A few days ago, in the back of a cab in Kabul Afghanistan, I met Sadat. She couldn't say a word. This girl, 15 years old, was wrapped head to toe in bandages, with only her blistered, scorched face visible. Who was responsible for her injuries?
Given that she poured the oil from two lamps onto herself, and willingly lit the match that engulfed her body in flames, one could argue she was the responsible party.
But I think we all know that every attempted suicide has a deep back story, featuring many villains for every victim claimed. In Afghanistan, the layers that lead to so many girls' desperate, shattered choice to self-immolate are particularly complex.
But before we look at the reasons, let's look at the method at least 86 girls this year, according to the doctor I spoke with, have chosen. Why fire? Why burn yourself to death? Why is this the fashionable suicide method in Herat, and other regions of Afghanistan? What happened to the ol' knife to the wrist, the poison, the noose, the jumping down a well? Clearly these girls aren't after simple annihilation.
And that's just it. These girls aren't after simple annihilation. They don't want to die. They want to make an impact. They want to be what girls the world over want to be; excited, studious, loving, in friendships, making homes, having a life, having a place in the world. Many of these girls go to school -- Sadat was in 9th grade -- but even those who don't go to school intrinsically know they should have a place in the world.
Then suddenly, they get their period, are considered eligible for marriage, pulled out of school, sold or exchanged to a man and his family, and those whose birth canals are developed enough for childbirth are wives and mothers. (Many physically aren't ready for childbirth, though they menstruate; close to 30% of girls married under age 16 in Afghanistan die giving birth, according to UNIFEM Baseline Stats, many due to lack of physical development.)
Calling these girls "wives" is a bit of a stretch. In other parts of the world husbands and wives are something like partners. In neighboring Iran, where many Herat families were once refugees, "hamsar," or "co-head," is a word commonly thrown around for "spouse" -- this is a beautiful word, both practically and poetically significant, and found in Dari (a main Afghan language) as well.
But Sadat was no hamsar. She was married to a man twice her age, and her life was reduced to serving him and her in-laws during the day. Of course, she served him at night. I imagine for many it feels like nightly rape. Small misdemeanors, speaking up, led to beating, and torture. Sadat was repeatedly forced back into her subjugated role with the same tactics interrogators use to break the spirit of detainees -- for example, Sadat's husband pulled out her fingernails.
But Sadat's spirit didn't break. She went for help. She went to the police, she went to the chief prosecutor's office, she went to an advocacy group to ask for justice, a divorce. No one listened. They saw her bruises, but threatened by gun-wielding in-laws and a deeply embedded devaluation of females, she was turned away, even by other women. She had no economic independence. Islam is supposed to ensure a woman always has money, and the Prophet's first wife (pbuh) was a businesswoman who controlled purse strings -- but it's interesting which pieces of Islam are often forgotten and which hijacked and mutilated.
Still, Sadat tried to run away. She got in a taxi and the taxi took her straight to the police, who sent her back to her husband.
So what did Sadat do? She didn't decide to die, she decided to speak up. Speaking up might mean death anyway. Might as well go out with a bang.
She poured kerosene from two lamps over herself, this 15 yr old wife--now two months pregnant though she didn't know -- and set herself on fire.
And least in death she would have a vivid presence.
86 other girls have done the same in Herat province this year. Most have died grisly deaths, and still they do it. One after another.
If suicide attempts are usually a cry for help, then these recurring acts of self-immolation should be considered roars that should shake a nation. We should be hearing these screams all the way across the world, even, and we -- Afghans, neighbors, strangers -- should respond as any human should to another human's emergency.
In the case of Sadat, the emergency response has been present. Her mother called the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization, who began advocating for her intensely, led by Chairman Lal Gul. Afghanistan's Ministry of Health was notified, media brought to the scene. Sadat's husband was arrested. The justice system that failed Sadat is under scrutiny. The Minister of Health, Dr. Soraya Dalil, immediately began working with the Turkish Embassy to get Sadat airlifted to care. The Turkish Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ambassador Uzturk, and his team, pushed hard to facilitate the emergency response in a timely manner. Shriner's Hospital, in Boston, offered their facilities as well. Individuals in Afghanistan and the United States came together to donate -- rallying with little warning through Facebook and emails. Hundreds contributed. A U.S.-based nonprofit, Child Foundation, offered to sponsor this effort, as well as reach out to their donor base.
You can join this movement, and add your voice to the message that one girl's life has value, by donating, even $1, or as much as you can afford, at either of the following sites:
Or email firstname.lastname@example.org for Afghanistan domestic donations
Sadat may not die. I hope the parties involved successfully protect her precious life. And while Turkish doctors are saving her life, let us all -- Afghans, neighbors, strangers -- take a moment to hear the voices of many other girls who do die in flames, and let us think about how to answer them.
Caution: This slideshow features images that may be disturbing.
A blanket is thrown over Sadat after she sets herself on fire in attempted suicide to escape a forced, abusive marriage, and after authorities did not respond to her pleas for assistance and divorce.
The watering can Sadat used to pour the kerosene from two lamps over herself.
Sadat under the blanket, burned head to toe from attempted self-immolation.
Sadat in the back of taxi in Kabul, as the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization arrives and alerts the media.
Afghan News conducts their first interview, Sadat is wrapped in a blanket in the back of a cab with her mother, whose words are a mix of rage and tears.
Sadat, wrapped in a blanket, after being transported from Herat. 20 families in her village contributed to get Sadat and her mother to Kabul.
Sadat is taken to Kabul Istaqlal Burn Hospital, accompanied by her male cousin who rarely left her side.
Sadat and advocates enter the Istaqlal Burn Hospital.
Lal Gul, Chairman of Afghanistan Human Rights Organization, harshly criticizes those who didn't prevent this eventuality, when they had the opportunity to respond to Sadat's appeals for reprieve from her abusive situation.
Sadat waits; Afghanistan hospitals are not equipped to deal with such severe burns, and almost all girls who self-immolate, and are over 70% burned, die.
Sadat has 3rd degree burns on 85% of her body.
Sadat spends a third day in the hospital, as Afghanistan's Ministry of Health and the Turkish Embassy work through Afghan and Turkish holidays to arrange an airlift to a Turkish hospital. Shriner's Hospital in Boston offers free and complete care as well, but transport to Boston is too expensive to facilitate and the visa process proves to be difficult.
Turkish airlift arrives to transport Sadat to Ankara, Turkey.
Many gather to facilitate her transport from ambulance to plane. It is not usual for an Afghan girl who self-immolates to be taken to care--86 other girls in the past year have died in a similar situation.
Sadat leaves Afghanistan amongst well-wishers and advocates.
Afghanistan's Deputy Minister of Health greets a representative from the Turkish Embassy; both bodies worked hard to arrange Sadat's treatment, which Turkey will conduct free of charge.
People from all over the world donate money, prayers, and well wishes to this young girl who found herself in such a desperate situation.
Sadat, prior to the abusive marriage she was forced into at the age of 15.
Follow Payvand Seyedali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PayvandS