Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire
By Abigail Hauslohner / Kabul Wednesday, Jul. 07, 2010 

Vasiyeh, 16, shows the scars from burns she inflicted on herself two years ago, 
April 6, 2010 in Herat, Afghanistan.

Majid Saeedi / Getty Images
Fawzia felt like she had no way out. Married off to her cousin at age 16, she 
had been beaten routinely by her husband and in-laws in their poor rural home 
in Paktia province for the first three years of her marriage. She complained 
bitterly to her parents, but no solution seemed imminent. Marriage had become 
too much for her to bear. Then, after she saw her brother-in-law strike his 
wife on the head with a gun, Fawzia finally did what she had threatened to do 
many times before: she doused herself in cooking fuel and struck a match.

Now Fawzia (whose name has been changed because of her age) lies in a hospital 
bed with third-degree burns covering 35% of her body and ash coating the 
insides of her lungs. Her physician, Dr. Ahmed Shah Wazir, believes it's 
unlikely that she will survive. The terrifying thing is that she is far from 
the only person in Afghanistan to take such drastic action. The Ministry of 
Women's Affairs has documented a total of 103 women who set themselves on fire 
between March 2009 and March 2010. No one knows what the real numbers are, 
given the difficulty of collecting data in the country. "More than 80% [who try 
to kill themselves in this way] cannot be saved," says Wazir, who runs the burn 
unit at Kabul's Istiqlal Hospital, one of only two such specialized wards in 
Afghanistan. (See pictures of Muslim women leading a soft revolution.)

Wazir believes that most of his would-be patients never make it to the 
hospital. In some cases, families are too ashamed or fearful of prosecution to 
report what happened. "There are many such cases where, because of honor, 
because of the media, [the families] don't want to disclose it," says Selay 
Ghaffar, director of the Kabul-based NGO Humanitarian Assistance for the Women 
and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA). "I'm sure there are many, many cases that 
are still invisible." "I have seen a number of instances of women setting 
themselves on fire in my life," says Fawzia's mother, wiping away tears. She 
insists that there is nothing unusual about her daughter. "Four months ago, 
someone else from our village lit herself on fire and died." (See a 2001 TIME 
story on how women fared under the Taliban.)

In recent years, the dramatic suicide method employed by women in this war-torn 
country has drawn wide attention, amid speculation that the trend might be 
growing. Some, like Wazir, blame Iranian TV and cinema for romanticizing 
suicide by fire. (For example, in the 2002 movie Bemani, a girl uses 
self-immolation to escape a forced marriage.) He points out that many of his 
patients, including Fawzia, are refugees who have returned from Iran. Other 
observers argue that the practice has long existed as a method by which Afghan 
women try to escape their sorrows and that improved monitoring since the fall 
of the Taliban has only made it more prominent in public awareness. The Afghan 
government, however, says that in the past five years, the numbers have dropped.

Nevertheless, the act remains both common and poorly understood, with 
relatively few resources devoted to its prevention. "There are seven safe 
houses in Afghanistan that protect victims of [domestic] violence," says 
Ghaffar, whose organization runs one such institution, an advice hotline and 
several legal-aid centers. But she says most of the country - particularly in 
the volatile south and east - remains woefully devoid of any services. "There 
is not a single safe house, and no legal-aid center," says Ghaffar of these 
regions. "There are many cases that need protection."

The implication, then, for women like Fawzia - who pleaded with her parents to 
find a solution on multiple occasions - is that even when outside help is 
sought, there remains a high probability that none will be found. Part of the 
problem, women's groups say, is resistance by officials to searching Afghan 
society for the root of such a horrifying phenomenon. Even Fawzia's doctor 
finds nothing blameworthy in the Afghan way of life. "It is a very good 
culture. We support the women," says Wazir, dismissing the notion that family 
abuse and despondency could be the main factor driving patients to his burn 

Indeed, even when domestic abuse is acknowledged, says Ghaffar, "Afghan society 
puts the blame on the woman - that she is not a good woman; that she is 
suffering at home because she is not behaving like a good mother or a good 
wife. And that's why the husband has the right to beat her." Ghaffar estimates 
that the majority of Afghan women experience some kind of domestic abuse and 
rarely report it. "For every one case we have, I'm sure we can multiply it by 

See pictures of women unveiled in Kabul.

