Culture

How Pakistani journalist Sanam Maher balances her professional and selfie game

Her first book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch, is out now

For a female reporter, her make-up, personal style and social media persona are often weaponised to undermine her work and roadbloack her opportunities. Pakistan-based journalist Sanam Maher reveals how she balances these conflicting worlds. 

A police thana isn’t the best place for a selfie. Not when you’re the only woman you can see around, not when your selfie isn’t even on your phone, but on a man’s phone, which is turned towards you and every other man waiting in that thana. “Is this you?” the clerk asked me. Two thoughts: one, I needed this man to take me seriously, as he stood between me and an interview with his boss. Secondly—‘is this you?’ Was he implying that I didn’t look like that in real life? Rude.

At that point, I’d been a reporter for over a decade. But for the first time, I was finding myself in interviews where someone would Google me, and try and find anything about me online. Sometimes, in the middle of an interview, someone would show me or my fixer their phone, and there I was: my last story or my Twitter feed or Facebook profile. Twitter didn’t give them much to look at and Facebook had privacy settings they couldn’t get past. A public account, my Instagram offered up the most information about my life.

A post shared by Sanam Maher (@topbastard) on Jul 31, 2018 at 4:40am PDT

I take pictures of myself as frequently as the next person. However, I rarely post these pictures—even when they please me. It takes a marriage (my own) or my first book’s publication to merit a selfie’s appearance on my social media feed. Why do I not feel free to let you know I #wokeuplikethis or that I’m #blessed?

As many female journalists do, I maintain an ‘assignments’ wardrobe—men’s kurtas (they have pockets), no florals, no bright colours. In many of the places I have reported from, I am often the only woman in the room, unless men have tried to jettison me into other spaces “for the ladies”. When reporting, I do not wear a lick of make-up, no perfume, nothing that will assert a part of myself that can create a barrier between me and my interviewee. I’m not alone—many reporters say they won’t wear a hint of lipstick, they’ll always make sure to carry a scarf or dupatta (“otherwise the man will spend the entire time speaking to my breasts,” one woman explained), some will ditch their contact lenses for glasses and braid their hair tightly rather than leave it loose or in a topknot. Are we overthinking the importance of our appearances? 

A post shared by Sanam Maher (@topbastard) on May 23, 2018 at 7:47am PDT

Recently, I was in a small town in southern Punjab (Pakistan), speaking with a local reporter about a woman who had been murdered not too far from where we were. As we drove through the town’s marketplace, I realized that there were no women in any of the advertisements on billboards. I’d never seen a man alone in an ad for detergent. The handful of women on the street were all wearing a kind of burqa I had not seen anywhere else in the country: a swathe of fabric flowed from what looked like a spout at the top of the burqa, with no cut-outs for the woman’s eyes. She had to peer through the burqa’s dark fabric in order to see. The ‘spout’ ensured a stream of air into the burqa so she would not suffocate in southern Punjab’s heat.

The man I was interviewing saw me staring, and he scoffed. Where he was from, he said, some men would not give their women shoes. You see, when you are forced to step outside your home with bare feet, where will your eyes remain? Firmly planted on the ground, never rising to look at the world—or any men—around you. When I tried to make conversation and ask if there were many female journalists in this town, he looked at me and snapped.

“Our women don’t do that. The way that you’ve decided to just get up and come here—they don’t do that.” In these moments, the clothes I wear or how I present myself cannot erase how I am perceived: a woman who has no business being there, asking questions, going places where she is not welcome.

Since I have become aware that these men look me up before or while meeting me, I have struggled with how to curate my appearance online, just as I have felt the need to do so offline. On Instagram, where conversations about beauty often veer into the ridiculous—I just watched a woman instructing her followers to blow-dry their lashes from below so as to achieve maximum length and curl—a selfie is largely a signifier of attraction, confidence, and the product of good genes or glycolic acid. For those interviewees who are already suspicious of me, a stream of selfies only renders me two-faced; the loose, men’s kurta and the dupatta-covered head becomes an act.

In one of my very first job interviews, I was asked two questions right away: was I single? And if not, was I planning to get married and have kids soon? In the newsroom, many women are told they aren’t worth investing in because they’ll eventually ditch their jobs once they get married. They’re asked why they ‘need’ a raise if they’re married— it’s not like they have to support themselves or a family, right? And if they’re single, daddy foots the bill for everything, doesn’t he? Do too many “soft” stories, and you’re a “lady reporter”.

Get picked for a plum assignment and you’ll hear whispers about having taken some man’s rightful place. Land an interview when others have not, and it’s probably because of your looks. It takes time to care less about this bias. And increasingly, as potential editors or fellow journalists encounter my social media self before they have met me or seen my work, I worry that after a scroll past pictures of dogs or clothes or brunches or selfies with my husband or my sheet-masked-face, that bias may kick in and they’ll write me off as frivolous or silly. I wondered if I was being paranoid and asked a few other journalists how they felt.

A post shared by Sanam Maher (@topbastard) on May 26, 2018 at 12:26pm PDT

“I once told a male colleague that I was having a hard time figuring out an angle to a developing story,” explained Sophia Saifi, 31, a CNN producer in Islamabad. “He replied, ‘I guess you’re too busy posting pictures of pretty roses on Instagram.’” When Nosheen Abbas, 33, worked as a reporter for the BBC’s Urdu service, she says she thought about her appearance offline and online “200 per cent” more than the men around her. “Someone in the newsroom once commented on how I had so many more Twitter followers than the other reporters,” Abbas recalled. “One reporter remarked that it was obviously because of my profile picture. He didn’t care what I had been tweeting about or my work. I could only have that kind of audience because of how I looked.”

How much do these throwaway comments matter? That’s something I’m still trying to work out. Meanwhile, a friend just asked me what I was working on and I said, “A piece about beauty and selfies.” She replied, “Are you serious?”