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Self-Immolation: a Rampant Social Phenomenon Among Afghan Women

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Self Immolation: A Rampant Social Phenomenon Among Afghan Women Self-immolation, which means to “deliberately set oneself on fire” (KhushKadamOva 75), is traditionally considered a rare and agonizingly painful method of suicide. Self-destruction of this nature most often occurs in young women living in Islamic countries like Iran, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, India, and, more recently, Afghanistan, where the number of self-immolated female deaths has risen substantially since the first cases were documented in the mid-1990s (Raj, Gomez, and Silverman 2201). Unfortunately, this disturbing behavior seems to have developed into a horrific trend; according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), there were 106 reported cases in 2006, and 184 in 2007 (KhushKadamOva 76). However, perhaps more concerning than the epidemic itself are the underlying, direct, and perpetuating causes for the phenomenon: the widespread practice of child marriage, the culture’s generally misogynistic and violent treatment of women, and the government’s tendency to ignore these issues. War in Afghanistan has seriously crippled the country’s social structure, and the resultant lack of human security has prompted many Afghan families to forcibly marry their underage daughters into others. On the other hand, some families push their young girls into matrimony in order to repay debts or settle familial disputes (“Life”), but even worse are the alarmingly frequent instances in which parents arrange for their children to be married so as to avoid the cost of caring for them. More than 50% of girls in Afghanistan are married or at least engaged by the age of 10 (“Life”). Data collected by the AIHRC in 2009 showed that somewhere between 60 and 80% of all marriages that take place in Afghanistan are forced child marriages, and, as such, is not uncommon for young Afghan girls to meet their husbands — who are significantly older — for the first time at the wedding (Alvi). Typically, wedded minors are not permitted by their husbands to continue their education, preventing them from ever becoming fully literate (Aziz 47), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2013 report on the State of World Population indicates that a lower level of literacy corresponds to a greater likelihood of pregnancy (“Life”). This is clearly a negative relationship because Afghanistan’s maternal and infant mortality rates are “among the highest in the world,” and “the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women” (Alvi). Though thoroughly distressing, these conclusions appear to support the IRIN’s ranking of Afghanistan as “the second worst place to become a mother” (“Afghanistan”), due to the fact that perinatal conditions — health issues developed in the time immediately before and after birth — are the number one cause of death for women in the country, accounting for more than 17% of the country’s deaths overall (“Life”). In short, the widespread practice of child marriage has led to a generally reduced quality of life for women in Afghanistan, which is an underlying factor that has essentially laid the groundwork for the direct cause behind the female self-immolation phenomenon: the misogynistic Afghan culture. Jaleb Mubin Zarifi, a Northern Alliance member said: “We know now that the women are not wearing the hijab (headscarf), and look what’s happening — there’s cancer and AIDS everywhere in Afghanistan” (qtd. in Alvi). With this type of mentality prevalent in the Afghanistan government, it is very obvious that the women in this country are at the bottom of the social ladder. In fact, according to Sharia law, the worth of a female’s testimony in court is only half that of a man (“Life”). Afghan society tolerates — even accepts — violence toward women, which is widely viewed as a necessary means of resolving domestic conflicts. In addition to the acceptance of violence toward women, the notion of dominance over women is embedded deep within Afghan culture, which is reflected quite plainly in that approximately 87% of women reported having been domestically abused in 2008 (Aziz 49), and because Afghan women have a “near total lack of economic rights” (Alvi), most are either denied the freedom to divorce their abusive husbands or are faced with unjust legal and statutory systems (Raj, Gomez, and Silverman 2206). Consequently, the prospect of self-immolation becomes quite attractive for these helpless women in that they can at least have control over their own demise, if nothing else. The violence toward women is not limited to the domestic level, however; in many parts of Afghanistan, it is extremely dangerous to be a woman outside the house. One reason for this is that the extensive period of civil discord has made Afghanistan increasingly vulnerable to the influence of warlords, who routinely violate, kidnap, and kill women as a means of attacking their enemies (Aziz 50). As if the brutal warlord gang rapes were not already enough of a pressing issue, Afghan women who choose to