Increases in Self-Immolation in Western Afghanistan

The number of self-immolation cases (cases where one lights him or herself on fire in hopes of dying) in Western Afghanistan increased by thirty percent this year. Experts believe that this region of Afghanistan sees a higher number of burn victims than other regions in the country due to it’s proximity to Iran, a culture known for suicide by burning. United Nations statistics show that at least forty-five percent of Afghan women marry before they turn eighteen, and many marry before they are sixteen years old. Many of these women, or girls, are given to men and to families as a means of paying a debt.  This results in a lifetime of servitude and abuse, leading to feelings of desperation.

Burning oneself is also a common form of suicide in this region because matches and cooking fuel are readily available. Moreover, many women believe that if they light themselves on fire, they will die instantly. Physicians at the burn hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, the only burn hospital in the region, report a minimum of ten burn patients at any given time. Despite the prevalence of self-immolation cases, doctors say that in some cases the women are beaten by their husbands or in-laws and then thrown in ovens or set on fire.

Treating burn victims in the developing world is extremely difficult. Hospitals are typically the safest places for burn victims because they are the only sterile environments available, even to those families with higher incomes.  Burn victims carry high risks of infection and sepsis, but many families cannot afford the antibiotics and treatment needed to keep these women alive post-trauma. In addition to the physical treatment needed, many of these women have mental disorders, like depression, and require psychological care.

The women, who manage to survive and are treated at the burn hospital in Herat, include both educated and illiterate women. Many of the educated women learned about freedom through radio and television following the fall of the Taliban, but they feel that they are unable to attain freedom in their own lives.  Many of these women know that they should have rights. Burning themselves is a sign of desperation but also a way for them to show society that they are willing to die because of the lives they are forced to live; they feel that they have no way out. Some women burn themselves in hopes of gaining affection from their husbands or their extended families; most believe their in-laws will be nice to them if they are scarred or permanently deformed.

Oftentimes the fear of rape or being put in jail stops women from leaving or fleeing, and the risk of shaming one’s family stops women from seeking a divorce.  Suicide is seen as the only way out.


  1. For whatever reason, this blog topic has made me think metaphysically. It seems to me that the self-immolation cases in Afghanistan have been caused by the fact that: Afghani women have no recourse in putting an end to abusive family relationships and see their own bodies as the only means of signaling their plight.

    In the United States, where signals of plight take the form of legal complaints, we are spared such horrific demonstrations. Our society has advanced a structure of law for dealing with family issues that does not involve – or have to involve – such personal aspects. Indeed, as lawyers, we are trained to erase ‘the personal’ from the cases we take on because, as agents, it is our job to transform our clients’ narratives into legal motions, briefs, and testimony.

    Sitting here right now, I find myself both grateful for the impersonal nature of law in this respect (because, as I said above, we in the United States are spared terrors such as self-immolation) and mindful of what it might otherwise mean. As lawyers, in transforming individual narratives into legal discourse, do we ever lose too much of the personal foundation behind the law?

    I’m reminded of an article I once read for an Anthropology class entitled: “Dirty Protest: Symbolic Overdetermination and Gender in Northern Ireland Ethnic Violence.” It was about how IRA prisoners detained in Northern Ireland by British forces in the 1970s took to protesting the British government (and, I suppose, the British laws that imprisoned them in the first place) by refusing to bathe. This blog topic reminded me of “Dirty Protest” because in tracing the experiences of IRA prisoners, the article highlighted the fact that the person at the end of the legal spectrum is always the person who is or isn’t imprisoned, is or isn’t required to pay damages – the person, in short, for whom law is always personal.

    All in all, to my mind, the situation now being faced by Afghani women just goes to show what law is on practical level. To me, it seems, legal protections – both their absence and their presence in society – have manifest repercussions. This blog topic has reminded me that we, as future lawyers, are preparing to enter a very powerful profession.

  2. Reading this post made me feel fortunate to live in America where women have many of the rights and freedoms that these Western Afghanistan women do not have. These women who commit self-immolation must feel that there is no other solution to their horrible situations.

    However, women in America have not always been so fortunate and for many years it was very difficult for them to leave unhappy or abusive marriages. Even in America there are still many obstacles in obtaining a divorce or leaving one’s partner depending on the jurisdiction and the resources available. Until this year, New York did not have no-fault divorce, making one who is filing for divorce allege grounds.

    It is important to note that women all over the world face significant obstacles in leaving marriages. The obstacles can be financial, physical or even social. It is imperative that a light be shined on this aspect of women’s rights.

  3. To learn of these women who are so desperate to find a way out of their abusive controlled lives is completely appalling. That they are afforded no alternative to the life that is prescribed for them, many before they are 18 years old, is something that most of us in America cannot fully imagine. What is perhaps the worst part of all, is that there is not one answer to solve the issues that women face in these areas. Building more hospitals that specialize in burn victims is one way that could help these women, but it would fail to chip away at the societal and systemic issues that causes these women to feel suicide is the only option. Nor is banning the burqa the answer to female freedom in the Muslim world. I am far from knowing the answers to how to help these women and others in oppressive societies but I am aware that it will take a holistic approach to the issues that they face and the oppression will need to be tackled from all areas and supplemented with female empowerment. But in the time being, my heart goes out to these women.

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