Zainab Salbi has labelled the recent suspected organised killing of influential Iraqi women as ‘the modern witch-hunt’. As the Iraqi leader of Women for Women International, her concern and insight on the phenomenon has led her to conclude that ‘Woman are being hit left right and centre’.
Salbi may have a point. She reflects the growing fears of the region’s most progressive and enterprising women, following the sudden deaths of Tara al-Fares, Su’ad al-Ali, Rasha al-Hassan and Rafif al-Yasiri.
The first instance of this trend took place in August 2018, with the death of plastic surgeon Dr Rafif al-Yasiri. Plastic surgery in Iraq, like much of the MENA region, is a thriving industry. The plastic surgeon was distinguished not only for her charitable activities, but particularly for her advocacy of female empowerment. Her personal and professional endeavours earned her the sobriquet ‘Barbie of Iraq’, as al-Yasiri encouraged women to assert their autonomy through taking charge of their appearance. There is speculation as to whether al-Yasiri’s non-conformist standpoint led to her ‘official’ death by drug overdose, as stated in Iraqi post-mortem reports.
Questions started to be raised just one week later, when the founder of Baghdad’s Viola Beauty Centre was discovered dead in her home. The Iraqi Interior Ministry released a brief statement maintaining that Rasha al-Hassan had passed away as a direct result of the medications she was taking, without further comment.
The following month saw the more conspicuous murder of Su’ad al-Ali outside a Basra supermarket in the Abbasiya district. The masked gunmen shot dead the mother of four, injuring her husband in the process. As the president of Iraq-based NGO Al-Weed Al-Alaiami for Human Rights, al-Ali was a front runner in the regular - and at times violent - demonstrations occurring lately in the Basra streets. In addition to championing economic and children’s rights, al-Ali protested government corruption and brutality, rising unemployment rates, poor infrastructure and defective government services which have hospitalised thousands of people via water contamination.
Tara al-Fares attained a similarly high profile in the public eye owing to her social media presence. Her daylight assassination occurred during her brief return to Baghdad, at the wheel of her white Porsche convertible, as confirmed by recording surveillance cameras. Those who desired her demise were visibly indiscreet, believing themselves to be above institutional justice.
Many have linked al-Fares’ refusal to bow to socially conservative norms with her premature death. Along with publishing updates about her life as a divorced single mother, she shared striking fashion shoots and eccentric hairstyles with her 2.7 million Instagram followers. Popular on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the model received a torrent of online abuse from traditionalists for her perceived immodesty. A state media employee was fired after commenting ‘whore’ on al-Fares’ social media posts. Ultimately, this censorship necessitated her move to the more secular Iraqi Kurdistan.
Haider al-Abadi supports the idea that ‘there is a plan formulated by organised parties to undermine security under the pretext of fighting against depravity’. The Iraqi Prime Minister has now ordered an intelligence investigation to track down the attackers.
Hanae Edwar believes that these orchestrated attacks on Iraqi female public figures are ‘threatening messages’ aimed not only at activists at the forefront of changing the status quo, but also at Iraqi society as a whole should it choose to challenge societal norms and expectations.
After releasing a video likening the slaughter of Iraqi women to ‘chickens’, Miss Iraq 2015 is receiving death threats. Shimma Qasim’s poignant video, made available to her to her 2.9 million Instagram followers, also labelled al-Fares a ‘martyr’.
At the moment, tension in the region is high. There is a major threat to female voices who question more orthodox elements of Iraqi society. The popular reception of these female voices further reflects the views of a youth-heavy, evolving Iraqi society which is seeking to question conservative views and break free of the ties of political Islam.
We hope that these advocates who aim to challenge conservative elements of Iraqi society can have both a platform to fight their cause and a guarantee of safety. We look forward to hearing from Haider al-Abadi when more evidence is brought forward concerning the link between the four assassinations. Hopefully before more transpire.
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