On Oct. 9, the Iraqi author Sinan Antoon tweeted, “Killing
those who are other/different has become a ritual/hobby, practiced by
individuals for fun, after having been institutionalized by the state,
political parties and militias for years.” His tweet referred to reports that
an Iraqi teenager had been butchered on a Baghdad street by an assailant who
thought he looked gay. But Mr. Antoon could have been referring to any of the
young Iraqis who have tried to break free of the rigid social codes governing
both genders only to suffer vicious reprisals.
The most famous of these victims has been Tara Fares. When she was killed in September, Ms. Fares, who had 2.8 million followers on Instagram, was the sixth most popular person on Iraqi social media. At 22, she was a self-created celebrity who mixed sexy fashion shoots with video diaries in which she fired back at her conservative critics. Ms. Fares was shot dead in Baghdad’s Camp Sarah neighborhood while riding in her Porsche.
When I read about Ms. Fares’s murder, recognition hit me like a punch. Though I am 13 years her senior, when I was her age, I also worked as a scantily clad internet model. I also reinvented myself on social media, posting endless photos of myself, trying to build a following that would somehow translate into something more. Back then, qualified only for menial jobs, I also saw my looks as a fast-closing door to freedom and used them as best I could. But I am in the United States, and she was in Iraq. The stakes for Ms. Fares were far higher. Her courage was of a different magnitude from mine.
Ms. Fares was born in Baghdad into a Christian family that converted to Islam when she was 6. Her parents married her off at 16 to a man she described as traditional and violent. When her parents caught him beating her, they took her back into their home. She was 19 and soon discovered she was pregnant. After she gave birth, she said, her husband sent armed men to take their son. “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. It is tantamount to asking you not to be human,” Ms. Fares said later.
Perhaps before, perhaps after her divorce, she had started modeling. The first Miss Iraq beauty pageant took place in 1947; the winner was a Jewish girl, Renee Dangoor. The pageant closed shop in 1972, though unofficial pageants continued in less extravagant forms, until Miss Iraq officially restarted in 2015. Ms. Fares made her debut in an unofficial pageant in 2014 in a bare, over-lit room at the Baghdad Hunting Club, whose contestants were extraordinary only in their ordinariness. She was baby-faced and wide-eyed and won runner-up. In 2015, she was crowned Miss Baghdad at the Hunting Club.
Around this time, she began to post selfies on social media. “I never thought they’d become viral,” she later said on YouTube. “I felt powerful from all of these replies of love and hate. I started to feel that I was strong enough to choose whatever I wanted, to dress the way I saw as correct, because it is my choice and my life after all.” Ms. Fares left for Turkey in early 2015, determined to find success as a model.
The Instagram account that made her famous kicked off in May 2016. In her first post, she sports an Adidas baseball cap and a pout, and describes a nightmare about a car bombing in the caption. “I saw blood. I saw corpses … but the strangest thing I saw was my body, thrown onto the ground. #Follow_TaraFares.” The juxtaposition of hot girl and horror garnered her post 15,091 likes.
Ms. Fares’s likeness remains repeated in this internet hall of mirrors: swathed in a hotel robe, getting her hair done on Eid al-Fitr, playing video games, flaunting her intricate tattoos. She traveled across the region from Beirut to Doha to Amman, posting increasingly stylish and slick videos of her adventures.
In a self-produced mini-documentary, actors whisper her name as she trots into a hotel lobby. The legend reads “Glamour Queen.” She sports skimpy clothes, designer bags, blinged-out nails. She is her own woman, mimicking the aspirational lifestyle of the Westernized ultrarich.
Men harassed her online and on the street. Women, too, denounced her. When, on an Iraqi YouTube show, the host asked her about rumors she did sex work, she denied it, then mocked her accusers. In a video diary, she berated an unnamed cleric who offered her a “pleasure marriage” — a temporary union unique to Shia Islam. After rejecting his proposal, she declared: “Tara Fares has more honor than the members of Parliament and the Iraqi politicians. Because Tara doesn’t swear at people. Tara doesn’t speak in sectarian language. Tara doesn’t suck the blood of the Iraqi people.”
Ms. Fares was based in the city of Erbil but she traveled frequently to Baghdad. Her love for her hometown was evident. Four months before her murder, she tweeted, “I have always been proud of where I have come for me and others around me. I never feel shame” for being from “a city inhabited by war and destruction.”
The murder of Miss Baghdad is a big headline, and in death, Ms. Fares made the news around the globe. On Iraqi social media some praised her as a free woman, some mourned the killing of a harmless model, but to some others, she had earned death because of her immoral behavior. A few days before Ms. Fares’s killing, Suad al-Ali, a women’s rights activist, was shot to death in Basra. In August, Rafif al-Yasiri and Rasha al-Hassan, two beauticians and prominent figures on Iraqi social media, died in mysterious circumstances in Baghdad. Some Iraqis see connections between the deaths and fear that extremist militias were killing these outspoken and outgoing women.
The murders remain unsolved and questions remains around the mysterious deaths. On Oct. 16, The Baghdad Post claimed that the Iraqi Interior Ministry had ordered the prosecution of militia leaders in connection with the killings of Ms. Fares and another Iraqi internet star, a flamboyant actor named Karrar Noushi, stabbed to death in 2017.
“The militarization of the Iraqi streets with armed men at checkpoints and the proliferation of militias has created new mechanisms of social control,” the sociologist Zahra Ali wrote in the aftermath of Ms. Fares’s murder. Violent patriarchy may have killed Iraq’s Instagram queen, but in her brief, vivid life, she seized the internet’s possibilities for self-determination. In her death, she remained an irresistible icon.