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Afghan wives turn to a fiery self infliction

as a way out

Alissa Rubin, New York Times

Even the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.

The night before she burned herself, Gul Zada took her children to her sister’s for a family party. All seemed well. Later it emerged that she had not brought a present, and a relative had chided her for it, said her son Juma Gul. This small thing apparently broke her. Ms. Zada, who was 45, the mother of six children and who earned pitiably little cleaning houses, ended up with burns on nearly 60 percent of her body at the Herat burn hospital. Survival is difficult even at 40 percent.

The hospital here is the only medical center in Afghanistan that specifically treats victims of burning, a common form of suicide in this region, partly because the tools to do it are so readily available. Through early October, 75 women arrived with burns — most self-inflicted, others only made to look that way. That is up nearly 30 percent from last year.

It is shameful here to admit to troubles at home, and mental illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated. Ms. Zada, the hospital staff said, probably suffered from depression. The choices for Afghan women are extraordinarily restricted: Their family is their fate. There is little chance for education, little choice about whom a woman marries, no choice at all about her role in her own house. Her primary job is to serve her husband’s family. Outside that world, she is an outcast.

Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed in honor killings because the families fear they have spent time unchaperoned with a man. Women and girls are still stoned to death. Those who burn themselves but survive are often relegated to grinding Cinderella existences while their husbands marry other, untainted women.

The most sinister burn cases are actually homicides masquerading as suicides, said doctors, nurses and human rights workers. Doctors cited two recent cases where women were beaten by their husbands or in-laws, lost consciousness and awoke in the hospital to find themselves burned because they had been shoved in an oven or set on fire.

For a very few of the women who survive burnings, whether self-inflicted or done by relatives, the experience is a kind of Rubicon that helps them change their lives. Some work with lawyers who are recommended by the hospital and request a divorce. Most do not.

Unlike many women admitted to the burn hospital, Ms. Zada showed no outward signs of distress before she set herself on fire. Her life, though, was hard. Her husband is a sharecropper. She cleaned houses and at night stayed up to clean her own home — a nearly impossible task in the family’s squalid earthen and brick two-room house buffeted by the Herati winds that sweep in a layer of dust each time the door opens.

Two weeks after his wife set herself on fire, he stood by her bed as she stopped breathing.

Alissa Rubin, New York Times

Many words come to mind after reading this article.

Democracy is not one of them.

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