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On September 27, 2018, Tara Fares, a young Iraqi social media star and model got shot and died in Baghdad. She was only 22 years old. She is the fourth woman since August to be killed in Iraq, among rising concerns towards the safety of women who are not fearful of expressing themselves in the country’s conservative society.
Tara Fares was shot three times in broad daylight by unknown gunmen as she was driving her car with her boyfriend, who rushed her to the hospital. But she arrived too late. The young woman, who was a resident in Erbil, was spending more time in the Iraqi capital for her career. She had become a social media phenomenon after she won Miss Baghdad competition in 2014, gathering more than 2.7 million followers on Instagram. The day before her brutal murder, she was voted one of Iraq’s most popular social media stars.
“She was very beautiful and nice and wanted to be happy and to live her life how the rest of the world lives: without restraint and hatred,” Omar Moner, a Baghdad-based photographer and a friend of Fares’s, told The New York Times. “But here in Iraq, there is no acceptance of the freedoms of others.” Described as free and bold, she liked fashion, to drive her convertible and to connect with people. She also didn’t fit the image of the traditional humble Iraqi woman, as a divorced single mother who had married at 16 but was wearing short skirts and make-up on the photos she posted on social media.
“This is not something new, but to reach to the level of direct killing in front of people is dangerous,” Nibras al-Maamouri, the head of the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum, told The New York Times. “What happened to Tara Fares was abhorrent.” The murder happened only two days after Iraqi women’s rights activist Suad al-Ali was also shot dead in Basra while waiting in a car with her driver, believed to be her husband, who was also injured. She was 46 years old and the mother of four children. Basra has recently been the stage of mass demonstrations against corruption, power cuts and shortages of clean waters. Despite the danger – government buildings and embassies were torched and at least 12 people were killed by security services and armed groups in September – al-Ali had been a major female presence in the protests, usually dominated by men.
Human rights organization Gulf Center for Human Rights issued a statement saying: “GCHR condemns in the strongest terms the assassination of Dr. Su’ad Al-Ali and expresses its deep concern over the violation of the right to freedom of assembly of peaceful demonstrators, along with other human rights defenders in Iraq, including lawyers, journalists and bloggers who continue their work bravely despite the risks of arrest or violence.”
But in this case, it could be a thread of murders targeting women having a strong presence in the public sphere, as two other women died in strange circumstances in August. Rafeef al-Yaseri and Rasha al-Hassan, who both worked in Iraq’s beauty industry, were found dead separately in their homes, according to Kurdistan 24. Their deaths happened just one week apart. Iraq’s acting prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said that that the deaths are not random events and has promised to hunt down the attackers. According to Iraq’s Interior Minister Qassem al-Araji, an extremist group is responsible for, at least, the murder of Tara Fares.
Both women had been outspoken about female independence and were professionally advocating “westernized” beauty standards. Dr Rafif al-Yasiri, a renowned plastic surgeon labelled the “Barbie of Iraq” who was 32 years old and who spoke regularly of women gaining independence by changing their appearance, allegedly died of a drug overdose. One week later, Rasha al-Hassan, who was a popular beautician, was found dead inside her home. Her death was deemed from “suspicious causes”.
Women’s rights organizations talk about the situation in Iraq as a witch hunt against women. Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi citizen who leads the institute Women for Women International in Washington, said: “Women are being hit left right and center. Everywhere. We are living in the modern witch-hunt.” Nibras al-Maamouri, the head of the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum, said the targeting of well-known women in Iraq had “greatly increased”.
“The enormous amount of messages I noticed on social media have made me sick,” said Zainab, 39, told The Guardian. “They say: ‘They deserved what they got because of their actions She added that the recent killings of women in Iraq had made her afraid to reveal her surname. ” Haider Zawyyer, an employee of the Iraqi state media al-Iraqiya TV, even wrote on social media that Tara Fares was a “whore”.
In Iraq, women have been repeatedly victims of numerous conflicts. They are also at high risk of being subjected to domestic violence: according to a 2012 study conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, about 36% of married Iraqi women experience psychological abuse from their husbands, while 23% face verbal abuse, 6% experience physical violence, and 9% are victims of sexual violence. Honor killings are also part of this violence against women. On top of the country’s insecurity, political instability and its economic crisis, the lack of laws to protect victims of domestic abuse has resulted in the rise of domestic violence from 2010 figures. The Iraqi parliament is currently reviewing a draft anti-domestic violence law, which was introduced in 2015. But it is likely to be a difficult law to pass, as some members of parliament have voiced concerns that the bill might run counter to Islamic principles.
On the news website Rudaw, an Iraqi feminist called Zhelman Z. Wali wrote: “Women in Iraq have been institutional victims of sectarian religious conflicts, Islamic law, cultural traditions and even the Iraqi constitution. To end this growing and dangerous trend, the Iraqi government must implement serious measures against the systematic targeting of well-known or famous women and beauty centers in the name of defending the “honor” of a country, city, tribe, or family. Iraq’s feminists need to wake up because sympathy is not enough. They must act and speak out so such atrocities are not repeated.”
Investigation results are urgent as more of Iraq’s women could be targeted in the weeks to come. Fear has spread, but Iraqi women are ready to speak up and face the challenge. For example, Shimaa Qassem, who was elected Miss Iraq 2015, said in a video posted on YouTube that she had received a message saying that she would “be next”. She still had the courage to go public and speak out about the threat and her feelings towards it.