Last June, a woman set herself on fire about every three days in Herat, Afghanistan. That’s an improvement – in June 2012, the city’s main hospital received a self-immolator about every two days, and in 2010, Afghanistan’s presidential advisor on health affairs estimated that 2,400 women were burning themselves alive nationwide, every year. The cause, he said, was depression.
Almost all self-immolation in Afghanistan follows marriage, according to a 2007 study of hospital records in three Afghan cities by German NGO medicamondiale, perhaps because 70 percent of Afghan brides are married against their will. Half are children 15 years old or younger, bartered, sold and given away to settle disputes in traditions known as badal, tuyana, and baad. Afghanistan’s Shia Personal Status law guarantees the right of parents to marry off minors, and in 2009, a new law designed to criminalize rape and ban forced marriage was discarded by the Afghan parliament after only 15 minutes of debate.
People have burned in protest throughout history: fourth-century Chinese Buddhists, sixth-century Byzantine Christian heretics, 17th-century Russian Old Believers. Modern self-immolation began in 1963, when elderly Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in a Saigon intersection to protest the South Vietnamese government’s discrimination against Buddhists. Nuns and fellow monks lay down in front of fire engines to prevent Duc’s rescue, and the resulting photograph by US photojournalist Malcolm Browne inspired generations of activists to come: the annual number of suicide protests worldwide jumped ninefold after Duc’s death, according to a forthcoming University of Oxford study.
“I doubt how much effect [there is] from such drastic actions,” the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, told audiences in Australia in June 2013. Over the past two years, 110 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in their region, but little has changed, other than the deployment of a special self-immolator extinguishing squad to Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s 2011 was hailed as catalyst for the Arab Spring, but several other young Tunisian men had already set themselves on fire that year, unnoticed.
Recent self-immolations have been reported in Mauritania, Bulgaria, France and Syria, and although self-immolation in Afghanistan was a popular story in 2010, a search of “self-immolation” on the New York Times’ website returns no results at all about Afghanistan from the past two years. Perhaps because the burning brides of Afghanistan don’t walk into busy intersections with jerricans of kerosene, matches and helpers; they do it alone, at home. After all, according to a “code of conduct” officially endorsed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai in March 2012, “women should not travel without a male guardian.”
From the pages of COLORS #88 - Protest.