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Women and Suicide by Self-Immolation in Afghanistan
July 9, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves On Fire

Images from photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair's Whitney Biennial exhibition: "Self-Immolation: A Cry for Help" can be seen at her website, here. (Caution: Disturbing, Graphic Images) An interview with Planet Magazine also contains many of those images.
In this series of photographs, journalist Stephanie Sinclair documents Afghani women being treated for extensive self-inflicted burns. These women, who were being cared for in a rudimentary public hospital in the town of Herat in western Afganistan, set themselves on fire in acts of utter desperation. Some of the women shared their personal histories of prolonged abuse at the hands of their husbands or families with Sinclair.

Sinclair’s images mark an exchange of trust and compassion. By consenting to be photographed at their most vulnerable, the women in these images demonstrate a rare bravery. The representation of their suffering exposes the everyday violence against women that is made more pernicious when it remains hidden. Partially in response to the widespread attention these images received from media outlets around the world, a new burn unit was created in Herat.


Additional Information:
* Afghan women escape violence through suicide: report
* RAWA News keeps a searchable English-language archive of news articles relating to life in Afghanistan. Here are the search results for "self-immolation". From RAWA: Afghan girls burn themselves to escape marriage
* MSNBC: Afghan girls burn themselves to escape marriage
posted by zarq (29 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ms. Sinclair's work was highlighted on MetaFilter in a 2004 post.
posted by zarq at 9:39 AM on July 9, 2010


These women, who were being cared for in a rudimentary public hospital in the town of Herat in western Afganistan, set themselves on fire in acts of utter desperation. Some of the women shared their personal histories of prolonged abuse at the hands of their husbands or families with Sinclair.

I do not want to insult the pain and suffering that these women have experienced but I have to ask. How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?
posted by Fizz at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.
posted by GuyZero at 9:48 AM on July 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


The thing I wonder about, and doesn't seem to be addressed by the article (beyond the suggestion that it's romanticized in local popular media, like Iranian films), is why self-immolation is the method of choice. Why not drugs or guns? It's not like Afghanistan has a shortage of either. In any case, it's a horrifying phenomenon both for the physical aftermath and the fact that women are being driven to feel that this is their best option.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:48 AM on July 9, 2010


Wow. To feel that you have no other choice left but to set yourself on fire. That's desperation.
posted by widdershins at 9:54 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


So much for my feel good mood.
posted by new brand day at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2010


> How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?

I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that the scarring and disfigurement at least creates some distance between them and their abusers and offers them some faint measure of space that they didn't have before.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Marzia Bazmohamed, 15, recovers in the burn ward. Marzia, who was married at the age of 9, set herself on fire because she was afraid of her husband's reaction to her breaking the family television set."

Wow.

The thing I wonder about, and doesn't seem to be addressed by the article...is why self-immolation is the method of choice. Why not drugs or guns?

I believe you could ask the same question about self-destructive behaviours in North America -- why cutting? Why eating disorders? Why alcoholism? I do think there is a strong cultural component to why certain forms of self-harm are prevalent in different places in the world.

And I don't think that media romanticism is something to be lightly brushed aside, either, as factoring into those cultural trends. For example, though it appears that vulnerability to eating disorders has a genetic underpinning, from what I understand, the incidence of eating disorders rose dramatically along with awareness of those disorders (and media portrayal of them) in the 1980s.
posted by Ouisch at 10:00 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]



I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that the scarring and disfigurement at least creates some distance between them and their abusers and offers them some faint measure of space that they didn't have before.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the intent was to actually die?
posted by Ouisch at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2010


Yeah, Burhanistan, but the interviews with the actual women said that the aim was suicide, not disfigurement. I've got to believe that there are easier suicide methods than self-immolation. I mean, yeah, I know, Final Exit probably hasn't been translated into Pashto yet, let alone widely distributed, but surely there are cliffs high enough to jump off of, or assault rifles to borrow, or...something. I mean, yeah, suicide is a pretty extreme option regardless, but self-immolation. Damn.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:02 AM on July 9, 2010


Why not drugs or guns? It's not like Afghanistan has a shortage of either.

