See also: A slideshow of this story that includes interviews with survivors of self-immolation.
A 22-YEAR-OLD WOMAN lies naked on a tile platform. Ninety percent of her body is burned—her skin mottled brown and in places torn open, exposing the white tissue of seared muscle. Nurses bathe her with saline solution. An IV tube drips fluid into her right foot, one of the few unburned places on her body. The odor of her flesh mixes with lingering traces of the cooking fuel she doused herself with.
Shayma Amini, 33, is the head nurse in Herat Regional Hospital's burn unit, where women from all over western Afghanistan are brought to be treated after self-immolation. A stout woman with a gentle, dutiful gaze, Amini begins wrapping the woman's body in elastic bandages. Bits of her blackened clothing flit across the floor, spun by the shifting feet of the nurses.
The previous evening, the woman's father had called her a slut, accusing her of sleeping with a man out of wedlock. He had taken her to a doctor who confirmed his suspicion. Now she would never find a husband. She was worthless to her family. Throughout the night, the woman fumed. In the morning, she stormed upstairs, locked the door behind her, and set herself ablaze. She burned for 20 minutes before her father finally beat down the door. She had not wanted to burn so badly, she told the doctors. I'll behave better. Let me live. Don't send the case to the police. It is not my father's fault.
When Amini finishes encasing her in bandages, the woman looks mummified. The nurses lift her to a gurney and cover her with a piece of green cloth. The aroma of kerosene trails them out of the emergency room and down the hall to the burn ward.
Shayma Amini, 33, is a nurse in a burn unit at Herat Regional Hospital.Amini guesses she's seen at least a thousand self-immolation cases since she started at the hospital 13 years ago—almost all of them young women seeking to escape abusive marriages (PDF) or the prospect of being turned out onto the streets by men who no longer want them. Women have been beaten—or starved, as a controversial 2009 law (PDF) allows some angry husbands to do. Seeing no escape, they choose to engulf themselves in flames.
In the first six months of 2010 alone, the hospital treated 69 cases. At that rate, self-immolations will exceed 2009's total by 40 to 50 percent. And the hospital staff believes the real number of cases in any given year to be much higher than reported; many victims die before reaching the hospital. Many more refuse to admit to burning themselves. "Numbers are impossible, because so many immolation victims won't tell the truth," says Hassina Neekzad, director of the Western Afghanistan Women's Network. "If they recover, they say it was an accident." Most lie to authorities, she says, because women become pariahs if they admit to self-immolation; they only confess if they are near death. "Who can hurt them then?" Neekzad says.
Amini attaches the woman to a '70s-era heart monitor, only to realize it doesn't work. She finds another from the same era that does. A monotonous beep sounds out the patient's pulse. The woman rolls her head, watching the activity around her. Her face is swollen to twice its original size. A police investigator with the Family Response Unit, a project launched in 2006 that assigns female police officers to investigate domestic abuse, asks a few questions and jots notes on a clipboard.
The young woman moans and closes her eyes.
Sixteen hours later, her heart monitor goes quiet.
IN JULY 2010, delegates from more than 60 nations and 14 international organizations including the UN converged on Kabul, pledging to tie future aid to demonstrated progress in eradicating corruption and protecting human rights. "Participants reiterated the centrality of women's rights," a communiqué (PDF) pronounced. Hamid Karzai's government was given six months to show it had implemented the National Action Plan for Women and made progress toward enforcing the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. But what can that mean in a province like Herat, where the Taliban control the hinterlands; where district police, even if they wish to protect women's rights, are too afraid to enforce the law?
Maria Bashir strides quickly down the hall in a black coat and blue hijab, the click of her heels purposeful on the tile floor. Everywhere in the ancient city of Herat, with its cracked wooden doors and mud-roofed vendor stalls, Bashir is on guard—even here in the courthouse where she serves as the chief prosecutor of the province. Click, click, click, her heels keeping time like a metronome. During the first euphoric days after the Taliban fell—what Bashir recalls as the happiest time of her life, when a future of justice for women seemed within reach—the town elders ordered these corridors inscribed with legal declarations in orange and blue paint:
Ignorance of the law cannot be an excuse for crime.
Any order issued by the prosecutor should be followed by all judicial organizations.
