It is nearly impossible to fathom the horror of burning to death. Couple that with the infinite desperation it must take to set oneself on fire. This is the fate some women in Afghanistan prefer over their realities.
The Story of One
“You are not able to set yourself on fire,” came the belittling words. After years of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of her husband and her in-laws, how dare her father-in-law doubt her courage.
Farzana’s desperation and defiance won. She handed her nine-month-old child to her husband, walked into the yard, and poured cooking fuel all over her body.
“I felt so sad and such pain in my heart and I felt very angry at my husband and my father- and mother-in-law, and then I took the matches and lit myself,” she said.
Fifty-eight percent of Farzana’s body was burned.
Farzana once had dreams of becoming a teacher. But she was promised to a family at the age of eight who had provided a wife for her brother. When she turned 12, her future-husband’s parents felt she was old enough to be married. On the day of their wedding, her husband beat her and the abuse continued throughout the marriage. Her in-laws mistreated her, too. Four years into the marriage, her husband took another wife and the mistreatment worsened.
“I thought of running away from that house, but then I thought: what will happen to the name of my family?” she said. “No one in our family has asked for divorce. So how can I be the first?”
Farzana spent 57 days in the hospital after multiple skin grafts and is now living at home with her mother. Farzana’s daughter is being raised by her in-laws in her husband’s house. But she refuses to return.
“Five years I spent in his house with those people,” she said. “My marriage was for other people. They should never have given me in a child marriage.”
Matches and Cooking Fuel
The majority of families in Afghanistan still live in poverty. What they do have to sustain themselves, matches and cooking fuel, is also one of the only resources available for those who, drowning in depression and desperation, wish to take their own lives.
“Violence in the lives of Afghanistan’s women comes from everywhere: from her father or brother, from her husband, from her father-in-law, from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law,” said Dr. Shafiqa Eanin, a plastic surgeon at the burn hospital in Herat.
The even more tragic stories are burn victims who were set on fire by others but whose families insist it was a suicide attempt.
“We have two women here right now who were burned by their mothers-in-law and husbands,” said Dr. Arif Jalali, the hospital’s senior surgeon.
The Deepest Desperation
Pushing Afghani women to the point of self immolation is the conglomeration of many factors. Culturally, it is taboo to discuss problems at home with others. Without psychological resources or evaluations, it is believed that many of these women are depressed. But to choose a different path from their reality? Not an option. Family is everything. There is little if any choice about education, who she will marry, or her role in the home. A woman’s place is very decidedly in the house.
“If you run away from home, you may be raped or put in jail and then sent home …” said Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who tracks violence against women.
Those who runaway and are returned are often stabbed or shot in “honor killings” for fear that they have spent inappropriate time alone with a man.
For those women who survive the burn, some are able to forge an alternative path for their lives by finding an attorney and requesting a divorce. Most do not.
The tragedy surrounding Faranza’s story and so many like her’s is unfathomable. It is worsened for some families who see their loved ones, two weeks later, still talking and seemingly improving. But infection may be gripping the patient and without the money to pay for the necessary antibiotics, it will likely win.
There is no easy answer to the desperation gripping the women who choose to douse themselves in cooking fuel and burn to death. Changing cultural norms is not the job of the United States military, though some would like to think it is. But it is necessary to combat such incredible desperation. We can only hope that stories like Faranza’s will re-write the history of women in this war-torn country.