Frustrated Afghan women turn to self-immolation

Many young woman are demanding rights previously denied to them - and when they are frustrated, respond by setting themselves on fire in a protest against injustice.

HERAT // With the make-up still just about visible around her eyes, Rahima's body lay alone in a room at the main hospital in Afghanistan's Herat province. The rest of her was barely recognisable as the teenage girl she had been the day before.

Married and aged just 16, she died after deliberately setting herself on fire. The anguished cries of her family were audible outside as they waited to confront her husband's relatives. "More than 90 per cent of burn cases are burnt on over 50 per cent of their body," Dr Mohammed Aref Jalali explained. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, self-immolation has become a well established phenomenon in Herat, with women and girls pouring petrol over themselves in acts of protest and despair arising from family disputes. Men have begun to follow suit, albeit in far smaller numbers.

In the current Afghan year, which ends later this month, the hospital in the provincial capital has recorded 52 self-immolation cases involving females. Of those, 47 have died. Out of the five male cases, one survived.On the day that Rahima's bandage-covered corpse rested there, Dr Jalalai, the head of the burns unit, was dealing with other patients who had gone through similar ordeals. Shirin Gul, 16, already a mother, had burns over 30 per cent of her body. A second woman had burns over her face, neck, chest, abdomen and right and left hands, which she claimed were the result of an accident but Dr Jalalai said were purposely self-inflicted. She claimed her broken arm was an old fracture; he said it was new and might well have been caused by her husband.

Herat lies in the west of Afghanistan and its proximity to Iran has contributed to the massive changes the province has undergone since 2001. Former refugees who experienced a more open culture across the border are often blamed for demanding too much freedom on their return home. This, added to a growing awareness about basic human rights and the sudden influx of foreign music, television and fashion that accompanied the US-led invasion in 2001, has caused huge ruptures in the traditional fabric of society.

"Today women are more intelligent than last time and they are fighting against some customs and aspects of the culture," said Sorya Baligh, an adviser in the legal section at the Women's Affairs office in Herat. Ms Baligh now deals with between four and six divorce cases a week - a number that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Even as she spoke, another arrived. Arazo, 17, wanted to leave her husband because she found out he had previously been married and her brother-in-law had beaten her up.

"They have two choices. They can kill me or I will divorce," she said. Unlike some in Herat, Ms Baligh believes the cultural upheaval the province has experienced is a clear a sign that things are on the right track. However, she does not think all the changes have been for the better. According to her, the first recorded case of self-immolation in Herat arose simply because a bride was unhappy that her groom could not afford the lavish wedding party she wanted. "In 30 years of war, people who have been refugees in neighbouring countries have copied their cultures and want to bring them here," she said.

"But our society is not as open. It's impossible for a girl here to have the same life as an Iranian girl and this creates a lot of problems inside these families." Although Herat is not the only part of Afghanistan where such problems exists, it arguably offers the most graphic examples of the wider issues women across the country face as they find themselves caught between the old and new. Maria Bashir is the chief prosecutor in the province - the first female in the country, she announced proudly, to hold such a position. She has been threatened numerous times because of her work and survived an assassination attempt.

Soon after hearing another allegation of a husband physically abusing his wife, Ms Bashir reeled off a list of horrific incidents. "I have seen a woman whose husband cut her nose and ears off, a woman whose husband shaved her hair off so she would not go outside, a woman beaten with a heavy cooking pot until one of her ears was smashed into her skull, and a woman beaten with the handle of a shovel," she said.

Ms Bashir believes that, while progress has been made, the struggle for women's rights in Afghanistan will take at least another 20-years. "Those political leaders who are shouting for democracy are still not ready to apply democracy to their own women," she said. "Their women sit at home and they just want democracy for their neighbour's women."