Sunday, November 21, 2010

Defiance within the Fire

“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.”

This story is familiar. In fact two weeks ago, “The Stoning of Soraya M” demonstrated another version of this story – albeit without self-immolation. What does it say to us when it is the woman who perpetrates the violence against herself?

This New York Times article delves into the recent phenomenon of Afghani women committing suicide through self-immolation. The Herat burn hospital has had at least 75 women arriving with burns, and perhaps the most striking statistic is that this number is up almost 30 percent from the past year. The article states that the shame in discussing household troubles, inability to diagnose or treat mental illness, depression, and domestic violence are all contributing factors affecting this extraordinary choice. These women are often uneducated, incredibly poor, and are married young. Without any choices in their lives, perhaps for these women, this is the only choice that they can make for themselves – one between an oppressed life and death.

When discussing development in Afghanistan, especially after the fall of the Taliban, women’s rights took a forefront especially in establishing schools for women and releasing the mandate to wear a full burqa. However, much of the optimism seemed to rest upon the fact that, “the women in Afghanistan will be convinced of their need to ‘go to the barricades’ and march forward toward a bright and joyous future.” What such statements forgot was the actual situation on the ground. First, after five years of oppression, sudden changes in attitudes and lifestyle rarely happen. Second, as is the case with economic development in general, rural areas rarely tend to be allocated equal distribution of funds to combat domestic violence or other issues affecting women. Finally, rurality itself plays a significant fact as to why these women are not receiving adequate health care and therapy in Afghanistan.

Perhaps, and this is an open question, applying strict feminist theory such as essentialism, cultural difference, and radical feminism never will quite directly apply in such situations. These women need very rudimentary help – help that doesn’t fit within the structure of theory. What the stories of these women do have, however, in between the violence, the fire, and the pain is defiance. Ultimately, as feminists we all have some form of defiance within ourselves and within the theory we derive – and perhaps in that way we can best serve these Afghan women as we seek to give them the equality and help they so justly deserve.


Yazzyjazzy said...

These new statistics of women in Afghanistan are heartbreaking. I think you put it well when you said, "[W]ithout any choices in their lives, perhaps for these women, this is the only choice that they can make for themselves – one between an oppressed life and death."

In theory, Afghanistan expects that if women are unhappy with their situations, they will change them. Although I somewhat understand the notion that the weight rests on the shoulders of women to carry forward the movement of equality, I mostly think its a lazy, cop out. I feel that reliance solely on women will unfortunately leave the movement at a standstill. In a place where women have so few rights and little to no respect from the men/leaders of society, how can we expect them to better their situations alone? In reality, rather, equality and better treatment toward women must rest on the shoulders of BOTH men and women. As we are seeing, women are not feeling as though they can change their positions and are tired of oppression, and are turning to suicide.

Chez Marta said...

N.P. and Yazzyjazzy, you are both right about suicide being a choice between an oppressed life and death, but the means of committing suicide indicate something else. There are many ways to kill oneself, and burning herself is certainly not the most secretive way for a woman to do so. I believe these women are making themselves into torches on purpose, shining bright light on the silent martyrdom of their existence.

Bijorn Turock said...

Self-immolation is an issue that has become common among women in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. As you mentioned, “shame in discussing household troubles, inability to diagnose or treat mental illness, depression, and domestic violence” are all contributing factors that affect this pain-inflicting choice. I feel that it is the socio-economic structure of these regions that give rise to these contributing factors.

Because these regions are mostly poor and closed minded, women are taught at a very young age to be content and accepting of all the harsh obstacles that they are faced with. This mentality can lead to the development of low self worth, which can give rise to shame, one of the contributing elements you mentioned. Furthermore, in many of these areas, domestic violence is not only socially acceptable, but a required means of disciplining one’s spouse. Thus, depression that may result from domestic violence or a development of shame is often internalized to avoid being labeled a social outcast, which over time can result in self-immolation.

Perhaps one way of reaching out to women in these areas is to provide psychological support through the Red Cross or some other non-profit organization.

Alcestis said...

The NY Times article was truly heartbreaking. I agree with Marta that these women seem to choose this form of suicide for a purpose. They do not die, or attempt to die, silently but make the point that something in their lives are not right and it must be recognized and dealt with.

Although this seems to be the only choice they have, a choice between an oppressed life and death, it was appalling to read that one of the women was even told that she would not be able to set herself on fire. At some point enough really is enough. I hope that with the pain already suffered from the women lost by self-immolation, others will recognize that they are not alone and come together to change things.

Dusty said...

This post and the responses to it are so poignant, touching and deeply appreciated. Like you have all been discussing, these women may be using their deaths and attempted deaths as a moment of exercising the only power they feel they have in their oppressed existence. In their self immolation they are attempting to empower or free themselves.

This reminded me of a very tragic local example from the fall of 2005. A poor woman of color with mental health struggles killed her three children by drowning them in the SF Bay around Pier 1. She did this intentionally, as she stated from what I remember on the news reports at the time, because she thought her sons would have better chances in death than she could give them in life as poor urban black men in the US. Like the women in Afghanistan, she felt the only choices she really had in life were so limited and desperate that her only avenues to self empowerment and empowerment for her children were just as limited and grossly desperate.