Why was Iraqi influencer Tara Fares executed in Baghdad?

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Cathy Otten
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A fan of contouring, tattoos, Instagram and sushi, Tara Fares had everything to live for. Then 10 weeks ago, the 22-year-old was executed while driving through Bagdad. Why? 

Tara Fares dances in the passenger seat of her new car. It’s the early hours of the morning and she’s brimming with joy as her friend test drives the white Porsche, paid for by an admirer, around the deserted ring road in the city of Erbil, in the Kurdish north of Iraq, five hours’ drive north from Baghdad. Fares laughs outside a nightclub one evening this summer, in what would be the last summer of her life. “I’m too short for this Snap, you need to change the angle,” she jokes with her friend, who’s filming the scene. Back in Baghdad, Fares is on her way to a photo shoot, dressed in denim shorts with long braids swinging. These memories are how her friends prefer to remember her.

Fares was a 22-year-old Iraqi model and influencer, an internet sensation with 2.6 million followers on Instagram. She looked as Instagram stars do all over the world: perfect make-up, tattoos, with shopping bags and sushi rolls. She was born in Baghdad in 1996; on 27 September this year, she was shot dead in the same city while visiting a friend. CCTV footage from the day of her death shows a gunman firing at her as she drove her Porsche through an alleyway in central Baghdad. The killer fled the scene on the back of a motorbike. It was late afternoon and she was on her way to the Camp Sarah neighbourhood, a semi-industrial area filled with car workshops. The investigation is ongoing, but, among her friends and fans, rumours swirl about her murder. Why her? Why now?

Tara Fares was a huge Instagram star, with more than 2.6 million followers

A turbulent early life

Fares was born in Baghdad’s Ghadeer neighbourhood to a Christian family who converted to Shia Islam when she was six years old. A year later, in 2003, came the violent dismantling of the country, led by the United States, which empowered militant groups and fractured society along sectarian lines. Fares, who grew up during war, had three brothers and two sisters, and was particularly close to her youngest brother. At 16, her father married her off to a much older man. 

He “used to hit her and treat her like almost a dog,” her best friend tells Stylist. (Fares’ friend prefers to remain anonymous after receiving death threats. “You have the indignity to throw a funeral for this whore and now it is your turn to be killed,” read one message). Fares told a TV interviewer for al-Sumaria TV earlier this year: “Before I got married, I was going to school and taking my final exams. I heard my dad telling my mother, ‘Pray to God that your daughter will not pass the 11th grade! I want her to stay home so she can get married.’”

Her family decided to bring her home when they saw the marks on her face. By now she was pregnant and unable to take any more abuse. Her son, Amir, was six months old when her ex-husband came with “an official armed group” to take her son away, according to the interview. Fares explained her ex-husband had connections with militiamen and powerful tribal members. Scared, her family agreed to give him her son. “They took my son away from me when I was a kid and couldn’t do anything about it, especially against armed people teaming up with my ex,” she said. She never saw him again.

But Fares’ life carried on. She started competing on the beauty pageant circuit and won the Miss Baghdad contest in 2014 at the age of 18. A year later she was runner-up for the Miss Iraq prize. Her ex-husband published their wedding photos, presumably to shame and control her. In the photo, a diamond tiara sits above her dark, wavy hair. Her young face is round and adorned with dark eyeshadow and lipstick; her smile is angelic.

Speaking out

Fares’ fame grew. In 2016 she began using Instagram and quickly built up a large following. She recorded videos of her daily life and spoke out about forced marriages, domestic violence and the expectation of female passivity and servility. “All Iraqi men want a woman to serve them, wash their clothes, devote themselves to them, but they do not ask you to have feelings. Which is tantamount to asking you not to be human,” she said in a video posted the same year.

Fares dressed how she wanted in tight jeans and figure-hugging tops. She painted her lips, experimented with hair colours and styles, got tattoos and travelled where and how she pleased. She wasn’t the only Iraqi woman to make such choices, but she was in a minority. As well as expressions of love, she received regular threats, which she brushed off. She posted videos of herself posing or relaxing at home, eating in restaurants and shopping for clothes. During the day she went to the cinema, smoked water pipes, styled her hair or played on a games console. Her followers increased and she began working as a model for clothes and cosmetic brands, which she would then advertise on her blogs and networks. She dreamed of starting her own cosmetics and clothing brand.

