A former Miss Iraq beauty queen has fled the country after receiving death threats, which followed a spate of killings of high-profile women.
Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman, who was awarded the crown in 2015, said she has left for Jordan after receiving a message from a man purporting to be an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) member reading “you’re next”.
"I was threatened with murder. My life was in danger. The killing of this many people scared me,” she told local Kurdish news site Rudaw. “I wasn’t comfortable living there anymore and that is why I left Iraq and came to Jordan.”
It came just a week after fellow Iraqi beauty queen and social media star Tara Fares was shot dead in her car in Baghdad on September 27. In the weeks before that, Suad al-Ali, a women’s rights activist in the southern city of Basra, was also gunned down as she walked to her car.
Dr Rafeef al-Yassiri, a plastic surgeon dubbed "Iraq's Barbie," died under mysterious circumstances.
Shaymaa Qasim Abdulrahman was awarded the Miss Iraq crown in 2015 Credit: AFP
Authorities initially called it a drug overdose but have not offered an update in over a month, leading to rumors she might have been poisoned.
A week after that, Rasha al-Hassan, the owner of a well-known beauty centre in Baghdad, was found dead in her home.
It is not clear whether the deaths are connected, however they have followed a pattern of targeting women promoting female empowerment and tend to fall on a Thursday.
Model Tara Fares won a Miss Baghdad title and took second place in the Miss Iraq pageant
Qasim al-Araji, Iraq’s Interior minister, said that an unnamed extremist group was thought to be behind at least one of the murders.
"They said they would kill me on a Thursday evening. I initially thought about going to live in Erbil )Iraqi Kurdistan). But the situation wasn’t right," Ms Abdulrahman said.
"During the last few days I was in Baghdad, I didn’t dare to even go out of my house. I was scared even at home. What is the difference between a serious threat and frightening someone?" she said.
Ms Abdulrahman, 23, whose mother is Kurdish and father is Arab, said she contacted Iraqi Security Forces several times, but they said they could do little without knowing who was behind the threats.
"They killed many people in broad daylight. I couldn’t wait to be killed, and then say ‘Oh, that was a serious threat?" she said.
An Iraqi woman recites a prayer by the grave of slain model Tara Fares in the central holy shrine city of Najaf Credit: AFP
The killers have targeted women who have spread the message of female empowerment, which appear to have unsettled the more conservative parts of Muslim-majority Iraq.
Iraqi-Lebanese Ms Fares won fame and 2.8 million followers on Instagram, where she would post photos of herself posing in elaborate makeup, tight jeans and blouses that showed off her tattoos.
The 22-year-old became known for her outspoken opinions on personal freedom, such as: "I'm not doing anything in the dark like many others; everything I do is in the broad daylight."
While many young Iraqis shared her videos and pictures, others criticised her lifestyle as racy and un-Islamic.
Iraq once boasted a liberal society and progressive laws for women and the family, going back to the 1950s. Those gains were eroded after the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein and led to the emergence of powerful religious parties and a rise in extremism.
Posters on some streets, particularly near shrines, exhort women to cover their hair and wear an abaya - a long, black cloak that covers the body from shoulders to feet.
"These harrowing crimes are worrying us," said Hana Adwar, Iraqi human rights activist. "There are groups that want to terrify society through the killing of popular women and activists ... and to tell other women to abandon their work and stay at home."