A white Porsche enters an alleyway in Baghdad’s Camp Sarah district in broad daylight. As it slows through the narrow passage, a man runs up to the car’s window, points a gun, fires three times then flees on the back of a motorcycle. The Porsche crawls forward until it hits a parked vehicle. Inside, 22-year-old Tara Fares, a model and social media star, is dying.
It’s Thursday September 27 2018 and Fares’ assassination – the latest in a suspected pattern – feeds a national fear that Iraqi women straying from the conservative lifestyle are being targeted.
Just one month before Fares’ death, a popular beautician, Rasha al-Hassan, was found dead inside her Baghdad home on a Thursday. The Thursday before that, plastic surgeon, Rafif al-Yasiril, aka the ‘Barbie of Iraq’, was also found dead in her home.
The Associated Press reported local authorities had initially revealed al-Hassan died of heart failure, while al-Yasiri’s death was caused by an overdose. At the time, the Iraq Government was reluctant to draw a line between the deaths or suggest the women may have been murdered – let alone add to the rumours that the women were targeted for promoting Western ideals.
But former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was more outspoken, with the New York Times quoting him saying the killings “give the impression that there is a plan behind these crimes.”
In Basra, two days before Fares’s death, Human rights activist Suad al-Ali was shot and killed as she walked to her car.
In October, Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman, 2015’s Miss Iraq winner, said she received threats she would become the next target of what was now being called the ‘Thursday victims’, forcing her to flee to Jordan.
“I was threatened with murder,” she told Rudaw. “My life was in danger. The killing of this many people scared me. I wasn’t comfortable living there anymore.”
To leading Iraqi human rights expert, Hanaa Edwar, the murders were not only linked, but the motive behind them is to oppress women in the country.
“It’s a message not only to kill these women,” she told RT. “But also it is a message for all Iraqi young women to withdraw voluntarily from the public life.”
How Tara Fares became a social media star – and a target
Tara Fares was a model, former beauty queen and social media star who attracted 2.7 million followers to her Instagram account. As Fares’ following grew, so too did the risk to her safety.
Her posts, where she refused to cover her hair, flaunted tattoos and dressed in western-style fashion bucked the trend of conservative Iraq.
“I wear what I like, and not what the people think is right,” she says in a YouTube video.
“No one else can tell me what to do, what to eat, what to drink, where to go, or ask me where I’ve come from, or where I’m going.”
However, the story of how she became one of her country’s top social media figures is not one about breaking rules for notoriety and fame. For Fares, modelling and social media was an escape from a lifestyle in Baghdad she had been forced into following an arranged marriage at the age of 17.
“My husband was violent and I was abused,” she said. “One day my family saw him hitting me. They rescued me and brought me home.
“I discovered I was pregnant. I was going to have a baby.
“Once the baby was born, I felt the love of motherhood. I really had a baby, and then he came back into my life. He sent armed men to my house. He sent a group of men to take my baby by force. After they took him, and all that had happened to me, I decided overnight, ‘that’s it, I’m leaving the lives of everyone I know’.”
From the relative safety of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Fares amassed her huge social media profile with videos. She shared make up tutorials, sang to the camera while driving and uploaded vision from fashion shoots that pushed the boundaries in Iraq. She also shared stories about her abusive ex-husband.
A history of violence
The deaths of the women in Iraq drew international coverage, but according to Benjamin Isakhan, Associate Professor of Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University, they point to larger problems that go back to the Iraq War.
“This is not a new phenomenon at all. It’s been on and off since 2003,” Isakhan tells Dateline.
“There was the huge and problematic US-led intervention in 2003 – which Australia was one of the key participants. Everything went terribly wrong which is very well-documented now. More or less from day one after the Ba’athist state felt.
“One of the key things that happened was the massive political [power] vacuum that followed the fall of the Baathist state. Into that vacuum came a number of sectarian actions.”
Conflict continued in and around the country since the US-led Iraq war in the mid-2000s. In 2012 there was a widely-reported spate of grisly murders where Human Rights Watch reported: “The campaign’s victims appear to represent a cross-section of people seen locally as non-conformists. They include people suspected of homosexual conduct, but also people with distinctive hairstyles, clothes, or musical taste.”
The murders became known as the emo killings, with reports blaming the attacks on Shi’ite militias.
In 2014, the country fell into a civil war that was coupled with the rise of the ultra-conservative and violent Islamic State movement. Conflict in neighbouring Syria further destabilised the region.
“In the centre of all that you’ve seen a real loss of Iraqi national identity. That has really more or less collapsed in many quarters and (there has been) the rise of this patchwork of different identity groups,” Isakhan added.
“You’ve seen violence become a key way of getting rid of things you don’t like. You’ve also seen the erosion of what you might call secular and liberal values.
“Homosexuality, that’s a big issue. Emos, or anyone who wants to be different, alternative kind of kids and of course women. Women by and large across the country have suffered immeasurably in all kinds of ways.”
Questions still unanswered
In October, Iraq’s Interior Minister at the time, Qasem al-Araji, said Fares “was killed by extremist groups, which are known to us. Efforts are being made to arrest them and expose them to the Iraqi people and get the just punishment.”
Months on, Fares’s death remains unresolved.
“One of the things that happens invariably in these situations – where a high-profile person is attacked in this manner, the whole world takes notice for a day,” Isakhan adds. “When ordinary women are persecuted and oppressed, treated terribly in all kinds of ways in a day to day level, almost no one knows about it. That’s a recurring phenomenon and a real problem.”
At the time of Fares’s death, Edwar said the lack of law in the country allowed opportunist attacks like these to silence threats to a conservative society.
“I say this because of the absence or the weakness of the state security apparatus and the justice system,” she says. “You can see impunity on the crimes is very now common in the country.”