Self-Immolation a Growing Trend in Afghan Girls & Women

Rawaimage In Afghanistan, a growing number of women, primarily aged 10-40, attempt to flee lives of hopelessness and despair by setting themselves on fire.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of Afghan women and girls who attempt to kill themselves by self-immolation. Anywhere from one hundred to several hundred cases have been documented each year since 2002. A New York Times article reports that in 2004 the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 40 cases in six months in the city of Herat alone. These reported numbers are exceptionally low, however, because families often hide the incident or try to lie about the method of death.

Reported cases are almost entirely of those who survive, even briefly, and find themselves being treated in a local burn unit. Yet even these women often attempt to lie about their wounds, insisting the incident was accidental. The staff at the burn unit in Herat’s Regional Medical Center have learned to discern the truth. Fuel-soaked clothing and little evidence of an attempt to stifle flames strongly point to self-infliction. Dr. Ghafar Bawar, a plastic surgeon who consults at the unit, explains

“When an accident happens, they try to stop it. In self-inflicted burns, a high percentage of the body surface area is affected. When it is more than 40 per cent of body surface area burnt . . . it’s usually self-inflicted.”

For many western readers, it’s hard to understand what would drive these women, many of them teens, to commit such a desperate and agonizing act. It’s important to recognize Afghanistan’s deep-seated culture of female oppression and the utter lack of options perceived by most women.

Many Afghan women, especially in rural villages, live in a state of near slavery. They are kept uneducated and have little or no control over the most basic aspects of their lives.

Forced into marriage as a young teen, (the youngest reported case of self-immolation was a nine year old child), to a man possibly decades older, an Afghan girl must obey not only her new husband but any of his male or female relatives. She endures daily beatings and other, often sexual, abuses. She cannot read or write and has been prohibited from learning a valuable skill or trade. All she knows of the world is what she has been told, and what she is told cultivates hopelessness, humiliation, and the constant threat of violence. Even her own voice is useless to her. If she speaks out she earns only ridicule or further punishment.

Where can she turn? A few girls are lucky enough to learn of a shelter for abused women and child brides, though even fewer are able to escape. Illiterate and isolated, most women have no idea that any escape is possible. In their minds, they have nothing.

No courts, no police, no divorce, no justice, no escape.

When the Taliban were toppled and Hamid Karzai took power at the end of 2001, it seemed Afghan women would enjoy a life of more freedom and stability. Unfortunately, many women live under nearly the same oppression, humiliation, and violence that they suffered under the Taliban.

Let’s take a closer look at the reality of life for most Afghan women, shaped drastically by recent Taliban rule and related gender beliefs which, for too many, still linger.

Life Under the Taliban

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, through continued insurgency and civil war, from 1996 until nearly 2002.

Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were oppressed in literally every aspect of their lives. In what has been referred to as gender apartheid, women were placed under house arrest, denied the ability to work or gain an education, and required to shield themselves from all males except very close relatives. The windows of her home were painted black, lest an innocently passing male catch a forbidden glimpse, and she could not leave her home at all unless escorted by a close male relative and sheathed in full burqa. When outside the home, she was careful to both speak and step softly, lest her presence be seductively audible to strange males.

Any woman who had lost all male relatives in the years of ongoing conflict was literally trapped in her home.

Unable to seek medical treatment from doctors who, under Taliban rule, were necessarily all male, women frequently died of treatable ailments.

Anyone caught defying the new laws risked public beating and execution. Speaking too loudly or or inadvertently flashing an ankle or wrist earned a woman a public lashing. Women caught unattended outside their homes, assumed to be attempting to flee, were often stoned to death. Women in the presence of a non-related male were charged with adultery and hanged.

Today…

In 2002, when the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan’s central government, the lives of many Afghan women brightened. For the most part, educated, urban women returned to work or school and as their country worked to rebuild itself, they strove to reclaim their lives.

Unfortunately, Afghan women in poor, rural areas, continue to live under the same oppression and abuse as before. While Taliban law is no longer in effect, many rural areas are governed by tribal law, which remains uninfluenced by the Afghan government. In many territories, warlords rule with impunity and throughout the nation societal norms give males full dominance over women, who are treated with violence and contempt on a daily basis.