But there were many different public Taras. The divorcee. The young mother. The abuse survivor. The brave, outspoken woman. The enchanting pin-up with the dark past. The internet star. The hate figure. Even though her Instagram and Snapchat videos were followed by millions of Iraqis, very few people knew the real Fares: her dark imagination, the pictures she painted of women with smeared faces, her fear of being alone and of the dark – she avoided being alone at night by sleeping beside her best friend, or her friend’s mother – or how her fame made her wary of trusting people. 

“All the time in the comments she was getting threats on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram,” her best friend tells me. “We told her not to go to Baghdad but she would ignore the threats and still go, saying, ‘I don’t have any enemies because I didn’t hurt anyone.’” Bubbly and effervescent, Fares was positive to the point of being foolhardy, friends say.

When the war with ISIS began in 2014, Fares worked to keep her friends’ spirits up despite the darkness. “She brought an energy that no one else could bring. I loved her presence and loved having her around,” says Jay Saygh, 33, an event organiser and bar owner in Erbil. A photographer, who prefers to go unnamed, remembers Fares coming to his Baghdad studio wearing revealing clothing. “I was shocked and afraid. I said, ‘Cover up and don’t walk to my studio like that, you should get a taxi.’ This is the mentality of the people here.” He remembers her as a down-to-earth girl, without the pretensions common in the fashion world.

A woman visits Fares’ grave in the holy city of Najaf

High-profile deaths

Tara’s death was an execution. She was the most prominent Iraqi woman to die this year, but worryingly not the only one. The high-profile women’s rights activist Suad al-Ali was killed in Basra, southern Iraq, a week before Fares was shot. Plastic surgeon Dr Rafif al-Yasiri and her friend, beauty salon director Rasha al-Hassan, both died in mysterious circumstances in Baghdad this August. Dr Al-Yasiri’s brother told me the family were still waiting for the resultsof a medical report into her death. Fear spread through Baghdad, through the other women who chose to live their lives in ways frowned upon by their more conservative countrymen.

The reclamation of parts of Iraq from ISIS has meant that Iraqis returned to looking at the weakness and corruption of the Iraqi state. In Basra this summer, protesters burned down local government and political party offices in reaction to poor living standards, lack of clean water, jobs and basic services. Just two days before Fares’ death, security forces that had been battling ISIS were deployed in Basra. Hundreds were arrested and more than a dozen killed, including Suad al-Ali, who was shot by gunmen as she stood beside her car with her husband. Lawyers, medical workers and journalists connected to the protest movement have also been targeted.

“We don’t know when we will be killed,” a woman from Basra tells me. She took part in the protests and then received death threats via fake social media pages. “We just want to change our city because the dirty, salty water killed everything living. We want to call attention to [the lack of] health, electricity and job opportunities.” She says she now only leaves the house when necessary and has stopped going to work.

It’s not possible to connect these deaths outright or pinpoint the killers, but the murders came at a moment of political upheaval in Iraq. The new government was yet to form. The country also has a vast array of militia groups. These paramilitary organisations played a key role in eventually defeating ISIS. A bloc aligned to some of the most hardline militia groups won the second-highest number of seats at the last elections in May. But these militias have strong links with Iran, are highly ideologically conservative and are accused of sectarian killings and human rights abuses. 

Human rights activist Suad Al-Ali was killed in Basra in September

Curtailing freedom

The night before she died, Fares was as happy as usual. She phoned two friends and told them that she’d finished her advertising job and was looking forward to flying to Malaysia the next day on holiday. Her friend Jay was at home when he heard the shocking news. “I received a phone call from another famous blogger,” he explains. “I picked up the phone and she was gasping for breath, crying her eyes out. She said, ‘Tara is dead. They shot Tara’, and I broke down in tears and lost it. It’s like a dream. I still find it difficult to believe that Tara is not here.”

When the photographer found out she’d been killed, he “was in shock. I was speechless.” He didn’t leave his house for a month. Bloggers and influencers in Baghdad went underground or fled the country. Visitors to the photographer’s social media accounts told him to delete the pictures he’d posted of Fares because they were ‘forbidden’. “I didn’t delete them because then I’d be accepting the mindset of the people who killed her.”

