HERAT, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–A 19-year-old woman forced to become a second wife to a man she did not love died last month after pouring a gallon of gas on her body and lighting a match.

The death of Shakiba, who like many here only goes by a single name, has been one in a string of self-immolation cases in this city of 330,000 in the last six months since the fall of the Taliban.

Young women feeling trapped in family conflicts are setting themselves ablaze in an age-old suicide method for women in the region. In Herat, a prosperous city on the Iranian border in Southwestern Afghanistan, no one died of self-immolation last year during the reign of the Taliban, but four women have killed themselves so far this year, including a 14-year-old girl whose family had married her off to a 60-year-old man, hospital records show.

Nine out of the 26 Herat burn victims were attempted suicides. No self-immolation statistics were available for the rest of the country.

No one is able to explain the rise in victims. But authorities are now addressing publicly what used to be a private issue.

‘I Didn’t Know What Else to Do’

Herat’s governor, Ismail Khan, visited the burn unit in the hospital last month to talk to Shakiba and another victim, Sanaa, and the city’s television station dedicated an hour-long program on July 21 to the issue.

That the government is taking an active role in calling attention to the problem shows its urgency. Officials are pressuring families to talk with daughters who feel they have no choices in this male-dominated country.

From her hospital bed, Shakiba told Herat television that she burned herself because her family had sold her to a 28-year-old man for $10,000 as a second wife. The teen-ager had agreed to be married only after her brother convinced her that the man would take good care of her financially.

While most girls agree to arranged marriages, some parents force their daughters to wed. Families demand up to $15,000 for their daughters and sell them to the highest bidder.

After six months of being engaged, Shakiba said she had received no gifts or financial gain and her husband-to-be wanted her to live with the first wife. He also refused to throw a big wedding for her as Shakiba had requested and her family did not come to her defense.

“My family was selling me and I didn’t know what else to do,” Shakiba told the television reporter. She was transferred to Iran for better treatment and died there three weeks later. Ninety-two percent of her body was burned. Her funeral was held in Herat.

Many Debate Cause of Increased Suicides

Despite the fact that women are allowed far more freedoms than during the Taliban era–they attend school and work now–the deeper societal restrictions have yet to be tackled.

Some Afghans believe the insidious effect of the Taliban era is just emerging. Women are finally reacting to the injustices forced upon them during the last six years and the rise in self-immolation is a way of protesting, experts say.

Bitterness and a sense of desperation that no one is on their side drives these women to kill themselves, said Asifa Aimaq, a psychologist and head of the Pedagogical Institute in Herat.

“They don’t want to die,” Aimaq said. “They’re just calling for attention.” Yet, the hospital staff report that with limited medicine and treatment possibilities, 80 percent of these women die.

Incidents that lead up to self-immolation are often small. But they reflect bigger family problems.

The other victim in Herat’s hospital, Sanaa, has first-degree burns on 40 percent of her body. She poured the gas and lit the match in front of her husband, Abdul Naim, to protest living with his family. The 20-year-old will live, doctors say, but it will take months for her to heal. When the nurse lifted the white sheet over her body recently, the young woman’s features above the torso were barely recognizable.

“I did it because of my mother-in-law,” Sanaa said, her speech slurred because half of her mouth has been burned.

“She fought with me a thousand times. I couldn’t tolerate it any more,” she said. “I did it because at the time, I felt like I had no other choice.”

Authorities Fear Copycat Self-Immolations

Sanaa said she lives with 15 of her in-laws and her mother-in-law treats her like a servant, always creating trouble between her and her husband. The day Sanaa burned herself, her mother-in-law accused her of throwing dirty water on the family food. Sanaa denied the charge and the two women began shouting at each other.

Sanaa’s husband beat both of them to quiet them. But Naim came to her defense after his wife attempted suicide.

Naim said he had stood up for his wife numerous times but his mother continued to meddle into their lives. Even though it’s against tradition for him to leave his family home, Naim says he will do so for his wife.

“My mother has been horrible to her and so I’m going to move out,” he said.

In the end, Sanaa got what she wanted: a separate life and home away from her in-laws. Authorities worry that copycats are to blame for the increase in self-immolation victims. Other girls, they say, will use Sanaa’s strategy to solve their own problems.

“It’s an idea in their head because it happens all the time in this country,” said Mumtaz Abazada, a nurse in the intensive care unit of Herat’s hospital. “But once they hear somebody else did it and got away with it, then they take action.”

Part of Their Freedom May Be ‘Chance to Die’

Whatever the motivation, it is a mystery why more women are turning to self-immolation when there is no evidence that family tensions have worsened since the fall of the Taliban. Indeed, suicide is taboo in Muslim societies because it is believed that those who kill themselves go to hell.

Mahbooba Aslami registers patients at the city’s hospital and helps prepare a health show on the city’s television and radio program. She said that if a girl attempted to kill herself, the Taliban immediately blamed her parents and would arrest and beat her father without conducting an investigation. The new moderate Islamic government here has been trying to implement a socially oriented–rather than criminal–solution, Aslami said.

“Now they talk to the girls and the family,” she said. “Maybe the girls feel part of their freedom is the chance to die. We still haven’t figured out the reason.”

Reaction from residents has been a mixture of pity and anger directed at the victims. Students have been reflecting on their societal ills. But everyone seems to be talking about the incidents.

Farrokh Ishaqzai, 60, argued with her niece Roya Hamid, a 24-year-old fine arts student at Herat University. The older woman said it’s better for the women to die since they are sinning for attempting suicide.

“They will probably go to hell anyway,” Ishaqzai said.

Hamid told her that many women are not aware of their rights and don’t know how to communicate with their families. Their desperation in part is a result of their ignorance, she added, but they don’t deserve to die.

“I would fight back if my parents forced me into marriage, but my family is open-minded so I have a choice,” Hamid said. “But even if they weren’t, I would find another way” instead of suicide, she said. “You have to take your (human) rights. No one will give them to you.”

Naeem Azizian, a young computer technician at a foreign-aid agency, said the women are not to blame. “Parents need to understand that these women should have a choice and that they are also human beings,” Azizian said.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American freelance journalist who has written for Mother Jones, The Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, Agence-France Presse and Newsday.

For more information:

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan:

Women for Afghan Women:

Also see Women’s Enews, June 30, 2002:
“Afghan Women Debate the Terms of Their Future”: