This is one of the first few articles of its kind that explores the phenomenon of self-immolation among Afghan women from an academic, psychological perspective. Although the practice of self-immolation has been covered by the media, sometimes even widely, certain factors that have been mentioned in this article have contributed to this problem and the method of killing oneself by committing self-immolation is still seen among some Afghan women. The article was first published by Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice in 2011. I would like to thank Dr. Nahid Aziz for getting the permission to publish this article on Rawan Online. Esmael Darman
Afghanistan has experienced a long and chronic political conflict. Three decades of war have profoundly affected the lives of at least two generations of Afghans. The devastating wars have caused the Afghan population to endure severe adversity, including chronic stress, displacement, the experience of traumatizing events, loss of family members and loved ones, violations of human rights, and poverty.
Chronic conflict and war coupled with insecurity and poverty have dramatically influenced the social structure of Afghanistan and its people. One of the major negative consequences of ongoing 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 percent 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. Serious and chronic mental health problems have a direct impact on family functioning, and there is an increased risk for higher rates of domestic violence and substance abuse and addictions. Although there is no way to ensure accurate reporting of the suicide rate among the Afghan population, in the past decade, the rate of self-immolation has reportedly increased exponentially, especially among young Afghan women.
Self-immolation, deliberately setting of oneself on fire, is a rare and excruciatingly painful form of intentional self-destruction. Although the practice of self-immolation is not tolerated by any religion or culture,
In the West, it is difficult to imagine a person doing such a thing—choosing the single most painful way to die as a form of protest. The practice of self-immolation is found mostly in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Iran, and, more recently, in Afghanistan. The highest number of self-immolation cases has occurred in Iran, where it is one of the leading methods of suicide. In the Islamic countries, generally, the victims are mostly women who may not see any way out of the cycle of misery in which they recurrently face assaults on their basic human rights, oppression, and lack of legal protections. Many women in Afghanistan today are silently dying in this same way.
In Afghanistan, the number of cases of self-immolation has increased drastically in the past ten years. The first cases were noted during the mid-1990s. This was the era when the Afghan civil war started among different political factions after the military withdrawal of the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Afghanistan fell into the hands of Mujahedeen (religious fighters). Afghan women became the prime victims and weapon of war of Afghan warlords during the years of the civil war. Different political factions and ethnic groups violated the women of their ethnic enemy to take revenge. Afghan women were left with deep psychological scars and a shame intensified by the rejection of their own families after they were raped and brutally violated. As a result, many Afghan women started engaging in self-immolation to end their lives and to protest the warlords and their political influence in the country.
The city of Herat, located in Western Afghanistan and a neighboring city of Iran, is in the province of Herat, which was viewed until recently as the province where the first cases of self-immolation were registered in 1994. According to some estimates, however, Kandahar province has now been identified as having more cases of self-immolation than Herat. Although this sad phenomenon has been widely reported by various media, there is a notable lack of systematic research on the epidemiology of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Factors such as shame, stigma, and cultural taboos involving the concept of suicide within the Afghan culture prevent the cases of self-immolation from being accurately recorded. Despite a lack of proper statistics, some preliminary indicators suggest that suicide is common among young Afghan women. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, methods of suicide among Afghan women include taking sleeping pills, ingesting rat poison, pesticides, or fuel, and overdosing on opium and other drugs. In fact, recent data on Afghan women’s self-immolation indicates that Afghanistan may be the only country in the world where the rate of suicide among women strongly outnumbers that of men. Globally, males commit suicide more often than women.
Despite the lack of reliable statistics on the frequency of self-immolation, there are theories that attempt to explain its possible causes. At the same time, factors such as silence and cultural taboos often prevent open discussion of these causes. According to recent research carried out by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the most commonly occurring causes for Afghan women’s self-immolation are psychosocial consequences of the chronic political conflict and war, forced and underage marriages, polygamy, customary practices of receiving money for girl brides (tuyana) and exchanging brides between two families (badal).
Due to the devastating consequences of long lasting war in Afghanistan, including destruction of the social structure, lack of human security, a high level of illiteracy, and severe poverty, it has become a regular practice among Afghan families to force their daughters into unwanted marriages. In other words, because many parents fear for their daughters’ safety, they are more likely to force their youngsters into early marriages to protect them from becoming the prey of criminals. In addition, extreme poverty causes many parents to impose underage marriages on their daughters. Although there is a law against such marriages of minors in Afghanistan, the lack of rule of law and poor implementation of the law mean that these practices are not condemned and parents are not held accountable. Historically, due to high illiteracy, many Afghans are unaware of the long-term negative consequences of underage marriage, including adverse effects on the young females’ emotional, physical, and sexual health. Many Afghan men have died as victims of war. As a result, Afghan women have become increasingly vulnerable economically because they lack access to resources. Widowed women have found it necessary to sell their daughters for money in order to survive.