I'm also wondering how much access women in Afghanistan have to either of these things. Immolation might not only carry cultural currency, but be a more practical method of suicide for women.

Also, there's the element of deniability. The photograph captions mentioned that a lot of the women in the burn unit claimed their burnings were accidental, in order to stave off embarrassment or poor treatment from medical staff. Since women are apparently doing the cooking, it is easier for them to claim it was a household accident.
posted by Ouisch at 10:06 AM on July 9, 2010


I was working a few years ago in Washington State, with the Quinault Nation. While I was there I heard a story from the Snohomish Tribe about the first time the government came to collect all the kids in the community (probably late 1800s or so) and ship them off to boarding schools far away from the community. After the children had been taken the community members were so despondent that they took all of their canoes down to the beach and set the on fire. A community without children is not a community at all. The future had been taken and there was no assurance that these kids would ever return.

That doesn't sound like such a big deal until you realize that this is how people gathered their food and stayed connected to the world. The act of burning all of their canoes was essentially an act of mass suicide. The world has ended - what need do we have of our canoes? Grief can take powerful hold of a collective social group. For most of us, it is near impossible to guess what depths must be plumbed in order to feel that these are the only options.
posted by salishsea at 10:06 AM on July 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?

You might not die and you might get a year or two in a burns unit/hospital away from people who abuse you, would be my guess. Plus while in hospital you might have access to the very scarce resources available to help you get a divorce or better situation.

A gun, that's pretty lethal. Horribly scarred for life, maybe at the least your husband doesn't try to have sex with you and your mother in law might understand she's gone too far.

I watched a documentary on a women's refuge in Afghanistan, it seemed tiny and hopelessly underfunded and in any case was based in a city.
posted by shinybaum at 10:08 AM on July 9, 2010


How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?

Well, there's no reason to dismiss the attention. You can't really get a more powerful statement than "I'd rather burn myself alive than live another day under this kind of oppression." I'm kind of surprised the Times article didn't go into how self-immolation is used as a political statement, like in the case of Thich Quang Duc. No, the women interviewed didn't exactly claim that they were doing this to change the laws of the land--but they did describe how no one listened to them when they tried to reach out to their families. Tragically, this is an effective way to express that drastic measures need to be taken.
posted by myelin sheath at 10:08 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also as to why, burning, read the interview. Sinclair says that fire is the most available method these women have access to.
posted by salishsea at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2010


I mean, yeah, suicide is a pretty extreme option regardless, but self-immolation. Damn.

It seems like a really protesty way to die. Or maybe that's just for Buddhist monks and Czech dissidents.
posted by shinybaum at 10:11 AM on July 9, 2010


How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?

Well, your question seems to imply that this is a rational choice, or that we should expect it to be. I don't know whether they're trying to kill themselves or not, but it's at least analogous to suicide and self-mutilation. Whether those decisions are rational seems beside the point. Of course they're not rational, but the irrational act can still be a sign of an objectively bad situation.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:12 AM on July 9, 2010


Even Fawzia's doctor finds nothing blameworthy in the Afghan way of life. "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.

What an idiot.
As far as women't rights are concerned, Afghan culture is the shittiest culture I've ever heard about. I'm not quite sure if it even deserves the word "culture".
posted by sour cream at 10:13 AM on July 9, 2010


Yeah, the interview answers most of these questions:

Most of the women who set themselves on fire were very young and uneducated. I think a lot of the girls didn’t realize that they might survive this. In this case, survival is actually worse than dying because they’re totally deformed and disfigured. Afghan society isn’t very welcoming to the disabled- mentally or physically, and their families really reject them as a result of that.

and

It’s a form of suicide common not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and parts of India as well. Traditionally, that’s what’s most available to these women. They’re working in the kitchen and they don’t have electric stoves so everyone cooks with kerosene and gas.
posted by Ouisch at 10:13 AM on July 9, 2010


It’s a form of suicide common not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and parts of India as well. Traditionally, that’s what’s most available to these women.

