Ever since social media was introduced in Iraq, women here have turned to online anonymity in order to voice their opinions, thoughts, and feelings. For many, creating anonymous social media accounts on sites like Facebook and Instagram isn’t simply an extension of their offline lives — it’s a window into a public sphere and world they are often excluded from.
In-home internet access in Iraq became widespread after the toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, which ushered in an era of unprecedented internet freedom. The percentage of citizens with internet access climbed from just 0.6% in 2003 to 75% in 2018, according to World Bank figures. By 2021, DataReportal recorded that over 30 million of Iraq’s nearly 40 million residents had internet access.
But while widespread internet access opened Iraq to a world of new opportunities, many women have found that the same violence and gender disparities that prevail inside the country’s conservative communities exist online too. In 2018, Iraqis woke to the news that model and social media personality Tara Fares had been gunned down in Baghdad by an unknown assailant. Fares had been a victim of domestic violence and found both refuge and a career on social media. Unfazed by Iraqi cultural norms, the young influencer took to social media to speak her mind in fiery monologues and advertise a life of parties, luxury brands, and bold fashion statements.
To this day, the identity of her killer remains unknown, but her untraditional Instagram presence is widely believed to have sparked the ire of Iraq’s conservative communities. The murder of Fares was just one in a string of killings and mysterious deaths of popular Iraqi female social media users. “Tara Fares challenged conservative values,” said Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The more conservative communities will use anything against women, men as well, but women are particularly vulnerable in this context.”
“These ideas of shame and honour, these problems we see in real life that are being transferred to the internet – it’s exactly the same patriarchal norms and ideas of honour and shame that are preventing women from using their real name and showing their faces,” said Taif Alkhudary, a research assistant at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre. “This has always been the case – you don’t put your photo on social media, and you use photos that are metaphors of what’s happening in your life, but never a picture of yourself,” Alkhudary told Rest of World.
Al-Hassani said more women are engaging in online social critiques now than ever, despite the risks. Although no official figures exist, many Iraqi women in their 20s and early 30s make use of avatars and pseudonyms to navigate the online world. Marwa Abdul-Redha Elewee, a lawyer who specializes in advising women who suffer online harassment and blackmailing in Iraq, said that social media has created women with “split personalities.” Online they speak freely and fearlessly, explained Elewee, while in real life “they are introverted.”
Cloaked in anonymity, Iraqi women are stepping out of the domestic sphere and joining the country’s male-dominated public discourse to voice their opinions on everything from politics and women’s rights to love and literature. Rest of World spoke with three Iraqi women about their online experiences. Their interviews have been condensed for length and clarity, and their names have been changed for their protection.
Fatima, 24, from Nasiriyah
My parents separated when I was 10, and my mom lost custody of us kids. It was a 10-year battle, and my dad, who is Egyptian, kidnapped me and my brother to Egypt. Eventually, we were able to come back to Iraq in 2013, when I was 17. It really affected me. To this day, it affects the way I’m able to deal with other people and my confidence in general. I missed a whole year of school because of the time we were in Egypt.
I started using social media when I was 12, at the peak of the problems in my family. I started just playing games, but then to meet different people. As I got older, I started using different kinds of platforms and used fake names or pseudonyms to talk about my problems. I started to make actual relationships with people, people who I could go to for support.
My display photos are always about my psychological state, so if I’m feeling sad, I’ll use a photo of a woman who looks sad. I feel most comfortable on Twitter, because on Instagram and Facebook there are people who know me. On Twitter, I’m totally anonymous and use a fake name. Sometimes I’ll deactivate Instagram and Facebook, but never Twitter. You can express yourself in a public space where you’re anonymous. You can usually help yourself get rid of the feelings you’re feeling, especially when it’s a family problem or depression.
Nasiriyah has become more of an urban city — some women don’t wear hijab, for instance. But in general, women experience a lot of harassment and conflict here. Nasiriyah is still a small space, and when I started working as a hotel receptionist, I was so worried my dad would find out— he lives nearby. He found out eventually and threatened me with an honor killing. I was threatened by him again recently, and I tweeted about it. I woke up the next day to see my tweets had gone viral. I had gotten a lot of attention, but it was negative: They made me out to be the bad one; they said I was a liar, and that I shouldn’t speak negatively about my father. Very few people offered me any help, just a few feminist girls from Baghdad. I was afraid of attracting danger, so I deleted the tweet and didn’t respond to anyone.
Aya, 30, from Al-Shatrah
I went to high school, but my dad passed away 10 years ago and since then, my brothers haven’t allowed me to finish my education. This year, I applied for college and got accepted, and I stood up for my desire to finish college. My mom also supported me.
Social media gives me a type of freedom. I started using it in 2008. I can write about my political beliefs, I can share my hobbies, I can share anything that comes to mind. I’m always writing and publishing about domestic violence, but only on my secret accounts. I keep my Facebook and Instagram accounts private and only add close friends, and even then an even closer group of friends in the “close friends” option, where I might post pictures of myself or something personal. Otherwise, when I post, I talk in a general way and give no specifics about myself.
Last year, I became active in the protests and went to [Baghdad’s] Tahrir Square. (In October 2019, demonstrators across Iraq took to the streets to protest against a lack of basic services, unemployment, and government corruption). I started writing political things online, and my family said things like, “Who allowed you to express yourself this way?” Even before the protests, they threatened me. I posted a picture of me and my mom on a visit to Baghdad — my mom has a home there — and my mom received calls from my brothers saying, “We will kill your daughter, we’ll take her phone away.”
I went to Baghdad to support my friends and organize with them, so we could join the protests together. Nobody but my mom knew. When I got to Baghdad, I took off my abaya and wore pants and a long jacket. I posted photos from the protests on Facebook. There was nothing scandalous about them: I wasn’t with other men, my hair isn’t showing. I was careful to only post pictures where my face was covered with the flag. Somehow, my cousins and sisters-in-law were able to recognize me. They took the pictures to my brothers. My brother took my phone and broke it; he said I wasn’t allowed to have a new account or post pictures of myself.
I had set up an online bookshop, where I received orders for and delivered books, but my brother made me quit it. Ever since the problem after the protests, I’ve been sitting in my room. I don’t go out with my friends or see them anymore. I can’t visit them and they can’t visit me. I only communicate with them online. I live the life I want on social media websites.
Yusra, 22, from Najaf
We’re three girls at home, me and my sisters, and house chores are our only job. We don’t leave. I don’t go out. Like a lot of girls, we face violence at home. The verbal violence is continuous, there’s nothing I can do without being subjected to verbal abuse like insults and scolding. Physical violence is the worst stage it can escalate to. I’ve been beaten for silly things more than once by my brother.
We’re not allowed to have Facebook out of fear that we might contact men, or talk to them and cause a scandal. My brother found out about a secret phone that I had; he came to me and forced me to unlock it. He went through my Facebook to see if I was talking to any guys. Since I was only speaking to girls, it was still a big problem, but it wasn’t as severe as if I were talking to a man. His main problem was the possibility of me speaking to men.
I started using social media when I was 15 or 16, in high school. I chose Facebook because that’s what all my friends in school were using; it started as a way to communicate with friends when I was home from school. Later, I started using Instagram. At the beginning, all of the secretive social media was hard to navigate, but now it’s easier. Most women are keeping it a secret.
My friends online are women, and we talk about how to deal with our circumstances at home. I have friends in Najaf, in Karbala, and a few in Baghdad. We have groups that bring us together, and we talk. On social media, I can express myself more. I have the opportunity to talk. In real life, I just receive and listen. I’m careful about what and when I say something, so I don’t get subjected to harm. Online, I’m more free.