Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Frustrated Afghan women turn to self-immolation

Many young woman are demanding rights previously denied to them - and when they are frustrated, respond by setting themselves on fire in a protest against injustice.

HERAT // With the make-up still just about visible around her eyes, Rahima's body lay alone in a room at the main hospital in Afghanistan's Herat province. The rest of her was barely recognisable as the teenage girl she had been the day before.

Married and aged just 16, she died after deliberately setting herself on fire. The anguished cries of her family were audible outside as they waited to confront her husband's relatives. "More than 90 per cent of burn cases are burnt on over 50 per cent of their body," Dr Mohammed Aref Jalali explained. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, self-immolation has become a well established phenomenon in Herat, with women and girls pouring petrol over themselves in acts of protest and despair arising from family disputes. Men have begun to follow suit, albeit in far smaller numbers.

In the current Afghan year, which ends later this month, the hospital in the provincial capital has recorded 52 self-immolation cases involving females. Of those, 47 have died. Out of the five male cases, one survived.On the day that Rahima's bandage-covered corpse rested there, Dr Jalalai, the head of the burns unit, was dealing with other patients who had gone through similar ordeals. Shirin Gul, 16, already a mother, had burns over 30 per cent of her body. A second woman had burns over her face, neck, chest, abdomen and right and left hands, which she claimed were the result of an accident but Dr Jalalai said were purposely self-inflicted. She claimed her broken arm was an old fracture; he said it was new and might well have been caused by her husband.

Herat lies in the west of Afghanistan and its proximity to Iran has contributed to the massive changes the province has undergone since 2001. Former refugees who experienced a more open culture across the border are often blamed for demanding too much freedom on their return home. This, added to a growing awareness about basic human rights and the sudden influx of foreign music, television and fashion that accompanied the US-led invasion in 2001, has caused huge ruptures in the traditional fabric of society.

"Today women are more intelligent than last time and they are fighting against some customs and aspects of the culture," said Sorya Baligh, an adviser in the legal section at the Women's Affairs office in Herat. Ms Baligh now deals with between four and six divorce cases a week - a number that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Even as she spoke, another arrived. Arazo, 17, wanted to leave her husband because she found out he had previously been married and her brother-in-law had beaten her up.

"They have two choices. They can kill me or I will divorce," she said. Unlike some in Herat, Ms Baligh believes the cultural upheaval the province has experienced is a clear a sign that things are on the right track. However, she does not think all the changes have been for the better. According to her, the first recorded case of self-immolation in Herat arose simply because a bride was unhappy that her groom could not afford the lavish wedding party she wanted. "In 30 years of war, people who have been refugees in neighbouring countries have copied their cultures and want to bring them here," she said.

"But our society is not as open. It's impossible for a girl here to have the same life as an Iranian girl and this creates a lot of problems inside these families." Although Herat is not the only part of Afghanistan where such problems exists, it arguably offers the most graphic examples of the wider issues women across the country face as they find themselves caught between the old and new. Maria Bashir is the chief prosecutor in the province - the first female in the country, she announced proudly, to hold such a position. She has been threatened numerous times because of her work and survived an assassination attempt.

Soon after hearing another allegation of a husband physically abusing his wife, Ms Bashir reeled off a list of horrific incidents. "I have seen a woman whose husband cut her nose and ears off, a woman whose husband shaved her hair off so she would not go outside, a woman beaten with a heavy cooking pot until one of her ears was smashed into her skull, and a woman beaten with the handle of a shovel," she said.

Ms Bashir believes that, while progress has been made, the struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan will take at least another 20-years. "Those political leaders who are shouting for democracy are still not ready to apply democracy to their own women," she said. "Their women sit at home and they just want democracy for their neighbour's women." @Email:csands@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National