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Thu Oct 11, 2018, 01:40 PM

What is behind the plight of Iraqi women?

What is behind the plight of Iraqi women?

A series of murders sparked fears of a coordinated campaign to silence successful and outspoken women in Iraq.

Fans of slain former beauty queen, fashion model and social media star Tara Fares leave flowers and candles at her gravesite, in Najaf, Iraq October 1, 2018 [Anmar Khalil/AP]
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Women are bearing the brunt of Iraq's disastrous modern history. Despite early advances in women's rights, including the fact that Iraq was the first country in the Arab world to have a woman serve as cabinet minister back in 1959, and that Iraqi women have been allowed to train as doctors for almost 100 years, society has taken a number of steps backwards in gender equality and women's rights in recent decades. Today, many Iraqi women try to meet overwhelming work and family obligations with little assistance from men. Some are forced to care for their children, parents and siblings all by themselves, as men in their lives continue to fight and die on ever-shifting military fronts. To make matters worse, most extreme forms of gender-based violence are also prevalent in Iraq. In recent years, religious militias massacred dozens of sex workers and tortured journalists in Baghdad. Meanwhile, ISIL enslaved thousands of Yazidi women, many of whom are still missing today.

In the last couple of months, another worrying trend has emerged. Between August and September, four high-profile women have been assassinated. They lived in different cities and had different occupations. They only had two common traits: They were all women and they were all successful in their respective fields. Tara Fares, one of Iraq's most prominent social media stars, was assassinated in broad daylight on September 28; Suad al-Ali, a human rights activist (to whom I do not have the honour of being related), was killed on September 25; Rasha al-Hassan, a plastic surgeon and public figure, was killed on August 23; and Rafeef al-Yassiri, also a plastic surgeon with her own clinic, died under mysterious circumstances on August 16. Authorities initially called al-Yassiri's death "a drug overdose", but have not offered an update, leading to rumours that she might have been poisoned. On October 7, two more women, one an owner of a beauty parlour and the other an activist, were killed in Basra. In all of these cases, the assassins appeared to be highly trained, leading security forces to believe that these were not random attacks. A number of other high-profile It is still unclear whether these killings were part of a single conspiracy, but together they sent Iraqi women an undeniable message: "You should not seek to break out of society's traditional limitations."

To this day, many Iraqi men suffer from fragile masculinity and view women's professional success as a threat. This may translate into physical threats and attacks in certain cases. The fact that Iraq is awash in weapons as well as regular and irregular armed groups adds to the volatility of the situation. This makes some Iraqi women reluctant to pursue their professional ambitions. This is why it is reasonable to assume that the latest wave of femicides will add to these worries and make some women reconsider their career aspirations.

Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism, as the killings provoked a promising social response. Iraqi society has widely condemned the murders and rounded on the few commentators who tried to brush them off. Haider Zaweer, a TV presenter, tweeted that people should stop worrying about Ms Fares, describing her as a "prostitute who was killed" (implying first that she deserved to be murdered and second that it was not worth investigating). The response was fast and furious, especially on social media. His remarks were condemned by thousands and eventually, his employer was forced to pull him off the air. High profile figures, including some of the country's most popular social media personalities, have stated that any attempt to justify the murders is tantamount to complicity.

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