Seeking freedom with the strike of a match
When some Afghan women can’t escape an abusive home life, they resort to self-immolation
Waheeda could not explain how she reached the final, terrible resolution to set herself on fire.
She remembered the months of beatings and the abuse by her brothers-in-law, but the moments before she acted are now clouded by 40 days of pain.
Whether she was driven to actually kill herself, or just bring attention to her suffering, she could not say.
All she could recall was pouring fuel over her legs outside the room where her in-laws were gathered in their modest home and igniting her clothes with a match.
As she ran shrieking into the room, covered in flames, her relatives smothered her in blankets.
“Until now I still don’t know exactly why I did this action. All I know now is that it was a very bad action,” the 18-year-old said quietly as she sat on her hospital bed, stiffly encased in burns.
Beneath her pale blue hospital gown a quarter of her young body was covered in burns, many of them deep enough to require skin grafts.
Such desperation may seem incomprehensible, but the doctors listening to Waheeda’s story have heard similar tales all too often.
Here in the burn and plastic surgery center of Herat Regional Hospital, they receive at least one or two such cases each month.
Self-immolation is not confined to this patch of Western Afghanistan, but for reasons few can explain, the region seems to generate far more cases than elsewhere.
The region’s notoriety for young women burning themselves is such that the Herat medical authorities were at first reluctant to discuss the issue because they were being blamed for inspiring copycat attempts elsewhere.
Dr. Habib ur Rahman Habib, a soft-spoken doctor who has spent the past eight months in the center, said many of his patients follow a pattern.
Many are married young, often against their will and often to older men who already have wives.
“They have problems with their new families, and they don’t know what to do, who to turn to,” he said.
“Some decide to burn themselves.”
Waheeda fit that pattern. Only 16 when she was married, she found herself living with her in-laws, who mistreated her. Her mother-in-law and her brothers-in-law treated her as a slave and beat her.
They have only been to visit her once since she burnt herself.
Igniting a cause
The number of young women who do the same may be far higher than the one or two a month who freely admit their burns are self-inflicted.
So many women patients were being admitted with burns and scalds that the staff thought they were lying about the real reasons for their injuries.
Soraya, in her early 20s, was one such case.
Her burns were inflicted only a short time ago, and her blistered and pained face is still an angry pink from where it was seared by flames.
When she came in with burns on 25 percent of her body, she told doctors she had been covered in burning petrol as she switched on a generator at her home.
Dr. Habib thought she was lying, and she was too ashamed to admit she burned herself.
“We think a lot more of them have burned themselves than admit it. We hear a lot of lies,” he said, inspecting her chart as she looked silently out the window.
Such a course of action may seem desperate, but women trapped in violent or abusive marriages can have few options in Afghanistan.
“The situation of women facing domestic violence or abuse in the home is extremely difficult,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
A man can divorce his wife simply by telling her that she is divorced, but a woman can only obtain a divorce by proving in court that she has cause.
“This requires a lawyer and funds and freedom of movement, not to mention knowledge of the law — which in practice means that it is impossible for most women to get a divorce,” Barr said.
Hundreds of women are jailed in Afghanistan for running away from home, which many judges believe must be punished because such an act could lead to immorality.
Some of these women may receive help from their parents. If they don’t, many simply have no escape option.
“In this situation it is not surprising that so many choose death instead,” Barr said.
“Why self-immolation? I don’t know, but perhaps because it is dramatic and will draw attention to the act and the woman’s pain and what she has suffered.”
Pain and suffering
As the women recuperate from their agonizing burns, they have long hours to dwell on their futures.
Living alone is virtually impossible for Afghan women, so most must ponder reconciliation with either their own families or their in-laws.
Waheeda, who has a 14-month-old son named Irfan, said she has thought of little else.
“When I leave [the] hospital, I will go to my mother’s house. Then I will ask them to bring my husband’s family over to discuss the matter. If they can settle it and promise I will not be ill-treated, then I will return. If not, I don’t know. I will have to live in my mother’s house.”
She was not the only one in the ward to view the future with trepidation.
The eight doctors and 10 nurses in the center were worried about how long their center will keep going as foreign support to Afghanistan declines. The staff, like many Afghans, fear that as the NATO mission in Afghanistan ends, aid and attention will dry up.
Originally funded by Italian money, the 14-bed center, like Herat hospital itself, is clean and well equipped compared with many Afghan hospitals.
Yet the doctors still struggle with inadequate sterilization equipment and drugs. Women who arrive with burns on more than 50 percent of their bodies almost always die because the staff cannot save them.
Dr. Sami Sadat, who has worked in the center for four years, said, “The biggest problem for us is the equipment. We are worried there will not be any donors with us to continue to give money.
“We are trying to keep strong for the patients and to keep treating them,” he said. “It’s not easy to see their suffering.”
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