Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Afghan women who turn to immolation

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Women in Afghanistan
Poverty, illiteracy and domestic violence still weigh on women

Sitting in her family's mud brick home, Shanas recalled the day she set herself on fire.

The 16-year-old doused her legs in petrol and then with a match set the fuel alight.

"The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital surrounded by my family. That was three or four days later."

From what Shanas says it is unclear what drove her five years ago to take such drastic action.

She may have been unhappy about her engagement during that period.

But what is clear is that her story is one that is repeated across Afghanistan.

Lack of freedoms

Self-immolation among women has the highest recorded levels in Herat province (although many other provinces provide no data on the subject).

Most of the women are in their teens or early 20s and are recently or soon-to-be married.

We want to have the same rights as men
Kandigol, women's rights campaigner

Experts suggest that a combination of poverty, illiteracy, domestic violence and lack of freedoms continue to drive this decades-old trend.

While the Afghan constitution - written after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 - enshrines equal rights for men and women, much of the country remains conservatively entrenched.

At the burns centre of the provincial hospital in Herat, Dr Mohammed Jalili knows more than most about this gruesome practice.

He says he has seen more than 80 cases of women committing self-immolation in the past year. The majority of these women have died from their injuries.

"Many of the women and their families say 'it was an accident'," he says. "It's their way of hiding their shame about the act."

But Dr Jalili says the cases are often easy to detect. Apart from the extent of burns, one tell-tale sign of an act of self-immolation is that there are no burns on the arm used to pour the petrol.

Shocking response

At the hospital, Dr Jalili was treating two women. He had operated on 20-year-old Anargol three times, including a skin graft operation on her badly scarred neck.

Art and crafts fair in Kabul to mark International Women's Day
Afghan women rarely get a forum to display their talent

Anargol says she had committed self-immolation after arguing with her husband.

When asked whether she had a message for other women, she had a shocking response.

"Don't burn yourself," she said, lying on her hospital bed. "If you want a way out, use a gun: it's less painful."

It was an absolute cry of despair, and something rarely heard from women in this deeply conservative society.

But according to Soraya Balaigh, director of the provincial department for women's affairs, it is an emotion that many women relate to.

"Pressure is often put on these women by their husbands or the mothers-in-law," she says.

"Violence is common and many women are desperate. I had a woman in this office who begged me to kill her here rather than send her back."

But there are some women who think that small steps are being made in the field of women's rights.

To mark International Women's Day in March, an arts and crafts fair was held in the city, with all the items made and sold by women.

Hundreds of people visited the fair selling an array of items, including jams, oil-paintings, religious sayings carved in wood and wedding cakes bedecked in decorations.

"I wanted to show that women can do some things better than men," says the organiser, Kandigol. "We want to have the same rights as men."

But Kandigol, like many women here, is realistic enough to know that this is wishful thinking at the moment.

Some will continue to feel isolated and desperate. And a few will decide to make a terrible, painful escape - and set themselves ablaze.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific