Some might think that the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan has liberated the Afghan people, especially the women. While there is no denying that some steps have been taken to improve the situation of women, for the majority of women life has become harder. With no way out, many women, in an attempt to liberate themselves from the pressures put upon them, are attempting suicide in the worst possible ways.
One of the most common methods, which hundreds of women use, has been self-burning. Reports show that within the last several years, the number of women, aged 14-27, who have burnt themselves, has been well over 300 per year, and that is only the ones who survived to admit or are reported.
Last year, my husband, Amin Palangi, and I, decided to explore the reasons behind women’s self-burning in Afghanistan in a documentary film. However, like many, we had never heard of women’s self-burning in Afghanistan and were under the impression that women’s situation had improved after the fall of the Taliban. It was during our initial trip to Afghanistan, to visit my father, Mahmoud Fotouhi, who was then the first chief-executive of Aryan Bank, a co-joint Iran/Afghan bank, that we realized that the situation of women was far worse than the world presumed.
On the surface, especially in Kabul, women seem to be leading healthy lives as they dot the streets mostly in their blue burqas. They appear as a present source within the society, as students, nurses, office workers, teachers, and even some brave ones as singers, actresses, reporters, camerawomen and filmmakers.
But, below the surface, in the privacy of the domestic realm, much goes unseen and unheard. In fact we first heard of women’s self-burning through a friend who worked at an NGO. The stories we heard were horrendous and we felt a great obligation to the innocent women who were committing such acts.
Our investigation, followed by a second trip to Afghanistan, revealed some of the most unexpected causes of women’s self-burning. Ironically, one of the greatest reasons for the increase of the number of self-burnings has been the relative freedom which the Afghan society has gained after the fall of the Taliban. Women, who were restricted within the house, never having heard about how other women in other countries were living, were now exposed to the harsh comparison of their own lives with those other women through the media, internet and foreign NGOs. In fact the idea to commit self-burning was one imported to Afghanistan from India and some parts of Iran.
The NGOs, in their attempt to ‘free’ Afghan women and give them their rights, with their good intention, in fact contributed to Afghan women’s problems. Whereas the NGOs taught women about their rights and educated them, men were normally left out of the picture. The women having learnt about rights would have wanted to take the rights from their illiterate husbands, who in turn treat them worse because they do not understand what she seeks.
Yet, the relative freedom and the NGOs are just some of the causes. Pressure from the family seemed to have been one of the other leading causes of self-burning. Some of the victims we met admitted that constant dispute and pressure from their father, husband and in-laws aggravated them to commit suicide. In a county where child-marriage is common, and where girls as young as seven are sold to men as old as sixty, such a way out does not come as a surprise.
While the government and some women’s advocacy groups are addressing the issue and raising awareness among the women and their families, the Western world remains relatively unaware of this problem. Our hope in making this documentary, which is to be out sometime early next year, is to bring to the attention of the world that Afghan women are suffering under horrendous conditions and that we all need to put our strength together to help these women regain their strength.