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Protest by Fire


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by Anne Holmes

While I was in Afghanistan I met Hanifa, pictured above. She is nine years old. She was introduced to me by the doctor at Herat Regional Hospital in Western Afghanistan as a “really incredible case,” incredible in the sense that no one could believe a girl of nine years would have, a.) the wherewithal to attempt suicide, and b.) the knowledge to do it the way in which she did. One day, she doused herself with petrol, struck a match, and lit herself on fire. “She had an argument with her father,” is what I was told when I asked the reason for her act. Argument is often a euphemism in such cases for some form of abuse. Hanifa, had an “argument” with her father, translates to something like “Hanifa was being beaten, or quite possibly, molested, by her father,” and knowing that in her culture she was dishonored, chose her own death rather than endure further abuse and humiliation. But she chose her own death by fire. Why?

A friend of mine picked up my last post on the subject and sited it on his blog along with a report a woman had done on the same phenomenon. One person she interviewed seemed to have an idea as to why women choose self-immolation, an extremely painful and often very slow death. She suggested that in a country where most people don’t have very sophisticated methods of doing most things, they turn to household items like cooking oil to end their lives. I find this unconvincing. First, because there is probably a gun in every household in Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for thirty years, where arms are probably more readily available than chewing gum. And second, because it doesn’t take into consideration the role that self-immolation has played in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries. If you simply want to end your life, there are much quicker and far less painful ways to do it. Self-immolation is a spectacle, the act itself as well as the resulting wounds. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, because doing any harm to the body, altering it in anyway either while alive or after death, is considered sacrilege. So burning yourself is in itself, already a profound statement in a country as religious as Afghanistan.

Suttee, or sati, the Hindu custom in which the widow voluntarily throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre is another well documented practice of women burning themselves, though it should be noted that cremation is the rite of choice, and suttee was traditionally seen as the culmination of marriage. Though this is rarely carried out today, it still happens, and historically, it was not always certain that the widow was doing it so necessarily of her own will. But a woman, in such societies, is nothing without her husband. She is illegitimate, and death may be preferable to an invalid existence.

According to Islamic tradition, a woman who has been defiled, that is, raped, is ruined. She is a shame to her family and to herself, and cannot be married off. She is, therefore, rendered illegitimate. That is why rape is considered so abhorrent. Rape is so taboo in Muslim societies that it happens rarely in comparison to European societies. But what seems to be happening in Afghanistan is that women are being sexually abused within the family and no one is talking about it. The reports compiled by the UN in Afghanistan seem to suggest that everything I am saying is correct, but very few women are willing to admit this publicly because they fear the reaction of their community. This appears to be the unspoken reason behind many of the self-immolation cases, according to UN data compiled in 2005 and 2006. Some young women are even being used as prostitutes by their husbands. If these women were suffering beatings alone, and just wanted to end their lives, they might choose another method, but if sexual abuse or rape means a women is ruined, burning herself is a way of iterating that fact, without ever saying publicly “I was raped by my brother-in-law,” for example. Burning the body, an act of sacrilege, says “I am not worthy of Islam.” And Islam is, without question, the coda by which lives are lived in Afghanistan society.

When I visited the burn center at Isteqlal Hospital in Kabul, the man in charge told me they didn’t have any self-immolation cases at the moment. But when I asked to take a tour anyway, I discovered that in fact they did. And the strange thing is, he led me straight to her. What followed was extremely disturbing. The nurses became angry with her when I started to ask questions about why she burned herself. One of the women was scolding her, saying it was stupid what she did, that now she was a nuissance, and the man who initially denied she was there, kept suggesting that she wasn’t telling us the whole truth. The girl, Lailuma, who is 16, said that since her father’s death, her brother had been beating her, but the man seemed to be suggesting that there was more to the story than she let on, and the girl was desperately protesting that this was not the case as tears began to stream from her eyes. My feeling was that there was a detail being left out, that probably she was being molested. But the man who was urging her to say so wasn’t doing it to help her; he wanted to out her, to expose her, so she said nothing. Then he turned to me and started to question me. “Why do you come to Afghanistan? What is your purpose here? And why do want to tell this story about our Afghan girls?,” suggesting that I came to paint a negative picture of his country. I told him that their act was such a cry for help that the whole world was hearing it and it was impossible for me, as a woman to ignore it. He shook my hand, asked me for my telephone number and told me he would call me if he got any new cases in, but I never heard from him. That which is shameful, is better left unsaid in Afghanistan. Some would like to pretend that strict Islam has made for a perfect society, where there is no prostitution, no homosexuality, no rape, no incest. But repression rarely equates to abolition, and just as we have seen with the Catholic church, humanity’s more unsavory desires find a way of manifesting themselves anyway.

Herat Regional Hospital, where I met Hanifa, has a special ward for women who burn themselves, and receives an average of 6 cases per week, most of whom are between the ages of 13 and 22. The majority do not survive. But Hanifa will not die. She will return home to her father when she is released from the hospital, a father who comes daily, and publicly beats his wife on a regular basis. There are virtually no social services in place to help young girls and women is such situations, and those that do exist have difficulty communicating their existence to those who would most benefit from their services. I met a woman in Herat who runs a shelter for abused women. She, like all the women in social or public service I met in Afghanistan, have constantly endured death threats because of the work they do. When I told her about some of the women I met at the burn ward, she seemed surprised and said she would alert her employees to go there. But if the Hospital receives 6 cases per week, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a staff member there permanently to counsel those women who do survive and let them know there is a place for them to go. Decades of war have left Afghanistan in shambles and what infrastructure does exist, sadly lacks proper organization. It’s difficult to envision a solution. Women who try to help other women are constantly being harassed and threatened to stop their work by men who prefer that women remain slaves. It’s all too common for women in public service to be assisianted, so common in fact, that one woman I spoke to just laughed and said “it’s only a matter of time before they get me.” Building an infrastructure that helps women in abusive situations sounds like a good way to go, but if the women who do this kind of work are being murdered and threatened, I can’t imagine a lot of people are willing to put their lives and that of their families in such danger. It’s a sort of catch 22 situation and explains why progress seems so slow to come.

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4 Responses to “Protest by Fire”

  1. admin says:


    Thanks for writing in to give us another perspective on the issue. In Afghanistan self-immolation is a virtual epidemic, but surely there are other people like you elsewhere in the world, who have struggled with mental health issues who have harmed themselves in various ways. I think maybe what people find revolting in the particular article is the conditions for women that push them to such extremes, not the women themselves.

  2. kmjohnson7 says:

    I just want to raise that point that people today (in the United States) still do such a thing. I did a few years ago with gasoline. I was burnt over 65% of my body (had five skin graft surgeries). It can be for a lot of reasons. I had an untreated mental illness (I was 20). I’m sad that people find this revolting. I think it’s great that you raise awareness about the issue- but just realize it’s not just in Afghanistan. Good work though! :o)

  3. Hughes says:

    Saddening, frustrating, revolting, and that feeling of helplessness (impuissance)…

  4. […] admin added an interesting post today on Protest by Fire.Here’s a small reading:A friend of mine picked up my last post and sited it on his blog along with a report a woman had done on the same phenomenon. One person she interviewed seemed to have an idea as to why women choose self-immolation, an extremely painful … […]

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