OPINION: ‘Afghan women would not be setting themselves alight unless the pain she has inside is more than the pain of flames,’ writes Dr Ayesha Ahmad.
Up In Flames: Why Are Afghan Women Setting Themselves On Fire?
Variations of the Pashtu proverb ‘kor yar gor’ – home or grave – are common and threaded through the story of an Afghan woman, depicting either of the two places she should be.
Her permitted space is limited, and her voice is confined to the walls of her home or the ground of her grave, but the epidemic phenomenon of death by burning is challenging this notion.
In the flames, her pain makes a ghostly presence and is the only form of disclosure she may have in a society where 80 percent of women cannot write and where sharing stories of suffering is perilous.
For many Afghan women, her home and her grave become the same place.
Afghanistan is the only place in the world where female rates of suicide are higher than men. Of the estimated 3,000 acts of suicide each year, over 80 percent are women.
The wider backdrop of Afghanistan presents an extreme setting.
The ‘war against women’ continues its own meta-conflict hidden from the global community in Afghanistan and overshadowed by the ‘war against terrorism’.
Violence towards women and girls is a global problem but rates in Afghanistan are some of the highest in the world. 80 percent of marriages take place without the consent of the bride, who is often a child, and an estimated 10 percent of all marriages are a result of baad practice.
A lack of protection, for example, demonstrated by the government’s incentive to close women’s shelters is a way of silencing and shaming women who have conflict-based and domestic-related experiences of gender-based violence.
A recent case of a 19-year old girl who was kidnapped and raped by a paramilitary officer, then subsequently by a chief police officer, failed to gain any traction nationally or internationally in view of the injustice that she suffered. Her response was to express her wish to set herself alight if she does not receive justice.
The way that expressions of suicide have been interpreted is further fuel for creating more deaths in the future. For example, in June 2014, a woman set herself on fire on an average of every 3 days in Herat.
Mental illness is cited as the reason for women committing suicide with recent studies showing that 1.8 million Afghan women have been diagnosed with depression. Furthermore, a study based on Health Ministry records, reveals mental illness as well as domestic violence as the main causes for attempting suicide.
However, the treatment gap for mental health in Afghanistan is significant with a severe lack of specialized mental health care services and heavy stigma including suicide leaving women even more vulnerable.
Women who attempt suicide and survive are often abandoned by family members due to the taboo that suicide carries.
It is also common for religious leaders to suggest beatings for women whose family members believe they are mentally ill to exorcise spirits.
Whilst gender-based violence inherent in traditional and cultural customs is understood as a reason for the high rate of female suicide, the responses are wholly inadequate.
A 2015 assessment carried out by the World Health Organisation revealed major weaknesses in health care provision to gender-based violence (GBV) survivors.
Health care providers also lack the knowledge and understanding of GBV.
Socio-cultural beliefs and taboos are carried into the clinical setting and form a barrier to disclosure and help-seeking behaviour.
For example, despite the health-related consequences and severity of GBV in Afghanistan, only two percent of health care facilities have a protocol in place for GBV care.
Self-immolation has potent symbolism from around the world, and stems from fractured identities and lands where peace and healing need to be fought for.
For the burning Afghan women, though, the flames are beset with an unheard narrative.
Afghan women would not be setting themselves alight unless the pain she has inside is more than the pain of flames. The lack of space for a woman’s narrative, and limited modes of written and spoken expression, mean that a woman’s gham (suffering or sadness) is confined to her body and mind.
The flames are a symbol of the fire she is experiencing within herself and her home.
The vivid sacrifice of life through self-immolation is, ultimately, the only form of defence she holds.
There is no effective legal recourse or resources for her to access. The fire places a boundary on her own justice—she is drawing the line on what is done to her. She is a lone protester, the only one to protest on her behalf that what she is enduring in life is unjust and wrong. Her only agency is in her decisions around her death.
Despite the gravity of a consistent suicide epidemic of women throughout Afghanistan there are many reasons why the plight and suffering of the victims of self-immolation are going to be buried from all aspects of society and struggle to rise into the global health agenda.
The reduction of self-immolation to a symptom of untreated depression is an easy transition on a governmental level. In turn, the burning woman can be portrayed globally as another image of a passive and silent victim when the real, unearthed narrative is an act of bravery against injustice.
The translation of suicidal desires into diagnoses of mental illness further negates the suffering that Afghan women are enduring and takes the responsibility of Afghan society further away from addressing the way that women are abused.
The suicides are juxtaposed between epitomes of silence and the desperate yearning for words to carry weight; instead their screams fall into the ethereal distance not even echoing as their bodies become ash. Their ashes and the soil merge and once again, the home and the grave are inseparable.
- Dr Ayesha Ahmad is an academic specializing in mental health, culture, and psychological trauma and is a lecturer in Medical Ethics and Law at St Georges University of London and an Honorary Lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, University College London.