Three women initially held positions in President Kazai’s cabinet, however all have since been replaced by males, including the Minister of Women’s Affairs. A 2006 article in the Christian Science Monitor explains

Women’s inclusion in Afghanistan’s government, which the international community has been using as an indicator of democratic progress, is actually regressing. The interim Supreme Court has consistently sided with conservatives […] It has issued bans on women singing on television… and upheld the marriage of a 9-year-old girl, even though Afghan law sets marriageable age at 16.

Afghan women are repeatedly denied equal access to legal representation and due process. Nearly 80 percent of the women in prison have been convicted of zina, engaging in sexual activity outside marriage. But the majority of those convicted were simply trying to escape domestic abuse and seek refuge outside their oppressive households.

The reality of life for many rural Afghan women is one of utter helplessness. Once forced into marriage, an Afghan female loses the ability to determine what she does, or where she goes, in some cases ever. Daily beatings are common, as are psychological humiliation and degradation. Rape perpetrated by a husband is not considered abnormal, let alone a crime.

Afghanistan’s groundbreaking 2004 presidential election was a passing irrelevance for most Afghan women. According to a 2007 UNIFEM fact sheet,

  • 87% of Afghans believed that a woman needed a male relatives authorization to vote.
  • 35% of women believed they would not have permission to vote.
  • 18% of men admitted they would not allow they wives to vote.

Additionally,

  • 70-80% of Afghan women face forced marriages
  • 57% of Afghan girls are married before the legal marriage age of sixteen.

Why Fire?See Stephanie Sinclair's Amazing Photo Essay at 50Crows

Although self-immolation seems to be one of the most abhorrent choices for suicide, it is, for many, the only choice. Although some find access to poisons, most have no way of going outside the home for any needed materials. Other available options, such as wrist cutting or hanging, are not fool-proof enough for their intentions. Fire, they believe, is absolute.

Medica Modiale, an organization dedicated to aiding women in war zones and areas of crisis, conducted the first report on self-immolation in Afghan women. They found:

Self-immolation as a method of committing suicide is so frequent because women feel they have no alternative. They can never leave the house and have no access to medicaments. However, there is flammable material in contrast in every kitchen.

Medica Modiale’s Nabila Wafiq told the Washington Post

“When we asked most people why they committed self-immolation, they said that when they take pills, they don’t die, but when they commit self-immolation they believe they will die, 100 percent.”

Additionally, women are drawn to fire by the opportunity for retribution it presents. An overwhelming atmosphere of shame and dishonor surround the families of those who choose to who self-immolate. This actually contributes to the death-rate of these suicide attempts, as most women die because they are not immediately taken to the hospital, or not taken at all.

The fact that it is difficult to lie about the method of death, often leaves abusive families with an intended stigma. Unfortunately, this motive backfires on a woman who survives. The shame of her act often means total isolation and neglect.

Wafiq also asserts that the trend is growing, in part, because of news reports of suicide by self-immolation, which fail to mention the tortured survivors of the act, or those who take agonizing days to finally die.

Journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, speaking to RAWA (The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) about “Lifting the Veil”, her documentary on the experiences of Afghan women, explains

There are many ways to die – you can take poison or jump in a river. But I think that if those women had died in that way, it would have been easy for the men of the family to cover it up, saying she had a heart attack, or she fell down or something.

But if you pour kerosene on yourself and you light a match, you’re making a statement. You’re saying look at me, I am in pain, I am in misery, I am not going to die quietly, I am making a point.

In Their Words…

17-year old Fazela:

“My name is Fazela. On that particular day when I burned myself, my husband — who is also my cousin — had a fight with me,” she recalls. “He beat me. And after I was beaten, I poured kerosene over myself. Then I lit myself on fire. Before this, I really wanted to leave this house. But he took my burqa and did not let me go outside of the house. Now I really regret that I burned myself.”

Radio Free Europe RadioLiberty

16-year old survivor describes the moments leading up to her self-immolation

“When he did not have access to heroin and narcotics, he tortured me. After midnight he would hit me. That night he hit me and hit my head. Blood was coming from my nose. I asked him why he was doing it and he hit me even more.”

— BBC News 11/15/06

How You Can Help

Donate to the Afghan Women’s Mission and you can specify how you want your dollars spent – general fund, education, awareness, etc… They also have pledge program, volunteer info, and more…

The Feminist Majority Foundation runs a campaign entitled Help Afghan Women. They make it quick and easy to petition the US government, spread the word to friends and colleagues, join an action team, and of course, donate.

