Freedom by fire

Self-immolation among Afghan women is on the rise.

Published March 15, 2007 11:25PM (EDT)

Today's Associated Press story about the rise in self-immolation by desperate Afghan women is almost too awful to wrap your mind around. According to a survey of 800 Afghans who had a female relative light themselves on fire, the practice seems to be increasing as women imitate other suicides they have heard reported in the news. Unfortunately, as the report suggests, the women choose this form of suicide because they think it guarantees death. In reality, 30 percent of the attempted suicides fail, leaving the women severely burned and scarred for life.

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which conducted the survey, in the past year hundreds of women have chosen this painful, horrendous death to escape the sheer hell of their lives. Self-immolation has always been a form of extreme political protest, but these women seem to see it as the only way out. The numbers appear to be rising fast. For instance, two years ago Kandahar province reported 74 annual cases; in the first six months of this year there have already been 77. Most sources have said they think the actual numbers are much higher than reported cases.

Ironically, even though the country now boasts laws guaranteeing women equal rights and a portion of the parliamentary seats, the situation for many women has not improved since the Taliban years. Before their suicides the women told their families of rapes, forced marriages, beatings and condemnations of their honor. Of course, women around the world suffer these things, but it takes an especially nasty situation to send so many women to martyr themselves to the idea of freedom. Many women cannot leave their homes or visit their families. If this isn't an SOS to the rest of the world I don't know what is.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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