The Women Who Set Themselves On Fire In Afghanistan

Face concealed in a baby blue burka in Afganistan, 23-year-old Miriam’s voice remained even as she told HAWCA.

“My father-in-law was standing near me. He was pressuring me to burn myself. He told me, “Pick up that fuel and stop talking so much”. He kept arguing and yelling at me. My husband was not in the house, so he didn’t hear us fighting. When I threw the fuel on myself, my husband came inside the house. While I was burning I fell unconscious.”

She continued, “When I was in the hospital everyone kept asking me, ‘Why did you burn yourself? You will go to hell for what you did.’ I was praying to God to not let me die. You can let me die from any other pain but don’t let me die from this pain. The moment I started burning, I regretted what I had done.”

At six years old, Miriam’s future was planned. Her father got her engaged and by 11-years-old, she was married. Despite her pleas, her husband’s family refused to let her continue going to school. Frequently beaten and abused by her husband and in-laws, Miriam had come to the end of her tether to a place of no hope.

Yet, Miriam’s story is far from uncommon. In the years gone by, the dramatic suicide method of self-immolation amongst Afghan women has steadily increased. No statistics exist to give a true representation of the number of women who have set themselves on fire; many never make it to the hospital and often, families are too embarrassed or scared of prosecution.

The head nurse at Herat Regional’s Hospital Burn Unit revealed to Mother Jones that in the 13 years employed there, she had witnessed at least a thousand self-immolation cases. Virtually all of them were young women who had experienced domestic abuse, starvation, or forced into violent marriages. Tragically, a large percentage of the women who try to burn themselves die from their injuries.

Afghanistan has endured a long and turbulent history of decades of warfare and dictatorship, which would have impacted in a cataclysmic way on the lives of those there. Having experienced the death of loved ones, a lifetime of traumatising events, human rights violations, and poverty, most Afghans would be left with psychological and emotional wounds.

Nahid Aziz, an associate professor in the Clinical Psychology Programs at Argosy University, Washington, D.C. and a women’s rights activist, said in her report:

“One of the major negative consequences of on-going war is the poor mental health status of Afghans. There are high levels of mental health-related problems in Afghanistan. According to some estimates, as much as 60-80 per cent of the Afghan population suffers from various types of psychological problems, such as depressive disorders, anxiety, and complex trauma. Due to the disabling nature of mental disorders, serious social consequences, including segregation and stigmatization, have become daily realities for many Afghans who are directly impacted and affected by the social consequences.”

Dr. Aziz believes that the rate of self-immolation has increased exponentially among young Afghan women due to serious and chronic mental health problems, which have a direct impact on family function, with an increased risk of domestic violence.

Domestic abuse in Afghanistan is almost normalised, and around 87% of Afghan women have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. Economically and socially dependent on family members, very rarely do women report an assault. As such, blame is often placed on her when abuse occurs, with the general consensus being that she is either not a good wife or mother. Therefore, abuse at the hands of men is frequently condoned.

Yet, these self-immolation cases are symptomatic of a much greater issue in a country heavily governed by androcentric ideals where violence against women remains rampant and upheld. In UNAMA’s report, just 5% of cases regarding violence against women were adjudicated through criminal prosecution and 65% reached an outcome through non-judicial sources, such as going to a traditional local council or shura where elders – consisting of male ­– will decide the best course of action for the woman.