Following the provisions of the law is the duty of every citizen.
No one could have imagined then that the chief prosecutor would one day be this tiny woman, whose sad eyes and pursed lips always make her seem to be biting back tears. Before Bashir's appointment in September 2006, no Afghan state had ever had a female chief prosecutor. But Bashir had won fame as an assistant prosecutor for her investigation into the death of the young poet Nadia Anjuman. She had charged Anjuman's husband with murder after he admitted beating her. Anjuman's friends say he was ashamed of her poetry, some of which described the oppression of Afghan women: I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow...my wings are closed and I cannot fly...I am an Afghan woman and I must wail. Though he confessed only to assault—and Anjuman's death was later classified as suicide—the mere attempt at prosecution was viewed as bold, and Bashir parlayed that into an appointment as chief prosecutor. Her promotion was extolled, particularly by the Bush administration and its allies, as a symbol of a reborn westernizing Afghanistan, where women could aspire to positions they never dared imagine under Taliban rule.
Amini treats Shereen, a teenager who was burned over 45 percent of her body—the result of an accident, she said.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew Bashir to Washington for lunch to honor the progress—though Bashir didn't quite stick to the script, later telling one reporter that the pace of change in Afghanistan was too slow. "Three years ago, people had a very clear idea of the future for Afghanistan," she said. "Now we don't." The new Afghan constitution (PDF), passed in 2004, provided equal rights for women, but to this day most judges give preeminence to an extremely conservative interpretation of Islamic sharia law. The UN Development Fund for Women (PDF) has found that 70 to 80 percent of Afghan females are forced into marriage—most before the legal age of 16, more than 60 percent (PDF) into physically abusive households. Men take multiple wives, but for women found guilty of sex outside marriage, Bashir notes, "the punishment according to the Koran is stoning," which can still happen today. An Afghan woman may apply for a divorce only if she can produce witnesses in court to attest to abuse or neglect. Even then, the consent of the husband is required to finalize divorce. Men get automatic custody of all children over the ages of seven (boys) and nine (girls). "Women prefer death to being separated from their children," Bashir says through an interpreter. "That is why so many women choose suicide."
And self-immolation is the most common method (PDF). The act has a long history as a form of protest in neighboring Iran and seems to have caught on among Afghans during their years of misery under Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban rule. For Afghan women, self-immolation has become a way to externalize private injustice, to push hidden pain into the public square. They are expressing a demand for human rights in a culture that does not allow them to articulate that wish.
As chief prosecutor, Bashir has sought to help women voice their grievances in the courts instead of by the gas can. She began charging families who sold their daughters into marriage with kidnapping. She started encouraging women who survived self-immolation to hold abusive husbands to account. But most survivors are too scared of repercussions when they return home from the hospital; they tell investigators that their burns are the result of accidents.
A woman walks in front of the Great Mosque in central Herat.Meanwhile, Bashir, now 40, has made the uncomfortable transition from symbol of hope to target. When she took office, a local mullah predicted she wouldn't last a month. Now, after more than four years in office, Bashir has proven her detractors wrong—but at a tremendous personal cost. "Life is impossible," Bashir says, "and every day is worse." Telephoned death threats are routine. Threats against her family have forced her to home-school her two youngest children and send the oldest abroad. She describes her husband as "a very progressive man," but his importation business in China means that she almost never sees him. In a city where the council of clerics has issued a fatwa against women leaving the home without an appropriate male escort, she began to feel alone and exposed. She requested around-the-clock security, but the government refused. She asked for a bulletproof car and was denied. Then, in 2007, her house was bombed.
Now, as she leaves her office, Bashir's clicking heels keep pace with the rolling gait of four armed guards—hired by the American government, not her own. Bashir and her guards jog down a winding circular staircase and burst through double doors. Slanted sunlight illuminates her face for an instant before she bends forward and slides across the backseat of an armored Land Cruiser. One bodyguard takes the wheel; another rides shotgun. The other pair follows in a second Land Cruiser, visible to Bashir's driver on a dashboard screen wired to a rearview camera. Slivers of sunlight penetrate the black lace-shrouded windows, latticing Bashir's face with fleeting snowflake patterns. No words are spoken.