- KABUL -- Nazir Shah sifts
through a pile of magazines for teenage girls. "Look at what our sweet
girls are suffering," says Mr Shah, a white-bearded, retired Afghan
army officer while poring over the letters pages. "These are real
stories about girls who are suffering so much. Look: 'My family's choice
of husband is driving me to suicide.'"
- He has a special interest in the trials of Afghanistan's
young women. Six months ago, after being bullied by her in-laws, his daughter,
Mallali Nurzi, 26, soaked herself in petrol and struck a match.
- Alerted by her screams, Mallali's young daughter discovered
her mother writhing in flames. By the time the fire was extinguished, Mallali
was burned all over. It took her 24 hours to die. In a suicide note to
her parents, she explained why she had chosen such a horrific end.
- "Her husband's family were treating her like an
animal," said Mr Shah, tears trickling down his cheeks.
- "Every minute of every day, she was fetching water,
growing crops, looking after animals and children, cleaning the house.
She was patient, but it was too much for her. She was educated and sensitive.
She found it hard to live like a slave."
- Mallali was not alone in her suffering, nor in the agonising
way she chose to die. Anecdotal evidence suggests several hundred young
women are burning themselves to death every year in western Afghanistan.
- A government mission sent to investigate the problem
in Herat, the biggest city in the country's west, reported that at least
52 young, married, or soon-to-be married women had burned themselves to
death in the city in recent months. The youngest was a 13-year-old bride-to-be.
- Mr Shah says he knows of more than 80 cases of self-immolation
in nearby Farah province - where Mallali took her life - in the past two
years. A niece of his was among the victims.
- "There is not a village in Farah where a young woman
has not burned herself to death," he said.
- Self-immolation has an unsavoury place in the histories
of several Asian countries, as a form of female suicide.
- But unlike the Hindu practice of suttee, for example,
whereby widows throw themselves or are thrown on to their husbands' funeral
pyres, self-immolation in Afghanistan is not born out of cultural imperative,
but despair. Unlike suttee in India, self-immolation in Afghanistan seems
to be increasing.
- "In our culture, women have always burned themselves,
because they have always been so badly treated," said Amina Safi Afzali
of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. "But this phenomenon was never
as prevalent as it is today."
- Dashed hopes
- Behind the increase, says Ms Afzali, is a disillusionment
felt by many educated Afghan women because the two years since the fall
of the Taliban have brought precious little freedom. This is felt most
among former refugees who returned from Iran and who had grown accustomed
to a freer life there.
- Significantly most of the female suicides recorded in
Herat, about 60 miles from the border with Iran, were educated women, including
several nurses and teachers.
- "There are many more pressures on young Afghan women
today because they have learned what freedom is from radio and television,
but that is not what they have," Ms Afzali said.
- "In the past, every girl knew she belonged to her
family, she existed only for her father and her husband: she knew she wasn't
- "Now, young girls know they should have rights,
and they are prepared to burn themselves to show society that they do not
have them yet."
- That seems true of Mallali. She had completed high school
in Kabul and Iran before being married off to live in a remote village.
For 10 years she suffered her in-laws' abuses, too loyal to complain but,
ultimately, too sensitive to endure them.
- "Mallali knew what her rights were because she was
from an educated family in Kabul," said her grieving father. "But
in the village she had no rights at all. She must have been suffering terribly,
because she wasn't worried about the pain.
- "She just wanted to die and be free and this was
her only way."
- Afghanistan's constitution gives equal rights to men
and women. But despite an increase in the number of girls in school, most
Afghan women enjoy no more rights than they did under the Taliban. Most
of the country is not controlled by the government but by warlords as misogynistic
as the Taliban.
- "Women in this country are in a very bad situation,
with forced marriages, families selling their daughters to pay drug debts,
women being beaten all the time," said Suraya Sobah Rang, the deputy
- "We have to change these things in our society.
- "But what society wants, and what women want, are
two different things."
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