It was the last Thursday in September when 22-year-old social-media icon Tara Fares was gunned down in Baghdad. It was a Thursday in August when a well-known beautician was found dead in her home, and the Thursday before that when a plastic surgeon nicknamed Iraq’s Barbie died in mysterious circumstances. Then a former Miss Iraq, Shimaa Qasim Abdulrahman, was told she too would become one of the so-called Thursday victims.
The terrified pageant queen, who won the title in 2015, says she has repeatedly received threats from ISIS members. But it was the brazen assassination of Fares and a chilling warning–“you’re next”–that impelled Qasim into exile in Jordan to escape the fate of women “being slaughtered like chickens.”
“They killed many people in broad daylight. I couldn’t wait to be killed and then say, ‘Oh, that was a serious threat?'” she told the Kurdish news site Rudaw on Oct. 8.
Qasim joins a number of prominent Iraqi women, including Instagram star Israa al-Obaidi and activist Yanar Mohammed, who are seeking safety abroad.
The series of deaths and threats of continued violence have not only sent shock waves through Iraq; they have also sparked fears of a coordinated campaign against women who dare to speak out and defy gender norms. “The attacks on women were not singular incidents,” Mohammed told German media from the airport moments before she fled Iraq. “The killings have been done against women who reveal their bodies, who reveal their faces, are outspoken on women’s rights–women who did not submit to conventional Islamic ways.”
Hanaa Edwar, head of the Iraqi Women Network, tells TIME that even if the killings were not carried out by the same group, “they are linked in their extremist approach and in their thinking that they don’t want women in the public sphere.”
Iraqi women once enjoyed some of the most progressive laws in the Arab region. But since 2003, activists have noted a deterioration of women’s rights. After the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, extremist militias flourished. As Iraq this month establishes its new cabinet, nearly five months after national elections, Edwar says the militias want to emphasize that “safety and security is in their hands and not the government’s.”
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has blamed the “well-planned kidnappings and killings” on unspecified organized groups trying to destabilize the government, though no group has claimed responsibility. Edwar agrees that some factions benefit from instability but says those responsible have another goal too–one that’s been tragically steady.
“They want to send the message,” she says, “that women should stay away from political life.”
This appears in the October 29, 2018 issue of TIME.