As noted earlier, an important cause of Afghan women’s self-immolation is the tendency to resolve conflicts through violence. The long-lasting war and the impunity of those who commit violent acts against women have encouraged the society to turn to violence to solve conflicts. Like other countries that actively experience political conflict, Afghan society demonstrates tolerance and acceptance of violence. This, in turn, endangers the advancement of women’s rights in the country and slows the chance for women to enjoy a future without gender-based violence, thereby increasing the frequency of self-immolation. In addition to the acceptance of violence against women, there is a deep-rooted patriarchal gender hierarchy ingrained in the Afghan culture that strengthens the view that violence against women is a necessary and accepted tool for conflict resolution, and that domination of women is proper.
When Afghan women are continuously pushed down and undermined, they most likely feel powerless. They are unable to enjoy certain basic human rights such as the rights to move about freely and to enjoy access to health, education, and economic equality. In addition, the constant lack of freedom of movement has a direct and profound impact on a person’s mental and physical health. This, in turn, makes them even more vulnerable to domestic aggression and violence. Thus, discrimination at every societal level creates a sense of hopelessness and depression. A combination of widespread discrimination against women by the local and national government, inadequate implementation of the law to protect women, and an overall lack of sensitivity and awareness of family members as to how to support and protect women is sending Afghan women the daily message that there is no way out of their misery. Thus, self-immolation becomes an appealing method to end life and injustice in a most painful, but powerful way.
It seems there are sufficient factors that would motivate many Afghan women to set themselves alight. The questions one might ask are: What do they try to achieve by such a painful and drastic act? Is their ultimate goal to die? If so, why not choose a less painful method? To answer these questions, we need to consider the psychological and symbolic meaning of self-immolation. Originally, the term immolation denoted sacrifice. This could well be the motive of those Afghan women who set themselves on fire—to sacrifice themselves in order for the next generation to be better off, better protected, and to have greater access to resources.
The psychological symbolism of self-immolation remains an important aspect of this act. Despair and helplessness can cause profound hopelessness in many Afghan women who may believe that by setting themselves on fire, they will cheat their enemies, who oppress them and, in turn, they will at least take control of their death, if nothing else. It becomes, therefore, an act of defiance. It is also argued that those who self-immolate may do so to seek attention from the world and hope to make the world aware of their plight. In this case, their actions would be a cry for help from inside their world to the outside world. Because self-immolation is such as drastic act, the idea may be that by putting oneself alight, those in power will change their beliefs and attitudes about how women are treated. In other words, Afghan women who find themselves in an oppressive society, community, or family may come to the conclusion that self-immolation will provoke guilt and shame in those who sympathize with them, who, in turn, will do something to end the women’s misery and despair. Due to the traditional nature of the Afghan culture, family problems and violence within families typically remain private and internal family matters. Thus, when public attention is paid to those women who self-immolate, family matters no longer remain a secret. The motivation for self-immolation, therefore, would be to show defiance and to oppose those whose power keeps women from advancing and living a humane life.
Although in the Afghan Civil Code married women are considered equal partners to their husbands, Afghan men remain as the heads of the family and they expect that women must obey them. In other words, marriages for the majority of women do cause women to lose their rights. As a result, Afghan women face limitations; many do not have access to education, work, and social, cultural, and political involvement unless they have full permission of their husbands. If these women see their marriages as intolerable and petition for divorce, they are confronted with unfair statutory and legal systems. Many are not allowed to have a divorce, and thus are stuck in abusive marriages.
Afghan women realize that policies and laws remain symbolic and do not protect them from their daily reality of suffering due to their gender. Consequently, the situations remain dire for these women, and they may not see other solutions to their problems except death. There is also ample evidence that many women face abusive in-laws and suffer intolerable conditions at their hands. Fire also has a special symbolic meaning in Islam. It is believed that those who disobey God will face hell, which is primarily made of fire. One wonders if the act of self-immolation may be symbolic of self-inflicted hell, showing the world that their daily lives look like hell. In the Afghan culture, fire also symbolizes the elimination of one’s legacy. To destroy oneself by fire would symbolize destroying one’s generation eternally.
It is expected that self-inflicted harm, including self-immolation, will continue among Afghan women and remain unnoticed unless the Afghan government decides to implement the rule of law and provide Afghan women fair access to the judiciary system. Until this becomes a reality, the pledge by the Afghan government to promote equality and justice for Afghan women remains simply symbolic. Therefore, Afghan women will carry on their resistance to their unrecognized condition of suffering and oppression through painful means such as self-immolation.
