Deaths of Instagram model, other women shock Iraq

BAGHDAD: She was a 22-year-old former beauty queen, fashion model and social media star, whose daring outfits revealed tattoos on her arms and shoulder.

Tara Fares won fame and 2.8 million Instagram followers in conservative, Muslim-majority Iraq with outspoken opinions on personal freedom, such as: “I’m not doing anything in the dark like many others; everything I do is in the broad daylight.”

It was also the way she died.

Last week, she was shot and killed at the wheel of her white Porsche on a busy Baghdad street during the day, apparently by a man who leaned in briefly and opened fire before speeding away on a motorcycle with an accomplice. The killing, caught on security camera video, followed the slaying of a female activist in the southern city of Basra and the mysterious deaths of two well-known beauty experts.

The violence has shocked Iraq, raising fears of a return to the kind of attacks on prominent figures that plagued the country at the height of its sectarian strife.

“These harrowing crimes are worrying us,” said Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar. 

“There are groups that want to terrify society through the killing of popular women and activists … and to tell other women to abandon their work and stay at home.”

It is not clear whether the deaths of the women are connected, and reports that they knew each other could not be confirmed.

Fares, with an Iraqi father and a Lebanese mother, first became famous in 2015 when she won an unofficial Baghdad beauty pageant organized by a social club. A YouTube channel drew more than 120,000 followers in addition to those on Instagram, where she shared makeup tips.

She gave details of a brief marriage at 16 to an abusive husband who posted intimate photos of her on social media and took away their now three-year-old son. Fares said the experience taught her “strength … and how not to let anyone control me in anything.”

While many young Iraqis shared her videos and pictures, others criticized her lifestyle as racy and un-Islamic. She lived in Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region with her family, visiting Baghdad from time to time. 

Hours after she was gunned down on Sept. 27, a video on social media showed her body being carried away by a group of young people, with her face and white shirt stained with blood. She was buried in Najaf, her grave decorated with a black-and-white photo of her, along with red plastic flowers.

In August, Dr. Rafeef Al-Yassiri, a plastic surgeon labeled “Iraq’s Barbie,” died under mysterious circumstances. Authorities initially called it a drug overdose but have not offered an update in over a month, leading to rumors she might have been poisoned.

A week after her death, Rasha Al-Hassan, the owner of a well-known beauty center in Baghdad, was found dead in her home. Authorities initially said she suffered a heart attack.

On Sept. 25, a gunman killed Soad Al-Ali, a prominent activist in the southern city of Basra. Al-Ali had organized protests demanding better services and jobs and decried the growing influence of Iran-backed Shiite militias in the area. Police said the killing was “purely personal” and had nothing to do with the protests.

Last weekend, another former beauty queen, Shaimaa Qassim, posted a video on Instagram in which she tearfully said she had received threats through social media.

Prime Minister Haider Abadi has ordered an investigation into what he called “well-planned kidnappings and killings.” He said organized groups are “carrying out a plan to destabilize the security situation under the pretext of fighting perversion.”

Security agencies have not yet commented on the investigation into Fares’ death and no group has claimed responsibility.

Iraq once boasted a liberal society and progressive laws for women and the family, going back to the 1950s. Those gains were eroded after the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein and led to the emergence of powerful religious parties and a rise in extremism.

Posters on some streets, particularly near shrines, exhort women to cover their hair and wear an abaya — a long, black cloak that covers the body from shoulders to feet.

“After the killing of Tara Fares, I feel speechless,” columnist Mohammed Ghazi Al-Akhras wrote on his Facebook page. “We’ve reached the moment of total anarchy. They will kill everyone they don’t like… The state of death is taking shape.”

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