By Fariba Nawa
August 9, 2002
The Christian Science Monitor
Herat, Afghanistan – Sanaa was tired of living with 15 in-laws. Tired of daily fights with her mother-in-law. And tired of being treated like a “servant.” So last month, with her husband watching, she threw a gallon of cooking gas on her chest and lit a match.
“I did it because, at the time, I felt like I had no other choice,” she says, her speech slurred from the burns on her mouth.
Sanaa is one of dozens of Afghan women who, since the Taliban’s fall, have attempted self-immolation to escape family dilemmas or unwanted marriages. In Herat, four women have killed themselves this year, according to hospital records – none died this way last year. And out of 26 female burn victims, nine were attempted suicides.
In a country that traditionally views suicide with grave censure, many citizens and even officials are baffled by the surge in self-immolation. One theory is that expectations of more freedom have been unmet, leaving many women feeling desperate. Some officials also fear that a copycat effect may be building.
The numbers have authorities so concerned that they’re bringing taboo domestic issues into the open and urging families to communicate with their daughters.
Herat Governor Ismail Khan visited the burn unit in the hospital last week to speak with Sanaa and another victim. And the city’s television station dedicated an hour-long program to the issue July 21.
While the vast majority of marriages in Afghanistan are arranged and most girls go along with the tradition, parents occasionally force their daughters to marry. Some parents will even demand dowries up to $15,000 for their daughters and sell them to the highest bidder. More often than not, experts say, self-immolation is a cry for help.
“They don’t want to die. They’re just calling for attention,” says Asifa Aimaq, a psychologist and head of the Pedagogical Institute in Herat.
Sanaa, who is expected to heal, says her mother-in-law was always interfering between her and her husband, Abdul Naim. The day Sanaa burned herself, her mother-in-law accused her of throwing dirty water on their food. Sanaa says she denied the charge, and the two women began shouting at each other.
“[Sanaa] should not have done this, but I don’t blame her,” says her husband. “My mother has been horrible to her, and so I’m going to move out.”
Sanaa, who suffered first-degree burns on 40 percent of her body, says, “I got what I wanted.” It’s the kind of statement that has authorities worried that other women will follow Sanaa’s example.
Suicide is less common among men in Afghanistan, but self-immolation has long been the preferred method of suicide for desperate women in the region. In India, for example, suttee is a traditional Hindu practice in which widows burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
“It’s an idea in their head because it happens all the time in this country,” said Mumtaz Abazada, a nurse at Herat hospital intensive care unit. “But once they hear somebody else did it and got away with it, then they take action.”
Hospital staff in Herat say that with the limited medicine and treatment possibilities, 80 percent of these victims die.
Shakiba, a 19-year-old, died last week after burning herself because her family had sold her to a 28-year-old man for $10,000 as a second wife. From her hospital bed, Shakiba told a Herat television that she agreed to be married because her brother convinced her that she would be taken care of financially.
But after six months of being engaged, Shakiba said she had received no gifts or financial gain, and her fiancée wanted her to live with his first wife. She was also upset because he refused to throw a big wedding for her.
“My family was selling me, and I didn’t know what else to do,” she told the television reporter.
In response to Shakiba’s death, Governor Khan ordered the closure of all wedding halls to discourage pressure on families to throw lavish weddings. Although the proposal was never passed, the gesture symbolized a major departure from the suicide policy under the Taliban regime.
In Islam, those who kill themselves are condemned to hell. According to Mahbooba Aslami – who registers patients at Herat hospital and also works on a TV and radio health program – the Taliban arrested and beat the father of any girl who attempted to kill herself. By contrast, Afghanistan’s new moderate Islamic government has been trying to implement a socially-oriented solution, she says. “Now they talk to the girls and the family.” As a result, inside many Afghan homes, debates raged – often between generations – over the best way to respond to the tragedies.
Farrokh Ishaqzai says it’s better for women who attempt self-immolation to die because suicide is a sin, in her view. “They will probably go to hell anyway,” she says.
But her niece Roya Hamid, a fine arts student at Herat University, disagrees.
Many women are not aware of their rights and don’t know how to communicate with their family, Ms. Hamid says. In Afghanistan, there are no public agencies or grassroots organizations for such women to turn to.
“I would fight back if my parents forced me into marriage, but my family’s open-minded so I have a choice,” she says. “But even if they weren’t, I would find another way. You have to take your rights. No one will give them to you.”