Given the dire condition of many Afghan women, one wonders what can be done. In order to improve the lives of so many women who suffer daily and endure horrible human right violations, the domestic laws must be upheld and international human rights regulations must be implemented. Specifically, violence against women must be denounced by the Afghan government directly in its refusal to provide impunity to those who promote and force underage marriages. It is an unfortunate truth that violence is entrenched in the Afghan society. Therefore, an approach that takes into account the community level is needed to bring about change. This kind of integrated approach is particularly important in the rural areas where 60–80 percent of marriages are forced, and under-age marriage is a daily practice. In this context, it would, for example, be essential for Afghan religious leaders to promulgate the message of non-violence and the importance of harmony in marriages.
In order to alleviate the suffering of many Afghan women, initiatives that denounce violence against women must be in place. In other words, an integrative approach is needed, one that is applied at different strategic levels, including at the levels of the judicial system, of healthcare, and of education. This approach would promote educating the public about the long-term consequences of gender-based violence and how to prevent it. This is particularly important in rural regions, where the local councils (shuras) could actively encourage prominent community leaders and religious leaders, such as mullahs, to promote initiatives against gender-based violence. Without an integrative approach to the process of denouncing and preventing violence against women, the Afghan government’s pledge to promote equality will remain merely symbolic, and violence against women will continue and be justified by those who will find ultimate impunity.
It is not sufficient to denounce violence against Afghan women and to educate the general public about gender-based violence. It is most important that this approach also be integrated into the country’s primary and secondary educational systems and curriculum. A culture of peace and non-violence needs to be promoted early on and must be part of every Afghan child’s learning experience so he/she can learn how to engage in peaceful conflict resolution and develop an appreciation for the fundamentals of basic human rights, especially the rights of women. As part of this program of education and prevention, teachers and educators must be trained in identifying and recognizing family abuse, domestic violence, and imminent child marriage among Afghan students. This kind of training needs to be supported by a solid judiciary system that would endorse the law and prosecute those who engage in family and other types of violence against women.
The construction of a protective social network and structure, such as proper responses on the part of the community as well as access to healthcare, would support long-lasting change and prevent self-immolation among Afghan women. This would be especially crucial in rural areas where access to healthcare is limited or completely absent, a reality that has exacerbated the psychological condition of many depressed Afghan women experiencing domestic violence or untreated depression, and may lead to profound consequences in many of these women, including feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Eventually, they may see no options, other than to set themselves on fire to end their pain.
An important step toward reducing the cases of self-immolation in Afghanistan is the provision of psychological support. Culturally sensitive and women-friendly psychological intervention with survivors of violence is a necessity. Further, physical security remains an ongoing need for Afghan women as it facilitates the needed developments in health and education infrastructures.
In addition, the availability of family guidance centers and culturally sensitive mental well-being programs might reduce the rate of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Protecting victims of domestic violence by providing them with shelters remains an important task of organizations whose main goal is to provide protection to the victims of violence.
The international community needs to continue its support to Afghan women and its advocacy on their behalf in a culturally sensitive manner. A weak claim such as “the situation for Afghan women cannot change because of the traditional nature of the Afghan culture” is an excuse not to continue with the struggle. It is not the traditional Afghan culture that promotes violence; the violence is the direct result of three decades of war and foreign occupations that have turned Afghanistan into a country where violence has become an acceptable means to resolve conflict.
The act of suicide and self-immolation does not only affect the victims, their families, and community, but also the larger Afghan society and, ultimately, the country. Afghanistan does not have any real chance for peace, prosperity, and security as long as Afghan women lack good physical and mental health. Any efforts to construct a peaceful and fair Afghanistan may be shattered as long as the needs of victims of violence are not acknowledged and properly addressed. Helping Afghan women means helping their families and ultimately helping their communities. Without this kind of multi-level, integrated help, the cycle of violence, retaliation, and self-immolation will continue.
- Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. 2008. “Effective Factors Associated with Drug Addiction and the Consequences of Addiction among Afghan Women.” Kabul: Author.
- Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, Sippi. 2009. “The Arrested Development of Afghan Women,” in J. Alexander Their (ed.), The Future of Afghanistan. Washington, DC: United States Peace Institute.
- Aziz, Nahid. 2011. “The Psychological and Human Rights Condition of Afghan Women,” in J. Heath and A. Zahedi (eds.), Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Naderi, Nader. 2009. “A Human Rights Awakening?” in J. Alexander Their (ed.), The Future of Afghanistan. Washington, DC: United States Peace Institute.
- Manneschmidt, Sybille and Karin Griese. 2009. “Evaluating Psychosocial Group Counseling with Afghan Women: Is This a Useful Intervention?” Torture 19(1): 41–50.
- The World Bank. 2005. “Afghanistan. National Reconstruction and Poverty Reduction—the Role of Women in Afghanistan’s Future.” Washington, DC: Author.
Here is the link to the Farsi (Dari, Persian) version of this article:
Nahid Aziz is associate professor in the Clinical Psychology Programs at Argosy University, Washington, DC. She is a women’s rights activist, a member of the Steering Committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and the vice president of Afghan Education For A Better Tomorrow, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide health and education to needy Afghans. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org