP.

Sanam Maher is a nonfiction writer and a journalist from Pakistan. She covers stories on Pakistan's art and culture, business, politics, religious minorities and women. Maher's work has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera and, among other places, her book A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star. The book was published in 2018.

River to River host Ben Kieffer spoke with Maher on October 8, 2021.

The journalistic challenge in writing A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star

"The book came out in the United States last year, and it's about the story of a woman who became the first person in Pakistan to become a social media sensation. She was a young woman who knew how to very cleverly use platforms like Instagram, Twitter. She's been referred to here in the states as the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan — gives you a sense of who she was or how she worked.

"I don't believe she came from the sort of privilege that a Kardashian does, but she was famous for the things that she would post online. We couldn't stop watching her videos looking at her photographs. And then in July of 2016, she was killed by her brother, because he said that he disagreed with the kinds of things she was posting.

"I became very interested in her story and just the reaction that followed after her death — we had a huge number of young men and women who were very saddened by the death. It was scary. It was tragic, but we had an equally large number of people who were very glad that this had happened and they talked about it in a way where this woman had been punished for what she had been doing. She pushed the envelope too far. She was doing things that aren't accepted in our society or culture, and they were very glad to see her taken down in this terrible way."

The definition of "honor killing"

"We refer to it as an honor killing. Which essentially is any crime that takes place when someone believes they have been slighted, or they disagree with something you're doing, and it's almost to restore social order. What interested me was how have we reached this point where we feel so willing ... if we disagree with what they're doing or saying. That, to me, was the larger story here — how have we reached this point?"

On writing the book

"This was a persona that this young woman had created. Qandeel wasn't her real name. She had this life before she became famous, which she kept very much under wraps, and I became really intrigued by the idea of in this day and age. When you are such a public [figure], how do you manage to keep a secret like your real name where you come from?

"She had been married before. She had a child. All of these things came to light in the last week of her life, just before she was killed, and she'd never mentioned it. She managed to keep us looking at her, and interested in her long enough that we didn't even pause to say 'Who is this woman? Where did she come from and why can I not stop staring at what she's doing and posting online?'

"So for me it really was a question of if this person [who] didn't share these details about their life while they had the chance to do so. What gives me the right to do it and how can I do it in a careful, in a considered way? And tell the story of their life.

"Well, a lot of it came from me deciding that this wasn't just going to be the story of Qandeel; She allowed me to tell the story of my generation of Pakistanis that's connected to the world like never before. All from this gadget that we have in our hands and we're looking at the ways in which people around the world live. We have aspirations to live in certain ways, but we're very much rooted in a place that doesn't allow for those aspirations. And what happens when there?

"There is a disconnect between those two things, so I made a rule for myself where anything that I revealed about Qandeel's life, or the information I had about her, had to open up into a larger story about young men and women in Pakistan right now, and the things that they're considering. How they live their lives, how we use online spaces and how we consider things like fame or what it means to go viral or to ask for attention. So, I sort of had that as a baseline rule, that anything I revealed about Qandeel had to allow me to tell a bigger story."

Speaking before the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council

"I really want to open up a conversation around themes that came up with this book and the book I'm working on next. A lot of stuff that has come up in the wake of Qandeel's death. How young women in Pakistan, I see them having conversations around sex or consent or issues of the MeToo movement, really sort of pick up base in Pakistan. Qandeel really was sort of our first test case. She had an incident while she was alive and that sort of really propelled her to another level of fame where she accused a cleric of behaving inappropriately with her, and I really started to consider the idea of what happens when a woman takes a man in power to account. How does that play out in certain places? What are the conversations that we're having about those sorts of issues? How do they get resolved? What does accountability look like?"

What the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan meant to Pakistan

"The news was huge and it was pretty terrifying to witness. When American forces left Afghanistan, and you're seeing these people who have almost been sort of underground or been waiting for their moment to come in, you have a blueprint for how they have behaved before, how they've governed before, and there really was a question of 'what happens now?'

"It was quite terrifying. I think some of the images that all of us were seeing. They were awful pictures of planes taking off, people clinging to planes. I think it's very scary to consider that just across our border there is this growing sentiment of policing, particularly women, how they should live, dress, work and the gains that they've had in the past couple of years. What it looks like when that's taken away and how easily that can be taken away.

"I think within Pakistan, you do see a lot of people supporting that sort of new government in Afghanistan. Now, that is terrifying to consider, and the ways in which religious extremism is growing in our own country."

First impressions of Iowa

"I haven't been before, this is my first time here, and I have to say I like it. It's my first week, and something that really struck me is this year is so different ... I think it's incredible to come to a place where after the year that all of us have had. I think we were mostly [before] in survival mode, then to come to a place where suddenly this is your time to just think, to read, to focus on this creative pursuit and to have the space and the freedom to do that.

"It feels so luxurious right now. That's the word I keep coming back to. I come from a city of 20 million and I'm here right now. And it feels wonderful to just — I feel like I'm in a small neighborhood of Karachi where it's quiet. You're in a bubble, and you're told that this is just your time to produce something or to consider the world around you.

"I think, particularly in the past year, how we've all been living and being sort of very isolated, it feels wonderful to come to a place where you're told, 'OK, it's not just your job to survive, like this is where you thrive.'"

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa