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Self-Immolations on Rise in Afghanistan

The women are apparently trying to escape arranged or unhappy marriages.

November 17, 2002|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

HERAT, Afghanistan — Early in the morning as her father was saying his prayers, 20-year-old Ahbeda -- engaged to marry her first cousin at the family's bidding -- apparently doused herself with fuel and set herself afire.

A few hours later, she was swaddled in bandages in the primitive burn unit at Herat Public Hospital, writhing in pain and gasping for air, with burns covering her entire body. Her hair was mostly singed off, her lips nearly gone, her face a blackened blur, her odds of survival slim.

Two other young women, who also apparently had set themselves ablaze, lay in nearby beds.

Such self-immolations are becoming disturbingly common among young women in western Afghanistan. Although statistics aren't available, the hospital's doctors report that they appear to be on the rise.

An average of three girls arrive at the regional hospital each week, most with life-threatening burns covering more than 40% of their bodies. The hospital has had more than 100 cases this year, the doctors say, with most of the young women dying soon after arrival.

The typical victim is 14 to 20 years old and is trying to escape a marriage arranged by her father, the hospital staff says. Often, the marriage is to an older man who has another wife and children, in a society where it is not uncommon for men to have multiple wives. For example, a 14-year-old arrived recently at the hospital in critical condition with only her palms unscorched. She had been given in marriage to a 60-year-old married man with grown children.

Conditions for women have improved somewhat since the ouster of the Taliban a year ago. Schools hum with the voices of eager girls who were barred from formal education under the old regime and whose parents, for the most part, are glad to have them back in the classroom. Television features some female broadcasters. And ever so slowly, women are poking their heads out in public from under the head-to-toe burkas that were mandatory under the Taliban -- although they have yet to shed the garments, fearing harassment from men on the streets.

Nonetheless, people who had expected social changes for women have been disappointed on many counts, with lingering attitudes in many families a huge block to liberation.

Most Afghan girls and women are still expected to cover their bodies, be subservient, remain mostly apart from men, even in the home when guests arrive, and live with their husbands' families. There has been no return to the 1980s, when Afghanistan was under Soviet control and women in the cities could safely wear miniskirts in public.

Dr. Shehin Entazary, a female surgeon who has treated many of the burn victims, attributes the problems in part to illiteracy among the young women, who lost six years of schooling under the Taliban, and their families.

"I am struggling to stop families from giving their daughters to married men," she said. "Why would they give them to someone who is married and has children? Some people think it's customary to give their daughters to married men.

"Women never have any rights," she added.

The influence of slightly more liberal Iran also might be feeding frustration. Some of the burn victims had lived there as refugees while Afghanistan was under Taliban rule beginning in the mid-1990s. They returned to a homeland that offers women even fewer rights.

Dowries are particularly daunting in Afghanistan. In a poor nation, older and more established men are more apt to be able to afford the $500 to $1,500 that the groom and his family are expected to pony up.

"It's like the girls are animals being sold," said Dr. Saleha Hekamt, a female surgeon at the hospital.

The self-immolations have been given a lot of attention by Herat's public television station, which might have given rise to copycat incidents. One doctor's young daughter surprised her by threatening to burn herself when she was angry about something.

Local warlord Ismail Khan, who controls much of western Afghanistan, has visited the burn ward and implored girls not to take their lives. He talked to one victim in a televised interview in which she expressed remorse for trying to kill herself. The young woman said she had burned herself because she wanted to have her wedding at a better hall than the families had arranged.

Khan promptly ordered all wedding halls closed and a new one built for everyone to use, so there would be no class distinction in the ceremonies. But the new structure is still far from completion, and the others soon reopened.

To help combat the attempted suicides and other problems, the TV station is running a series of programs titled "Mirror of Edification." Some deal with teaching husbands how they should talk to their wives and how family members should relate to one another.

It might help. Some who burned themselves were chafing under their husbands' control.

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