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When influencing becomes deadly

Arab women like Tara Fares hustle for followers and brands like any other influencers — but they risk being killed for it

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Illustration by Mallory Heyer

Among one of Tara Fares’ final Instagram posts, which garnered tens of thousands of likes when it was uploaded back in June, is a photo of the Iraqi influencer leaning against her white Porsche convertible. “They don’t wanna see u win,” it says, with Fares posing into the wind, the shadow of her photographer visible in the “golden hour” light.

Save for the Iraqi license plate, the photo could easily have been taken in LA, where any number of young women pose in front of convertibles at sunset for Instagram on a given day. But Fares took that photo in Baghdad. She was murdered — shot three times — in the same white convertible, around sunset, three months later.

Internationally, Fares was added to the list of social media “influencers” who have been killed as a result of their online presence. The former Miss Iraq’s death came after two women, both beauty salon owners with prominent social media profiles, died under mysterious circumstances in their homes in Baghdad as well. The killings, which officials can’t confirm were in any way coordinated, sent a message to women in Iraq: if you’re provocative online — or more specifically, if you mimic online influencers in the West — expect a target on your back.

On its surface, Fares’ Instagram account has the hallmarks of an aesthetic that has spread across virtually all social media platforms. Heavy contour makeup, mirror selfies, and glamor shots of the former beauty queen doing everything from shopping to eating lunch or pouting while checking her phone — her profile is one of millions where women do many of the same things. Pages like hers have become mini-businesses — Fares’ wealth and popularity expanded significantly because of her 2.8 million followers. Reports say she was shot on a trip during which the social media star intended to buy her parents a home.

The killings sent a message to women in Iraq: if you mimic online influencers in the West, expect a target on your back

Though Fares’ makeup and outfits are instantly recognizable to anyone with a smartphone, her dress and looks aren’t the norm for young girls in her homeland, Iraq. Feminine makeup and sparkly dresses are often seen at Iraqi weddings or parties, but the largely conservative society pushes women to dress that way only at private events, rarely on the streets. Fares’ popular page brought her looks, often worn in private, to the public. Any Iraqi could pull up her page and see her tattooed arm and miniskirts.

Before her death, to avoid the conservatism of her hometown of Baghdad, Fares had moved to the relatively safer and more liberal Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Her ability to move more freely there allowed her to cultivate her mass following. Fares felt more confident in posting photos that reflected her style and personality, knowing her immediate surroundings posed less of a threat than volatile Baghdad. But she frequently returned to her hometown. Ultimately, it was on one of her trips home that Fares was killed.

Four days after Fares was murdered, Shimaa Qasim opened her DM’s on Instagram. Like Fares, she is a former Miss Iraq. Like Fares, she has millions of followers. Qasim is accustomed to hundreds of messages from fans, often creepy ones from men who pine over her photos.

One message she received that day wasn’t like the rest, though. Someone was threatening to kill her. Qasim went live on Instagram Stories, panicked after receiving a death threat just days after Fares’ killing. “Women who have risen to fame are being slaughtered like chickens,” she said, looking at her phone camera in between sobs. “Tara is a martyr.”

If Qasim was still in Baghdad, she’d be dead by now

For now, Qasim is safer than Fares was, due largely to the fact that she now lives in Jordan, Iraq’s neighbor to the west. One of several hundred thousand Iraqis living in Jordan — comprising close to 4 percent of the country’s population — Qasim works for a TV channel in the capital city of Amman, a position that keeps her out of harm’s way from neighboring Iraq. She declined to speak at length for this story, voicing concerns for her family’s safety back in Iraq. Even though she’s not in the country herself, she worries they could be targeted. Her manager at the station told The Verge that if Qasim was still in Baghdad, she’d be dead by now.

While the average American might take Amman, Erbil, and Baghdad for interchangeable cities, the post-Arab Spring Middle East is a complicated patchwork of political geography in which relative safety and mortal danger are often just a few miles apart. Sitting in the former, it can be hard to conceptualize that wars and intermittent conflict are a short drive or plane ride away. This is the context in which women like Fares and Qasim operate their accounts, their relative wealth and jet-set lifestyles broadcasting the illusion of a conflict-free life.

Fares’ and Qasim’s lives have hardly been as rosy as their photos suggest. Fares was seven years old when the US invaded Iraq; her hometown was pummeled by coalition bombs when she was a first-grader, and her young adulthood was plagued by violence and death. The aesthetic she cultivated on Instagram became an escapist alternate reality, to both her local followers and herself, one that erased the painful backdrop she grew up against.

“I feel sad because they kill any beauty that exists in Iraq.”

Tolerance for liberal behavior expanded immediately after the American invasion, says Baghdad-based journalist Taha Riyadh. It paved the way for models like Fares and Qasim to gain prominence. But in the years since, religious militias backed by the many players in the region, including restrictive regimes like the Saudis and Iranians, have also doubled down on an intolerance for anything that could be interpreted as Western behavior.

“When we travel, we see countries like Jordan or Turkey,” says Riyadh. “Young people want to live in a free society like them.” But cities like Baghdad, he says, are increasingly veering toward morally strictness. “Many people — artists, makeup artists, models — they’ve all escaped from Baghdad.”

“I feel sad and sorry for my people,” 23-year-old activist Ithar Abed told a local publication when Fares was murdered. “I feel sad because they kill any beauty that exists in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, just a short flight away, the United Arab Emirates has quickly become an ultra-liberal hub for influencers from around the world, but especially for Arab social media celebrities. Dubai was practically built to be an Instagram backdrop; its skyline and borderline-absurd sites — an indoor ski-slope, a tennis court atop the world’s tallest building, a man-made island shaped like a palm tree — make the city a Disney World of the kind of generic ostentatiousness that defines the influencer aesthetic. Arab influencers like Fares and Qasim flock to the city for short trips that double as photoshoots, allowing them to make content that mirrors their more affluent and liberal neighbors.

