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In Search of Freedom, Afghan Wives Make a Grisly Choice

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page A16

HERAT, Afghanistan -- Zahara Mohamedi decided she couldn't take it anymore.

Last year, when she was 18, her family sold her for the equivalent of about $1,200 into a forced marriage with a man she had never met. She moved from the city to a village, where her new husband never allowed her to leave the house. She was treated as little more than a servant, taking orders from her in-laws -- even from an 11-year-old girl.

After she was forced into a marriage, Zahara Mohamedi suffered from abuse until she decided to douse herself with oil and set herself on fire. (Keith Richburg -- The Washington Post)

Eight months ago, Mohamedi poured cooking oil over her head and chest and announced that she was going to set herself on fire. Her in-laws dared her to. They beat her and held her. She broke free and lit a match, immediately engulfing her face and upper body in flames.

"It was a kind of protest against the pressure," said Mohamedi, who survived the ordeal but carries its scars -- her left arm is badly burned and her chin is bound to her chest by her own skin.

"I didn't care about my life," she said, speaking quickly and softly, tugging at the beige shawl that covers her disfigured features. "If I was killed, I would be free of him. If I survived, I would be free of him, too."

Mohamedi's story is hardly unique here in westernmost Afghanistan, where, three years after the fall of the Taliban, women remain subject to many legal, religious and cultural restrictions and domestic violence is endemic. So far this year, at least 180 women and girls have been taken to the rudimentary burn ward in Herat's hospital. More than 100 have died.

All are believed to be victims of self-immolation, though many, in the presence of their husbands or relatives, later deny they were attempting suicide and blame their injuries on cooking accidents. The majority of them, like Mohamedi, were in their teens or mid-twenties, sold into forced marriages and victims of constant abuse.

Last year, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, using records from the burn unit, recorded 300 suspected cases of women and girls setting themselves on fire; more than 80 percent of them died.

The commission says the actual number of women who have resorted to self-immolation is far higher than what is reflected in hospital records. In addition to those taken to the hospital, many more may be dying in isolated villages, rights workers say.

"Why does it happen? Because of poverty in society," said Qazy Ghulam Nabi Hakak, the Herat regional program manager for the human rights commission. "The families that can't survive engage their young daughters to older men. . . . Another problem is the tradition of the people. Conservative families don't allow their women to sit with men, to work with men in an office or to walk open-faced from their houses. Women feel like they are in prison, and under that pressure, they commit suicide."

Herat province, which borders Iran, is more religiously conservative than many parts of Afghanistan. In rural areas, men expect women to stay indoors or to cover themselves with burqas when they venture outside.

Conditions for women improved after the Taliban was toppled in 2001, but "advances were tempered by growing government repression of social and political life," according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch late the following year.

Ismail Khan, a powerful faction leader who governed Herat before and after Taliban rule, imposed many of his own restrictions on women. "Ismail Khan has created an atmosphere in which government officials and private individuals believe they have the right to police every aspect of women's and girls' lives: how they dress, how they get around town, what they say," said Human Rights Watch's Zama Coursen-Neff in the report she co-wrote. "Women and girls in Herat expected and deserved more when the Taliban were overthrown."

Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai dismissed Khan from the Herat governorship. But popular reaction to the move did not suggest widespread support for the lifting of social constraints. A mob stormed the human rights commission's office on women's affairs and set it on fire, destroying files and computers.

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