Tara Fares: Iraqi social media star who attacked those who ‘chop off heads to prove there is a God’

She joins a number of high-profile women whose very lives appear to be offensive to the sensibilities of a zealous male chauvinist society

Lily Fletcher
Thursday 01 November 2018 11:26
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Tara Fares death: Iraqi model and Instagram star shot dead in Baghdad

A day before her murder at the age of 22, Tara Fares had been voted one of Iraq’s most followed social media stars.

The significance of the former beauty queen’s brief life can only be seen against the backdrop of a society where high-profile women are punished for failing to conform to stringent expectations for female behaviour as defined by zealots.

Fares was candid and outspoken, using her social media platform to reflect on personal freedoms. Both her aesthetic and fashion sense were daring such that many considered her scandalously lacking in modesty for a public figure.

On a September afternoon, a gunman on a motorcycle leaned inside her white Porsche convertible, in the Kam Sara neighbourhood of Baghdad, shot her three times and then sped away.

She is believed to have rejected the advances of a cleric (Tara Fares)

Her murder was the fourth in a spate of fatal attacks on women which many fear is set to continue.

Fares was born in the United Arab Emirates to an Iraqi Christian father and Lebanese Shiite mother. She was born a Christian, however in a television interview earlier this year she said that in 2002 her family had converted to Islam.

She rose to prominence in 2013 when she was voted Baghdad’s beauty queen and first runner-up as Miss Iraq. She later became a social media sensation with frequent selfies attracting nearly 3 million Instagram followers, as well as popular vlogs sharing make-up tips to a YouTube channel with more than 120,000 subscribers. She also has various active fan clubs reposting her photos on Instagram.

Fares was briefly married at the age of 16 to a man with whom she had a son, but they then divorced.

She broadcast to her large online following about the violence of her abusive ex-husband, who had posted intimate images of her on social media. He also took away their now three-year-old son – an impossible trauma Fares was forced to put a brave face on, saying it helped make her stronger.

Displaying her tattoos in posts led to criticism

She also posted about a fiance who had died after being attacked in Istanbul.

At the time of her murder, Fares was living with her family in the city of Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region. However, more recently she had reportedly been spending an increasing amount of time in Baghdad, as her career advanced and her fame amplified.

Fares had moved to comparatively liberal Kurdistan, which is considered safer for Christians, as a security measure. While she was adored and admired by many young Iraqis who liked and shared her videos and photos, Fares was also the target of a deluge of abuse on social media.

Although not an overtly political figure, she occasionally criticised religious, tribal and political leaders online. A video posted after her death implied that she was being coerced or propositioned, because she had complained about a Shiite cleric’s proposal of a siqeh – a clerically sanctioned “temporary marriage” used to legitimise casual sex.

In July she wrote: “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.”

The motives behind Fares’s murder are still unclear, but theories abound and speculation has mounted on social media that it was because she infuriated conservatives who considered her online behaviour to be provocative – posting risque photos and displaying her tattoos (which some deem unIslamic).

Posing in a car – she was killed driving a convertible Porsche (Tara Fares)

Her murder appears to be part of a worrying trend of violence against successful and outspoken women in Iraq. It came two days after 46-year-old female human rights activist Suad al-Ali was shot and killed in an outdoor market by masked gunman in the southern city of Basra. A month earlier, Rafeef al-Yaseri, 33, a plastic surgeon dubbed the “Barbie of Iraq” who organised national programmes specialising in medical affairs for women, was killed at her home in Baghdad.

A week later, another beauty expert Rasha al-Hassan, also in her thirties, and a mother of three, was found dead inside her home in unexplained circumstances. Authorities initially said she had died from a drug overdose but offered no further information, which provoked rumours that she might have been poisoned.

Four days after Fares’s murder, Shimaa Qasim ­– a former Iraqi beauty queen crowned Miss Iraq in 2015 – announced in a teary livestream video message that she had been sent a threatening text message stating that she “would be next”.

In the video Qasim calls Fares a martyr and says that famous women in Iraq are at risk of being “slaughtered like chickens”. According to Kurdish news agency Rudaw, Qasim refused to leave her house after Fares’s murder but later fled Iraq.

Before her murder, slain human rights activist Al-Ali had been involved in organising protests calling for a restoration of basic services, after power outages and a lack water resources had plagued the Shiite-dominated city of Basra in early September. These demonstrations reveal the fragility of an Iraq that is still recovering from its fight against Islamic State militants. Some have suggested that Al-Ali’s murder was a message to those who oppose Iraq’s powerful militias and ruling parties.

In the aftermath of Fares’s death, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for action against the violence against women which he said appeared to be “organised”. He ordered security officials to launch an immediate investigation, creating a special committee to bring the perpetrators to justice. He demanded results within two days, and just hours after this announcement police arrested a suspect. However, the investigation has not concluded.

Some accuse hardline religious factions of targeting and intimidating liberal women in a move to suppress an open-minded voice in a country trying recover from the dark, repressive days of the Sunni extremist group Isis.

In a video posted on the official Facebook page of Iraq’s interior minister, Qasim Al-Araji, on 8 October, he said that an extremist group, which he declined to name, were behind Fares’s murder and that security forces were trying to track down the killers to bring them to justice.

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claimed that Fares had received threats from Isis itself. Whereas, others have suggested that the perpetrators are members of powerful Shiite militias who, according to Le Monde’s Jean-Pierre Filiu, are “rampaging with impunity” in Baghdad. These are militias such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMS), aligned with Iran rather than Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and were mobilised to fight against Isis. As the threat of Isis has diminished, some suggest PMS’s latest cause is to menace those they perceive to be flouting their moral standards.

Fares suffered three bullet wounds. The brazenness of her murder – captured on CCTV cameras in broad daylight – shows how little her murderers fear retribution. A video was soon posted on social media that depicted a group of young people carrying her away with blood stains on her face and white clothing. Her body was taken to Shaikh Zayed hospital in Baghdad, and she was later buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

Tara Fares, Iraqi model and social media activist, born 10 January 1996, died 27 September 2018

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