Female Self-Immolations in Afghanistan (SS#20)

Today’s post reflects on a rather dated perspectives article from the The New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Driven to a Fiery Death — The Tragedy of Self-Immolation in Afghanistan” (May 2008). This article was instrumental in helping me form my thesis’ hypothesis. Indeed, without the medical literature, I might not have been able to complete my work; political scientists are generally reluctant to tackle or uninterested in the issue of self-immolation.

The article by Anita Raj, Charlemagne Gomez, and Jay G. Silverman laments the social climate in Afghanistan, particularly in regards to women, which, according to the article and its sources, is shockingly (or not so shockingly, when you think about it) abhorrent. The article cites arranged marriages, low literacy rates, high birth rates, and systemic domestic violence against women.

With no way out of their hopeless situations, many Afghan women commit suicide by self-immolation (setting oneself on fire), an extremely painful way to die. The authors write (p. 2202):

researchers involved in [the analyses] report that forced and child marriages, as well as violence perpetrated by husbands, in-laws, and husbands’ other wives, were common precursors to acts of self-immolation.

These acts were not uncommon either. The article cites previous studies that identified potentially hundreds of cases in a few short years. Some of the victims were as young as 12 years old.

The remarkable information this article uncovers, however, is through reviewing the narratives of survivors. In many of these non-fatal post-self-immolation interviews, the victims chose to commit suicide after they “spoke out against or sought help in alleviating the violence to which they were subjected — but were ignored” (p. 2202). In other words, they perceived their personal situations as hopeless because their traditional support structures (family, friends, and police) ignored their cries for help. Although this is not mentioned in the article, it could also be that the women weren’t always ignored. It’s not difficult to imagine family members or police officers beating these women for criticizing their husbands.

So why do they choose self-immolation when other, less painful, suicide methods exist? The article puts it thusly (p. 2203):

Women and girls appear to see this horrifying act as a means of both escaping from intolerable conditions and speaking out against abuse, since their actual voices do not bring about changes that would allow them to lead safe and secure lives.


The perception of hopelessness, or, as Raj, et al, put it, “intolerable conditions,” appears to be a necessary variable in compelling these women to self-immolate. If they had support structures, or if society was malleable enough to offer these women platforms for change, then it is likely they wouldn’t chose suicide in the first place—particularly self-immolation. And, of course, my oft-cited favorite study might back this up.

The Raj, et al, article has a long list of reasons why existential security in Afghanistan is low. Afghanistan also boasts a 99.7% Islam population and has been known for strict interpretations of Islam at least in the social context, if not in the public sphere. And a quick look at the World Bank’s page on Afghanistan reveals all the hallmarks of an existentially poor country (low life expectancy, high fertility rates, an infant mortality rate at about 10%, etc.); it is not surprising that religion plays such a dominant role in Afghan society.

The “intolerable conditions” under which many Afghan women live, driving them to commit suicide by self-immolation, will—in the long term—slowly disappear as Afghanistan increases its existential security though the process of industrialization. As existential security increases, the need for religion decreases. As religion decreases, the strict interpretations of Islam in the social context will decrease, offering these women a platform for social change, offering hope for more tolerable conditions. With this platform we should expect to see self-immolation be utilized less frequently.

Of course, the situation on the ground is going to be pretty hopeless for a very long time. Women in Afghanistan, unfortunately, will continue to suffer intolerable conditions for the foreseeable future.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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