The public reaction was swift and heartfelt. Young Iraqis mourned her while others condemned her for her dress sense, her sexual image and her freedom, even in death. A government official told a female, human rights worker in Baghdad that Fares had brought it on herself.

“It is intimidating to be a free-minded and spirited young woman right now because at every moment on the street someone may be watching you,” says Fatima, 26, a journalist living in Baghdad. “You can’t be yourself, go out at 8 or 9pm or be far from home. We have only one life so I don’t want to waste it feeling scared or intimidated. I want to live life in a free manner but there are so many obstacles and walls to living a free life. It bugs me and makes me think, should I leave?”

Fatima used to go to cafes on Thursday and Friday nights (Iraqi weekend nights) with her friends but after the killings she noticed the streets were emptier than usual. “Terrorism isn’t just ISIS. They are part of it but they are not the only terrorists. There are terrorists working as leaders in our government and there are terrorists working undercover in militias, so ISIS isn’t the only terrorist [group] in Iraq.”

Growing violence

Fares’ choice to say no to abuse and live in the way she desired was a political act. The suffering of women under ISIS is well documented, but growing nationalism after the defeat of ISIS empowered the religiously conservative militias who fought against them. Further violence against women in Iraq was exacerbated by the war and economic turmoil. Cities such as Erbil and Baghdad are comparatively liberal and women can, for the most part, travel, study, work and socialise in public areas, but so-called honour killings and threats against gay men remain common. Those who challenge traditional gender roles are met with violence and intimidation.

“She defined in her own terms the way she wanted to live in the public space; the image she wanted to have,” says human rights lawyer Sherizaan Minwalla, who has worked extensively across Iraq. “She was making her own choices about the way she lived and travelled. Why shouldn’t she go to Baghdad? Violence serves to restrict women’s public role in society. Who wouldn’t be terrified? When women are killed, others will think twice before taking part in a public demonstration, or stepping outside of traditional roles.” 

Fans have been visiting Fares’ grave to pay tribute

“The message the violence sends is that women don’t get to be political unless it’s on [society’s] terms. We don’t always analyse violence against women in political terms, but standing up to traditional power structures and patriarchal norms is inherently political, because it challenges the status quo. It is political that Fares got up and said no to this and then set out on her own path.”

Laws exist to protect Iraqi women, but a corrupt judiciary foils many attempts to bring killers or abusers to justice. Major Saad Maan, spokesman of the Ministry of Interior, said a criminal investigation into Tara Fares’ murder is ongoing and the deaths of Dr Rafif al-Yassiri and Rasha al-Hassan are not being treated as criminal cases. Stylist queried the ministry about the killing of Suad al-Ali and the killings and kidnappings of three other female civil society workers in Basra and Baghdad this autumn. Major Maan said they were all criminal cases in which the judiciary would have the final word. Fares is buried in Najaf, a spiritual centre for Shia Muslims. 

When I arrived in the country in October to speak to those who knew her well, her mother had already been to clear out her Erbil flat. Some belongings had been sold. Others, like her personalised Arsenal football shirt, her paintings and her diaries, had been distributed among her friends. There was a shrine to Fares in the corner of her best friend’s living room, including a pink car licence plate, paintings she’d done, photo collages, candles, fairy lights, portraits of Fares and love hearts. 

“I don’t think she’s gone,” says her best friend. “I think she’s still here. At night I talk to her paintings like she’s here. I say, ‘Yalla [come on now] that’s enough, come back, you’re not dead, stop playing.’”

In one diary entry, Fares wrote that she’d forgiven her family. “It is what faith and God meant for me,” she wrote. In her last entry this January, Fares pondered moving to Baghdad, but feared she might lose the life she’d built in Erbil. She fretted about having to “get used to a new routine and new people”. One of her final lines read, “God is good and whatever he wrote down for me will surely work out.” 

For many other Iraqi women, it remains to be seen how their stories will unfold. 

With Ash On Their Faces: Yezidi Women And The Islamic State by Cathy Otten (£19.50, OR Books) is out now

Images: Getty, Rex Features


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