The readily available backdrops and billions in brand money sunk into the city allow for Dubai-based influencers to operate in a league of their own. Some of the city’s biggest influencers, almost all women, clock in net worths in the millions thanks to lucrative deals with luxury brands, posting branded content featuring products ranging from yogurt parfaits to private jets. If influencers represent a new model of advertising, where you don’t need to be a model to be the face of a product, Dubai presents seemingly endless opportunity.

“Any girls that break tradition here, they risk death.”

The UAE government, however, began regarding these burgeoning brand-influencer partnerships as unregulated, untaxed exchanges. In March, the country’s media regulatory group implemented measures to rein in paid partnerships on social media platforms, with mandatory licenses for influencers who don’t work under agencies. Now UAE influencers are required to pay upward of $4,000 to post paid content on platforms like Instagram.

“It makes it harder for people to do something that you could do for free in the past,” says Tala Samman, a fashion influencer and DJ based in Dubai. Samman, who travels both in the region and internationally for ad partnership content, says she didn’t approach her work seeking to be an influencer.

“I launched my first blog in the UAE, and naturally, starting up very early, I would dabble in every social media platform that would launch,” says Samman. “I’d continue using the ones that would lead back to traffic on the blog.” The model has worked well for her — Samman’s Instagram following comes in at a cool 121K, and she partners with major brands like Chevrolet as well as retail companies in Dubai.

But with the UAE influencer industry as saturated as it has become, more and more people are translating their massive online followings into careers and sponsorships. Samman, who paid the “influencer tax” and is now licensed to post her ad partnerships on social media, says she has mixed feelings about the restrictions. “I can only imagine this will make it a little more legit and filter out the people who started this for the wrong reasons,” she says. For Samman, the restriction on branded content came well after she began lucrative partnerships. But for up-and-coming influencers explicitly interested in branded content, the up-front fee could be enough to deter them from the industry entirely.

In Dubai, women who work as influencers like Samman are regulated by the government for tax reasons, but little else. Like most residents, Samman isn’t Emirati; she’s of Syrian descent, but has lived in the city for close to a decade. She doesn’t shy from posting outfits that would draw conservative backlash in neighboring countries, she says, in part because of the UAE’s relative openness. “I don’t think many people around the world realize the UAE is incredibly international,” she says.

Though Samman admits she enjoys pushing the boundaries in a cosmopolitan city like Dubai, “it’s still the Middle East.” “Out of respect to the country’s culture, there are things that you need to respect, and I do the same on social [media],” says Samman. Most obvious is a conspicuous lack of alcohol on her Instagram page. In photos from her frequent nightclub DJ appearances, or from restaurants and cafés around the world, she lacks the classic cocktail in hand. The subtle omission allows for her brand to be palatable in a region where multiple countries ban the sale of alcohol.

Her Instagram page, @myfashdiary, has all the hallmarks of a Dubai influencer: she goes four-wheeling in the desert at sunset, kisses dolphins at the Atlantis Resort on the aforementioned palm-shaped man-made island, and poses in branded clothing near Dubai’s most well-known buildings. “[Social media] has allowed me to build a community of people with like-minded interests, experience incredible moments, educate myself and travel the world,” she says. Samman, by all markers of success in the influencer world, is doing well.

Qasim, in nearby Iraq, has nearly 25 times the followers Samman does. But her following rarely translates into the lucrative partnerships Samman has managed to cultivate in Dubai, a testament to the unbalanced potential for influencers in the region. War-battered Iraq hasn’t, and cannot in its current state, cultivate the same kind of luxury influencer market as the UAE and other Gulf countries. Though Iraqi cities like Baghdad have turned the corner in rebuilding after nearly two decades of war, a wellspring of influencer-ready locations like trendy Pilates studios and picturesque shopping promenades they are not.

Qasim has nearly 25 times the followers, but her following rarely translates into lucrative partnerships

Since Fares’ assassination, Qasim hasn’t returned to Baghdad, where her entire family lives. Even in Jordan, though the country is known for its stability and lack of violence, she says she doesn’t feel entirely safe. Struggling to avoid Fares’ fate, she’s remaining in a self-imposed exile as a precaution.

These women are, of course, just the latest to face gender-based violence in Iraq. Though reliable statistics are few and far between, violence against women — particularly domestic abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual assault — is rampant in a country where basic law and order is rarely guaranteed. In 2007, 133 women were killed in the Iraqi city of Basra for veering from the strict moral codes enforced there at the time. Residents say graffiti seen around the city made the killers’ message clear: “Your makeup and decision to forego the headscarf will bring you death.”

Riyadh, the young journalist in Baghdad, says Tara Fares’ death, in this environment, wasn’t wholly unexpected. “Any girls that break tradition here, they risk death,” he says. The stories of women that suffer similar fates rarely receive any international media attention.

Fares’ following and status before her death precipitated the outpouring of grief and shock at her untimely departure — she didn’t look like the Iraqi women we see on the news, the ones we expect to be suffering from violence. She looked like Kim Kardashian, like the thousands of influencers in Dubai she undoubtedly saw posting their photos freely. As the influencer aesthetic spreads the world over, women like Fares who adopt it, however successfully, still risk paying for it with their lives.