Iraqi influencers are risking their lives to fight for women’s rights

The role of the social media influencer is becoming more and more prevalent in Western society. Where before the style tips of a magazine, a friend or a mannequin might have sufficed, young people now look to Instagram girls and YouTube vloggers in search of fashion, beauty and life advice. But with this trend growing in Middle Eastern countries as well, it’s not just the superficial that concerns influencers in Iraq, whose seemingly harmless posts about red lipstick or ripped jeans could be enough to earn them a death threat. 

Sadly, this danger was a reality for model and social media influencer Tara Fares. Born in Baghdad, she had a difficult upbringing under the strict orders of her parents, who forced her to marry a much older man when she was only 16. Fares later accused him of physically abusing her. Though she gave birth to a son at 17, her ex-husband had armed men take her child away from her.

It was then that Fares began sharing her story online. She posted videos in which she spoke out against forced marriages and domestic abuse, and gained 2.7 million followers on Instagram. Rejecting the expectations of women in her country, she veered towards a more Western image, and was voted Baghdad’s beauty queen in 2015 and runner-up in the Miss Iraq competition. She even showed herself smoking, swearing and getting tattoos, making controversial statements about her freedom of expression. 

Her outfit choices were outrageously, unlawfully defiant, especially according to Iraqi standards of dress: she displayed her black lingerie, bras and nude bodysuits with confidence. Stating ‘this is my choice, this is my life’, she denounced the passive role of women when she said in a TV interview: ‘I wear what I like, not what the people think is right’. 

Despite her many fans and followers, Fares had also been threatened frequently during her rise to influencer status. On the 27 September 2018, at 22 years old, Tara Fares was shot through her car window by an unknown motorcyclist as a result of her provocative image, which challenged the conservative attitudes held towards women. Her murder is one of a string of deaths in which Iraqi activists and influencers have died in mysterious circumstances. The question remains: how long will it be before women in the Middle East can speak their minds without fearing the consequences?

The immense pressure of being an influencer seems to affect social media stars no matter where their audience is. With users ‘liking’ a massive 4.2 billion posts a day on Instagram, many influencers struggle to disconnect from their screens and must interact with viewers at all times, constantly publishing content in a bid to remain relevant. Such career moves as brand endorsements and product placements have landed numerous beauty gurus in the middle of viral scandals, and rumours spread rapidly on a platform where everything can change in an instant. 

Though Western society has its own issues with social media, Iraqi influencers like Tara Fares face a much scarier battle. 63 million people in the Middle East and North Africa are on Instagram: that’s 10 per cent of the platform’s total users. And yet these female activists have their freedom of speech stifled as they cannot express themselves without receiving hateful messages. 

A year on from Tara Fares’ death, there are still many strong women fighting for their rights though the odds are stacked against them. Iranian-American Hoda Katebi, sustainable fashion blogger and activist, gained popularity when a US TV host told her she ‘doesn’t sound like an American’ and she answered: ‘that’s because I’ve read’. She used her social media following to launch the ‘radical’ international online book club #BecauseWeveRead, which promotes education for young women worldwide. 

Self-made Iraqi entrepreneur Huda Kattan started her career posting how-to tutorials on her blog. She is now worth $550 million thanks to her global business Huda Beauty, whose products Tara Fares was even seen using in her makeup videos. It is thanks to social media and Kattan’s 32.5 million Instagram followers that she was able to inspire girls in Middle Eastern countries to express themselves. 

Tara Fares wished for a society in which young women like herself would be allowed to have a voice without experiencing the unjust pain and abuse that she suffered. In her own words: ‘I am a girl, I have ambitions, goals and dreams that I want to realise, that I want to come true.’ Despite the tragedy of her death, we can be hopeful that there are many women fighting to ensure that the future Tara painted is one day realised. 

Image: entertainmentexperience.nl via fr.Wikipedia

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