December 14, 2018

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A Social Media Star Is Shot Dead in Baghdad. Iraqis Fear a Trend.

A Social Media Star Is Shot Dead in Baghdad. Iraqis Fear a Trend.
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Tara Fares was a model and a social media star whose carefully crafted lifestyle and fashion photos drew in more than 2.7 million followers on Instagram.

On Thursday, she was shot dead at 22 in broad daylight in Baghdad, the latest woman killed in a series of attacks that government officials are investigating as possibly linked.

Ms. Fares, a former beauty queen who had just been voted one of Iraq’s most followed social media stars, was shot three times while at the wheel of her white convertible in the upscale Camp Sarah neighborhood in the center of the Iraqi capital.

“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,” said Omar Moner, a Baghdad-based photographer and friend. “But here in Iraq, there is no acceptance of the freedoms of others.”

Some say the recent deaths in Iraq of at least four prominent young women, including Ms. Fares — all of whom were seen as being outspoken or bucking the norms of a conservative society — is a worrying signal of a possibly coordinated campaign to silence them. Others believe the killing of Ms. Fares and the others may just have been random acts of violence in a country where safety is scarce after years of war.

On Friday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq ordered the country’s Interior Ministry and its intelligence service to investigate the killing. He also said in a statement that officials would explore possible links between Ms. Fares’s killing and other recent murders and kidnappings in Baghdad and Basra, a city in southern Iraq.

Mr. Abadi said the killings “give the impression that there is a plan behind these crimes.”

This past week, a women’s rights activist, Suad al-Ali, was killed in Basra, gunned down on the way to her car.

Nibras al-Maamouri, the head of the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum, said the targeting of well-known women in Iraq had “greatly increased.”

“This is not something new, but to reach to the level of direct killing in front of people is dangerous,” Dr. Maamouri said. “What happened to Tara Fares was abhorrent.”

Dr. Maamouri said she believed Ms. Fares’s killing may be linked to the deaths of Rasha al-Hassan and Rafif al-Yasiri, two beauticians who died in mysterious circumstances in Baghdad one week apart in August. Ms. Fares traveled in the same social circles as both women.

Influential women are being targeted to “create chaos,” Dr. Maamouri said.

Mohammad Nasir al-Karbouli, a member of Parliament, said attacks like the one on Ms. Fares were intended to send a message.

“The killings of women in the daytime are messages to confuse the security situation in Baghdad, to weaken the trust of the citizens,” Mr. Karbouli said.

Ms. Fares, who was originally from Baghdad, left the city three years ago to live in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, because she felt it was safer, friends said. Recently, she had begun to spend more time in Baghdad again.

Her popular social media posts offer a glimpse into her life.

In photos on her Instagram account, she pouts and poses for the camera, decked out in wigs, elaborate makeup and close-fitting dresses, her arms covered with a smattering of tattoos.

Her YouTube videos, which have garnered hundreds of thousands of views, show her singing along to pop songs, doing makeup tutorials, unwrapping gifts from fans and reviewing restaurants in Erbil.

While the videos attracted dozens of comments from supportive fans, they also drew vitriolic messages that mocked or even threatened her.

“She was living a very Western lifestyle — she dressed the way she wanted to,” said Daryna Sarhan, who founded a lifestyle magazine in Erbil, and has long followed Ms. Fares on Instagram.

“She basically did everything the conservatives go against,” Ms. Sarhan added. “She was just a normal Instagram model, but that isn’t considered normal in our society.”

Ms. Sarhan said she was outraged to see comments left on social media by people trying to justify Ms. Fares’s death because of her lifestyle.

“I feel like it was a message being sent: ‘Don’t be like Tara or you will end up like Tara,’” she said.

Even after her death, Ms. Fares was not immune to criticism, with one journalist for the Iraqi Media Network labeling her a “whore” and other comments posted on social media saying she deserved it for living a “trivial and empty life.”

While she was alive, Ms. Fares took the criticism in stride, according to those who knew her.

Mr. Moner, the photographer, said Ms. Fares was at his studio the day before her death. He described her as “funny” and recently shared several photos of a fashion shoot with her on his Instagram account. He said that Ms. Fares often received threats, “but she didn’t think it was real.”

Her killing, Mr. Moner said, has created a climate of fear, with many of her friends telling him they are worried they could become targets.

Mukdad Abu Athab, the head of the mosque where Ms. Fares’s funeral service was held on Friday, said she was committed to her family and had big plans for her future.

“Her family told me that she was there to buy a house for them,” he said. “But unfortunately they killed her.”

Falih Hassan contributed reporting.





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