No Way Out: Self-Immolation of Women in Afghanistan

julie marshA close friend of mine from high school is beginning divorce proceedings. Another friend I've gotten to know through writing is doing the same.

Neither of them were forced into marriage. Neither of them, nor their children, have been abused. They are simply making a decision about what's best for them, and in the United States, they are free to do so. Even women who are victims of abuse can leave, though it is certainly an emotionally daunting and often physically dangerous move.

Women in many Middle Eastern countries have no such recourse. Instead, they resort to far more drastic and horrific measures: Self-immolation.


Stories such as this one have been reported for years, more often since we entered Afghanistan in 2001:

"Fawzia felt like she had no way out. Married off to her cousin at age 16, she had been beaten routinely by her husband and in-laws in their poor rural home in Paktia province for the first three years of her marriage. She complained bitterly to her parents, but no solution seemed imminent...Fawzia finally did what she had threatened to do many times before: she doused herself in cooking fuel and struck a match."

Her physician, Dr. Ahmed Shah Wazir, does not expect her to survive, even though she has received medical care. Such care is rare among victims, because often "families are too ashamed or fearful of prosecution to report what happened."

Let's examine such a level of desperation. A woman has access to no other means of ending her life besides the tools she uses -- cooking oil and fire -- to perform her daily duties, and she knows that if and how she dies, it will be agonizingly painful. Yet, for women like Fawzia and many others, this fateful course is preferable to living. Lighting herself on fire was the only control she could exert over her own life.

Fawzia's doctor offers his thoughts on self-immolation -- specifically that it has been romanticized by Iranian television and movies, and that patients of his like Fawzia are actually Iranian refugees, not Afghanis.

Yet even as he cares for her devastating burns, he's unwilling to consider the possibility that Fawzia might actually be a victim of her society: "'It is a very good culture. We support the women,' says Wazir, dismissing the notion that family abuse and despondency could be the main factor driving patients to his burn center."

I don't think it's possible for those of us living in Western society to fully grasp the nature of living in a country where there are literally no resources -- not family, not friends, not the government -- to assist a woman in Fawzia's position. Even worse, I don't think it's possible for us to grasp the supposed normalcy of her position. She cannot be helped because her society does not recognize that a problem even exists, or if it does, it's because "she is not behaving like a good mother or a good wife. And that's why the husband has the right to beat her."

As dismayed as we may often be by the inequalities still present in our society, as frustrated as we may be by the cultural norms that restrain us even now, and as much work as we still have ahead of us, we are exceedingly fortunate.

We have resources. We have recourse. We have a way out.

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