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'Tragic protest' of Iraqi Kurdish women

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Irbil, Iraq

Like their colleagues across Iraq, the doctors and nurses at the Emergency Management Centre in Irbil work relentlessly.

Chilura Hardi, head of women's radio station and centre
Activists say self-immolation reflects Kurdish experience under Saddam

The medical specialisms at this hospital are war surgery and burns.

With the continuing violence in nearby Mosul and Diyala province, war surgery is in great demand. So too is the burns unit.

The chief nurse, Ahmed Mohammad, has done the tour of the women's intensive care unit many times before.

"This is ICU burns," he said. "We have four patients here."

In the corner of the ward lies a girl swaddled in bandages.

"The upper part of her body is burnt. So are her head and her arms, as well as one of her thighs," he said.

Eighteen-year-old Sana has been here for nine weeks. Only the tips of her fingers and a small part of her face are visible.

Alarming trend

"I tried to commit suicide," Sana said. "I have been sick. I had some mental problems and that is why I decided to burn myself."

Sana's state of mind and her story are confused - but in time it becomes clear that the pressure of exams at school became too much for her.

Can you imagine? You put kerosene on yourself and light it. Some of them lock themselves in a room so that nobody can actually get to them and save them
Chilura Hardi
Head of women's radio station and centre

One moment she blames herself. The next she says that her family didn't support her.

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq is generally seen as a model for the rest of the country.

This semi-autonomous area is relatively safe, the economy is flourishing and it is regarded in the West as a liberal haven in an often-conservative region.

But since the fall of Saddam Hussein there has been an alarming trend - hundreds of women have died after setting themselves on fire.

Anecdotal evidence from medical sources and women's activists indicate that on average a woman a day tries to kill herself in the Kurdistan region. Most of them do so because of family problems.

Agonising death

The workers at Radio Khatuzeen have heard scores of stories like the one Sana tells.

"The way they kill themselves is a real tragedy," says Chilura Hardi who runs the women's radio station and centre.

"Can you imagine? You put kerosene on yourself and light it. Some of them lock themselves in a room so that nobody can actually get to them and save them."

The workers at the centre have several theories about why so many women try to kill themselves in such an agonising way.

Some believe that religion is to blame - if a woman does something wrong, so the theory goes, she faces burning in hell.

Others argue that in a conservative, patriarchal society, the pain of women is only recognised through dramatic gestures. The kerosene heaters that are in every home provide a way to be noticed.

Anfal

There is also the horrific history of Iraq's Kurds.

"When Saddam's regime was in power he did everything to subordinate women," Chilura Hardi says.

Emergency Management Centre
The medical centre specialises in war injuries and burns
"The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds was exactly like that. He actually killed all the men but let the women stay and live that sort of misery with their children. There was 30 years of that kind of rule. It will take a long, long time for that to change. It is a very slow and painful process."

The human rights minister in the Kurdistan region admits that immolation is a problem that his government is struggling to deal with.

There have been attempts to improve education and women's shelters have been built, but it will take years to change long-held customs.

"Our community consists of all types," Dr Yousif Shwan Aziz says. "Fortunately most of them are liberal people. They believe in the progress of women and men."

'Feudal'

For many Kurdish women the optimism of the minister is not borne out by experience.

"There is widespread bad treatment of women," said Chiman whose sister burnt to death.

"I don't believe that women here have power. The reports in the media are just talk. The reality in our society is totally different. It's a fact that the government is too feudal. It doesn't have a solution for the problems."

At times the challenges facing Iraq are simply incomprehensible.

As in other countries at war, it often seems that it is women who suffer most.

For the Kurds, the Kurdistan region is meant to be different - a place where this most persecuted of people are trying to build a safe future.

There is much that still needs to change for Kurdish women.



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