The mother of nineteen-year-old Zahara holds her hand while she lies in her hospital bed in Herat in Afghanistan on April 7, 2004. Zahara, trapped in an unhappy marriage, attempted to commit suicide by burning herself with gasoline. (Reuters)
More on the plight of women under the Sharia law that radical Muslims want to impose on the rest of us. From Reuters, with thanks to Twostellas.
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Nineteen-year-old Zahara says the day of her wedding was one of the happiest of her life.
But the marriage quickly became a nightmare of quarrels and beatings. Just three month later, she lies in hospital, her pretty face and much of her body scarred by horrific burns, after she poured petrol over her head and lit a match.
In post-Taliban Afghanistan, despite a new constitution enshrining women’s rights that the Western-backed government passed in January, this remains a depressingly familiar story.
Zahara is one of many women to attempt a fiery suicide rather than be trapped in an unhappy marriage or denied the opportunity to make something of their lives.
In the past year, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has recorded at least 110 cases of self-immolation by women in just five parts of the country.
There have been no fewer than 56 cases in Herat, a Western province ruled by a hardline Islamist accused of continuing “Taliban-like” restrictions on women.
Rights workers say the phenomenon reflects a culture of violence, discrimination and broken post-Taliban dreams. They also say the problem could be far worse than the statistics show.
Lying on a filthy hospital bed in the city of Herat, Zahara clearly found it painful to speak, but once she began, her story gushed out in a torrent of hurt.
“My body was black from beatings,” she said. “I was happy to kill myself because life was unbearable.”
Zahara said her husband taunted her when she said she wanted to return to her family and threatened her with a gun. Eventually he said she should kill herself if she was so unhappy.
“He thought I was joking, but I took the matches and set myself on fire,” she said. “At first I was happy to get married, but things turned really bad.”
Other women tending relatives nearby shook their heads and tutted in understanding as she spoke. Zahara’s mother, Sharifa, sobbed quietly at the foot of the bed.
Herat Hospital director Dr Arif Shaharn said some women chose suicide rather than being sold into marriages to men as old as 75. The youngest to burn herself in Herat was just 14.
“WAY TO ESCAPE”
“They think it’s the only way to escape. It’s a very important issue and we are investigating why there should be such a high incidence here in Herat,” said Shaharn.
He said the women used whatever flammable substance was available. “Sometimes it’s gasoline, other times cooking oil.”
“The burns in these cases are usually 80-90 percent, which is generally fatal,” he said.
The Rights Commission’s Ahmad Nedar Nadery blamed Herat’s high number of suicides on both domestic violence and what he said were stultifying restrictions on women’s rights imposed by Governor Ismail Khan, a rival of President Hamid Karzai.
While Khan, unlike the Taliban, supports female education — albeit strictly segregated — women’s job opportunities are sharply curtailed in Herat and all are still expected to wear cover-all burqas or Iranian-style chador veils whenever they venture outdoors.
Marjo Stroud, of the German NGO Medica Mondiale in Herat — a city with one of the best-educated female populations in Afghanistan — said depression rates among women were very high.
“Many young women are afraid to believe their dreams,” she said. “Even if their families support them, they don’t know if their job opportunities might suddenly end.”
Khan has, for instance, discouraged women from joining non-governmental organisations, saying that Afghans who allowed their wives to work with foreign men could not be real men.
Women have also been banned from working in tailors’ shops because of “the potential for un-Islamic activity” and the only driving school for women has been shut down.
Dr Sohillah Arab works in the women’s burns section in Herat Hospital, where patients are crammed together in a bleak, grubby annexe at the end of a corridor.
She said Zahara had been lucky as she had suffered only 60 percent burns and had received treatment relatively quickly.
Many women die of secondary infections. The hospital has no sterile burns unit and patients are expected to recuperate on rusting beds in poorly swept wards buzzing with flies.
Dr Shaharn said a foreign NGO had promised to help fund a burns unit, but nothing had yet materialised.
Zahara is again fortunate to come from a closely knit family which plans to take her soon to Iran for treatment.
“I kept telling her she should never do anything like this and she should divorce if she was unhappy,” her mother said. “But she told me they tried to kill her and that he had pulled a gun out on her several times, so she had to do it.
“I have passports for us both and we will go to Iran,” she said. “My husband is happy to spend money on his daughter.”