I think we could safely say that this option is available to all people around the world. There are poor and abused women in countries outside of Asia and the Middle East. The article though does seem to perpetuate this image that the West has of the Middle East as this barbaric world that is trapped in the past.

And while I agree that there are places like this, it is not the entirety of the culture or it's people.
posted by Fizz at 10:18 AM on July 9, 2010


myelin sheath nailed it. Self immolation isn't just suicide. It's a message.
posted by Xoebe at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2010


This is horrid. But I'm glad you told us about it, zarq. I would prefer to know and try to think of a way to help.

I do wonder why this has gotten minimal attention in the U.S. press. But I wonder that about a lot of things.
posted by bearwife at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2010


bearwife, thanks.

I do wonder why this has gotten minimal attention in the U.S. press.

I almost didn't make this post.

When I first saw this article on Wednesday night, I began looking for articles and information online to help me compose a post. Found RAWA's coverage, and the other links. Then I came across Stephanie Sinclair's photos, which disturbed me very deeply. In fact I was so upset that I set the post aside and gave up on it until this morning.

I can understand why a journalist might not want to cover this. It's absolutely horrifying.
posted by zarq at 12:36 PM on July 9, 2010


"See pictures of women unveiled in Kabul."

Really?! Stay classy, Time.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2010


I can understand why a journalist might not want to cover this. It's absolutely horrifying.

It doesn't neatly fit in with the whole downturn in support for the war there either. Most news agencies only like to have one narrative at a time on any subject.

I'm completely anti-war and don't think any of the US/allies are interested in the slightest in the state of women's rights in Afghanistan, but even I cringe and think we're just leaving them to burn when people want withdrawal now at whatever cost.
posted by shinybaum at 2:09 PM on July 9, 2010


I saw this once. Not the act of self-immolation, but a girl who had the burns. I was seeing her because some of her fingers were broken, and when she pulled up her sleeve, I could see it on her hand and wrist and arm. She showed me her other arm, then indicated that it was like that all over her body. This wasn't something I'd heard about before and I assumed there had been some kind of accident. Afterward the translator came over, and she told me she had done it to herself. I asked her why, and she said she'd thought it was a guaranteed way to die. She never believed she could survive it. But she did, painfully, and it seemed that she was back in the same place she had been before. There was no way she was older than sixteen. I don't even know what the fuck to say about that. I'm not even sure I'd consider that the worst thing I saw in Afghanistan.
posted by lullaby at 2:24 PM on July 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


How does setting yourself on fire (aside from the attention) help anyone or stop further suffering at the hands of abusive husbands or families?

At this point, the point when they have decided to commit suicide, they aren't thinking of other people. When you are backed into a corner with no way out, when all you can see in front of you is a life filled with beatings and abasement, when you feel like death is preferable to life then suddenly suicide begins to look attractive, even desirable.

Women have traditionally killed themselves in a variety of ways tied to their culture. In Victorian London women throwing themselves into the Thames to drown was an everyday occurrence. Women have jumped off of cliffs, thrown themselves under trains, drunk lye, waded into the ocean to drown. The Afghani women have cooking oil. I suppose that they could slit their own wrists or hang themselves but maybe cooking oil is the easiest way.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:16 PM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


In China, rural women drink insecticide. You use what's to hand. It's quite likely that these women are never in a position where they can access a gun, just as it's likely that they are never alone for a minute or two, except in the kitchen or when cooking.
posted by jokeefe at 3:54 PM on July 9, 2010


I can't find the quote from Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, but it's something like, "We must make a war on these barbarians -- teach them some manners."

That's my first reaction, but wait! We've been at war with them for ten years.

I don't think change can come from us. We've squandered our moral authority. It's hard to say, "We're here to help you." When one of your predator drones just blew up three aunts, two sisters, and a niece.

So, how do you make the huge changes that need to be made in this culture? Is there a liberal clergy? Can it be encouraged? Frankly, could it be infiltrated?
posted by Trochanter at 3:27 PM on July 10, 2010


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