War Not Cause of Self-Immolation Suicides in Afghanistan

Alex DiBranco at Change.org’s Women’s Rights blog recently wrote a post titled “Afghan Women Choose Suicide Over Facing Continued Violence” about a report released by the Canadian Government showing dozens of women are still setting themselves on fire to commit suicide in the western province of Herat. “When dozens of women consider being burned alive seems preferable to life, you know something’s deeply wrong,” Alex wrote. “The action brings to mind the Buddhist monks who used self-immolation to protest the Vietnam War — and oh look! The United States has messed up both countries.”

According to the Star article Alex linked to about the Canadian report, “the director of a burn unit at a hospital in the relatively peaceful province of Herat reported that in 2008 more than 80 women tried to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire, many of them in the early 20s.”

Herat is mostly peaceful. Afghan women –specifically Herati women in this case– aren’t committing suicide to protest foreign occupation, they’re killing themselves to escape domestic violence, sexual abuse and forced marriages, all long-standing problems in Afghan society that pre-date the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. 

Both Alex and the Star drew another problematic association.  Alex wrote, “Last year, a controversial law legalized marital rape,”  and the Star contextualized the self-immolation report as having been “written against the backdrop” of international outrage over that law. “The legislation, aimed at courting votes in the minority Shiite community, legalized rape within a marriage,” it said.

The report may have been written round the same time the so-called rape law (Shia Personal Status Law) was stoking outrage within Afghanistan and internationally, but besides both being issues of women’s human rights, there’s no relationship between the law and the self-immolation suicides of women in Herat.

The intense press coverage of the controversy last year generated much more outrage than actionable insight. It also gave the false impression that Hazaras, who account for more than 90 percent of the country’s Shia, are a particularly conservative, even misogynist, group in Afghan society.

By almost any measure, the Hazaras are the least conservative of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups when it comes women’s status and social roles, and many Hazaras opposed the clause in the Shia Personal Status Law that condoned marital rape. But the internal debate within the Hazara community –and within Afghan civil society– was given very little play in American and European media.

In Daykundi, a mostly Hazara province in central Afghanistan, there is near gender parity in school enrollment, and more female high school students from Daykundi and neighboring Bamian, another predominately Hazara province, passed university entrance exams in 2008 than girls from 10 majority Pashtun provinces combined. That is pretty remarkable, considering Hazaras have historically had less access to education, and both Bamian and Daykundi are sparsely populated and extremely poor, even by Afghan standards.

“The Hazaras’ emphasis on educating girls as assiduously as boys, along with a stronger belief in gender equity than is common here, belies the perception of Afghan Shiites left by the passage last spring of a law for Shiites that condones marital rape,” stated a decent, fairly recent New York Times article. “College-educated Hazaras, including women clad in white head scarves, are a growing presence in Western offices in Kabul.”

The current situation in Afghanistan –the foreign troops, the insurgency, the Afghan government, roll it all in together– doesn’t affect all Afghan women exactly the same way. Women in the south and east certainly suffer a great deal in the fighting between the Taliban and NATO forces, as do all civilians caught in the crossfire. Women elsewhere in the country have benefited from the removal of Taliban era restrictions on education, movement, and speech and from an influx of foreign assistance to women’s initiatives.

But life is still very, very grim for many women, even in peaceful areas, as the self-immolation suicides in Herat testify to. There is much work to be done to protect women’s human rights in Afghanistan, and I was honored to meet some of the women doing this work when I attended the London conference NGO events last week.