RAWA has a range of specific donation needs – used digital cameras, school supplies, medical supplies. They also have all sorts of other ideas of how you can help – from translating articles to arranging photo exhibits. Of course you can always write awareness letters or just send some cash! Check it out.

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5 Responses to “Self-Immolation a Growing Trend in Afghan Girls & Women”

  1. Ashley Page Says:

    Hello, my name is Ashley Page and I am a Journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago. I am taking an online journalism course that requires us to communicate with another blogger from another country. I you are in fact fro another country and would like to participate in this interview, please feel free to contact me asap at apage08@hotmail.com.

    I found this bog to be very informative in revealing the harsh realities of what’s going on in this opposing country. I would ask general questions for an article that would be a Q & A, such as: where are you from? When did you first get into blogging? etc.

    I hope to hear from you soon and thank you.

    Ashley Page

  2. az Says:

    It is a harsh side of reality. About 24 different sites have covered this story for the last four years, yet there has been no ongoing effort to help these ladies in Herat, Afghanistan, where so much basic help is required. Only people in the business of journalism or some particular elements of the media are knowledgeable about the self-immolation of Afghan women.
    Can you imagine, as a woman, what one has to endure to induce such kind of pain on them self- to pick up the matches and burn oneself? In the US, meanwhile we are listening to news from our administration, in particularly our president, who repeatedly tells his American people about the present life of women in Afghanistan, how they are enjoying for the first time in their history “democracy” and how we should pad ourselves on the back for creating this phenomenon.
    I am an afghan woman and I do not remember such shocking incidents in Afghanistan before this horrifying cold war between the US and the Soviet, which was fought in my land, and the ongoing destruction of my native land for the last 30 years for reasons which we were not to be blamed for; the end, it’s us “afghan women “who are paying the price by being converted into becoming semi-slaves.
    I do not remember my great grandmother being a slave of her husband and in laws, I do not remember my grandmother being anyone’s slave, and I certainly do not remember my mother being any ones slave!
    So, what happened?
    Who can help and when will this help actually reach these innocent women who have not committed any sins, but to be born the “wrong sex” in Afghanistan during a period of chaos in the world where everyone is busy fighting for control over near eastern world or the “Middle Eastern world”?

  3. joe plumber Says:

    beleive it or not, not all americans support what is happening. the world thinks we have become fat, lazy and stupid. i am not any of those things, nor are most people i know. i work hard to have some nice things, but mostly just to survive. it cost alot of money to live in the USA and our wages have been stagnate for over 20 years. many of us work 2 jobs to pay rent and eat. things are not as well and great in this country as the media would have you beleive. most people i know hate our government [we love our country though] as it is today and has been for a while now. i fully expect civil war in my lifetime.

    out of 400 million people i would say 200 million feel similar to me. out of that possibly 10 percent could be motivated to actually rise up and do something about our government that has been running out of control. the rest will carry on complaining, but doing nothing more than that. if 2 million took to the street and tried to take action against our government they would be killed or arrested and charged with being “domestic terrorists”. if all 200 million stood up it would be civil war, but would resemble the war in your homeland. farmers with shotguns vs fighter jets and cruise missles.

    most americans [90+%] get the news from television or the news paper. those have become controlled news sources. i can only find stories like this by spending my weekends scouring the internet. i tell everyone i can when i find them and they are usually shocked or dont beleive it, because it wasn’t on fox news or cnn. sadly most dont have time, ability or desire to seek the truth for themselves and are happy to devour the “official” stories that are spoon fed to them to make them feel good about the government or themselves.

    i dont see this changing anytime soon. it actually seems to be getting worse. people i knew, that knew the truth have started going into denial. they want to believe that their side is right, because it is easier and more comforting.

    i feel bad this war started in your homeland, but it will eventually consume everyone. i hope lasting peace will reign once the dust settles, but the storm has only begun to form. Americans dont want war, our government and weapons manufacturers do.

  4. Mirwais Miakhial Says:

    please read the story and give your comments

  5. Family Law Lawyer Colorado Springs Says:

    Family Law Lawyer Colorado Springs…

    […]Self-Immolation a Growing Trend in Afghan Girls & Women « The Blackbird Whistling or Just After[…]…

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