become police officers, news broadcasters, journalists, or politicians in an attempt to become active in the community challenge the country’s traditional gender roles, and are often intimidated or killed for doing so (Alvi). The misogyny inherent in Afghan culture has created a society in which countless women become the targets of brutal acts of violence on a daily basis, which the director of the women’s affairs department in Herat, Seema Shir Mohammadi, links directly to the influx of self-immolated deaths in Afghanistan, saying that “women are increasingly paying back the violence they receive at home and outside by self-immolation” (qtd. in Raj, Gomez, and Silverman 2204). Nonetheless, what is almost more upsetting than the immediate cause for this utterly depressing trend is that which allows it to continue. The fact that the Afghan government has neglected to seriously address the widespread maltreatment of its women has played a critical role in the growth the self-immolation phenomenon as well. The parliament passed the Shi’a Personal Status Law in March of 2009, which was signed by President Karzai in the hopes of winning over the Shi’i fundamentalists’ support (Alvi). The law was intended to regulate the personal affairs of Shia Muslims, including setting a minimum age limit on marriage, but was poorly enforced, which allowed the practice of child marriage to continue unchecked in many rural areas (Aziz 46). President Karzai made several amendments to the law shortly after it was passed, but those imposed heavy restrictions on Shi’i women as well, among them being the requirement that wives seek their husbands’ permission before leaving home except for “unspecified reasonable legal reasons” (Alvi). Furthermore, the law places child custody rights in the hands of fathers and grandfathers instead of with mothers or grandmothers, and also legally permits a husband to “cease maintenance to his wife” if she does not “meet her marital duties” (Alvi). In August of 2009, shamelessly fraudulent presidential and provincial elections took place in Afghanistan where, according to a report from the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission Gender Unit (IEC GU), many female votes were used by men to inflate the voting polls and disenfranchise women, despite the fact that they only recently gained suffrage in 2004 (“Life”). However, what is most disturbing is the way the Afghan judiciary system operates, allowing men to behave criminally toward women with total impunity. The system’s tendency to overlook the staggering amount of violent crimes being committed against women simply appalling. For example, in May of 2008, President Karzai himself acquitted two gang rapists who are still free today (Alvi). Countless more murders of women have never even been investigated, much less brought to justice, including those involving the assassination of prominent female politicians, who regularly receive threats and are not given even a fraction of the security measures that are in place for their male counterparts (Aziz 45).
To put it simply, an overwhelmingly fundamentalist influence present within the Afghan government has led to policymaking that compromises the rights of women and refuses to offer them protection as well, which has been the major factor perpetuating the growth of the self-immolation phenomenon in Afghanistan. Child marriage, misogyny, and the government’s lack of intervention in these matters are the underlying, direct, and perpetuating causes behind the emergence of this unsettling and gruesome trend. Self-immolation will persist as a rampant social phenomenon among the women of Afghanistan unless the government makes a legitimate effort to implement the rule of law and provide them fair access to the judiciary system. Until this day becomes a reality, the pledge by the Afghan government to promote equality for women will remain little more than an empty promise. If the needs of its women are not acknowledged and properly addressed, no success will be had in building a fair and peaceful Afghanistan, and it is likely that the women will continue to resist their oppression through a most painful means of protest.

Works Cited
"Afghanistan: The Tribulations of Child-Bearing Children." Refworld.org. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 09 Dec. 2009. Web. 10 April 2014.
Alvi, Hayat. "Women in Afghanistan: A Human Rights Tragedy a Decade After September 11." Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The Global Research in International Affairs. Web. 11 Apr 2014.
Aziz, Nahid. “What Self-Immolation Means to Afghan Women.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 23 (2012): 45–51. Web. 11 April 2014.
KhushKadamOva, Kh.O. “Women’s Self-Immolation as a Social Phenomenon.” Sociological Research 49.1 (2010): 75-91. Web. 11 April 2014.
"Life as an Afghan Woman." TrustInEducation.org. N.p.. Web. 11 Apr 2014.
Raj, Anita, Charlemagne Gomez, and Jay G. Silverman. "Driven to a Fiery Death — The Tragedy of Self-Immolation in Afghanistan." New England Journal of Medicine 22 (2008): 2201+. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 April 2014.…...

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