See pictures of the battle against the Taliban. 

In the bed next to Fawzia is 14-year-old Amina (whose name has also been 
changed). Her neck and torso look as if they have been turned inside out: the 
flesh is a raw, wet, oozing pink. She grimaces as she talks. "I was tired of 
life," she says, her voice flat. "I had to kill myself." Amina was only 11 when 
she was married. And unlike Fawzia, her tormentor was a woman - a senior wife 
of her brother-in-law. "Sometimes she would beat me and pull my hair out and 
prevent me from taking water from the pump," she says. Amina and her 
sister-in-law were apparently in competition over food and resources: the 
household was poor, made up of four nuclear families struggling in the same 
living space. But, like Wazir, Amina's nurse, Mahdiya Akbari, cites not abusive 
family conditions but a more commonly accepted explanation. "Most of these 
patients have emotional, psychological and economic problems," she says, 
standing over the girl's bed.

That mind-set is prevalent, and because of it, alternatives are limited. "To 
find a solution to their problem, people should first resort to relatives," 
says Wazir. "Here there is a tribal structure. If relatives don't solve the 
problem, they can go to the clergy. Or they can solve their problem with the 
elders of the tribe." If that fails, he adds, civil-society groups, courts and 
the police force should be utilized before resorting to something as drastic as 
self-immolation. At worst, "they should escape and flee the area. The solution 
is not to put oil on the body." (See whether anthropologists should help 
contain the Taliban.)

But governance in Afghanistan - particularly when it benefits women - is 
primarily theory and little practice. "Most of the time, the decisions of the 
tribal leaders are not beneficial to the women," says Sayeda Mojgan Mostafezi, 
Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs. This past spring, Mostafezi coordinated 
women's participation in Afghanistan's national assembly, or jirga, held in 
Kabul to discuss a national plan for reconciliation. Of the 1,600 delegates, 
she says, 315 were women - a proud showing of the country's progress.

But in real life, where emancipation isn't encouraged by the government and its 
Western patrons, progress is far from discernible. Marriage in Afghanistan is 
still "like a form of sale," Mostafezi admits. Women are often traded to 
resolve family disputes or strengthen family bonds. And the male-controlled 
tribal structures - when they enforce any kind of law at all - are unlikely to 
side with women in domestic-abuse cases. Says Mostafezi: "Ninety percent of 
their decisions work against women's rights." (See a 2001 TIME story on women's 
rights in Afghanistan.)

And for the women who seek refuge, there is little the Women's Affairs Ministry 
can do. Nine years into the new government, the ministry has yet to push a 
protective family law past parliament. Because of her ministry's low budget, 
she says, all of the existing safe houses are run by NGOs. "The government also 
may not be ready to pay for this," she adds. Indeed, local officials are often 
perplexed when a woman actually comes forward to complain about the way she is 
being treated at home. In Kandahar, when one abused woman approached the police 
earlier this year, they were so conflicted about what to do that they put her 
in a detention center. "She stayed there for months because there was no other 
place to send her," says Ghaffar. When HAWCA learned of the case, the 
organization brought the woman to Kabul.

Ghaffar says what women need most urgently are not only laws and services to 
protect them but an awareness that they have a way out - through counseling, 
divorce, safe houses and other means. "When they think there is no other 
option, they burn themselves," she says.

Back at the Istiqlal Hospital burn unit, the windows are shut, and the thick, 
pungent air smells of disinfectant chemicals and burned flesh. Fawzia is barely 
conscious, and her eyes are swollen shut. "My daughter complained a lot to her 
father, saying that she had a bad life," says Fawzia's mother. "But no one 
listened to her. He told her just to be patient." The mother now worries that 
her husband could send Fawzia back to the in-laws if she survives. The young 
woman, after all, is their property, according to local custom. "My husband is 
always telling me not to complain, and he threatens to hit me," says Fawzia's 
mother, "because my daughter's father-in-law is my husband's brother." Fawzia's 
in-laws have not come to the hospital and were not available for comment. But 
Noor pledges to do everything in her power to keep Fawzia from going back. "If 
her life doesn't improve," she says, "she may try to burn herself again."

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