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Social Media Star Murdered in Iraq: A Pattern of Violence and Intimidation

Tara Fares, an Iraqi social media star with nearly 3 million Instagram followers, was shot on September 27th while driving her car through Baghdad. It was announced on Monday that Fares had been killed by extremists. The announcement follows Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's demand for an investigation into not only the death of Fares, but also into what appears to be a pattern of “well-planned killings and kidnappings” with the aim of "carrying out a plan to destabilize the security situation under the pretext of fighting perversion."

 Support for Tara on Social Media, Iraq, October 2, 2018. Credit:   The Independent

Support for Tara on Social Media, Iraq, October 2, 2018. Credit: The Independent

Fares is known on social media for makeup tutorials and her daring style. Fares’ fame on social media took off following her victory in an unofficial beauty pageant in 2015. Her social media presence is not limited to beauty and feminine expression; Fares was known for her candid political opinions and advocacy of women’s freedom. In a conservative Muslim-majority nation, Fares was vocal in her defense of personal freedom. She spoke candidly about her brief marriage at only 16 years old, and occasionally spoke against corruption of tribal and religious leaders in Iraq.

Fares’ opinions and fashion sense were subject to backlash, ranging from religious, gendered, and national bases for criticism. Online criticism parallels an increasing environment of intimidation and fear for women in Iraq who deviate from traditional social roles. Fares’ murder follows a series of mysterious deaths of women who also challenged the status quo in Iraq. Rafeef al-Yassiri and Rasha al-Hassan, famous beauticians in the same social circle as Fares, both died under mysterious circumstances within a two week period in August. Authorities asserted that Yassiri’s death was due to a drug overdose, but there are rumors she was poisoned. Fares’ murder also follows that of Soad al-Ali, a female human rights activist who was shot outside a supermarket on September 26th in Basra.

Ms. Fares wrote in a July Instagram post "I'm not afraid of the one who denies the existence of God, but I'm really afraid of the one who kills and chops off heads to prove the existence of God.” Iraq is still plagued by religious extremist groups that violently impose their singular religious interpretation in a broad social context. ISIS may have lost their influence in Iraq, but the brutality, particularly against women, remains.

These series of murders of socially liberal women in Iraq has created an environment of instability, uncertainty, and intimidation. The public violence is political and designed to send a message. This violence may aim to scare women out of public life and back into traditional, domestic roles. Iraq is engulfed in a climate of fear for women who lead a more liberal lifestyle; the message sent by this violence is that behaving like Tara, challenging the status quo, will result in a similar fate.