AFP, SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ
Monday, Aug 27, 2007, Page 9
Heshw Mohammed tried to kill herself three times when her father would not let her marry the man she loved, swallowing tablets and surviving only because her stomach was pumped.
Beautiful, timid and abused, she exemplifies what campaigners and medics warn is a disturbing increase in women killing themselves — largely by self-immolation — in northern Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdish provinces.
“My father forced me to marry someone else. We were engaged just 15 days, during which I tried three times to commit suicide,” says Heshw, her eyes downcast, her fingers clenching and unclenching.
Now aged 20, she has been living in a women’s shelter in the city of Sulaimaniyah for two years, virtually shut off from the world, with no psychologist and nothing to fill her time.
“My father would kill me if I went home. He killed my boyfriend. I don’t have any hope for the future. I’m just sitting here, waiting,” she says, refusing refreshment, her expressionless voice barely more than a whisper.
Women’s campaigners say Heshw’s story is all too common. What is unusual is that she took pills. Most Iraqi Kurdish women drench their bodies in cooking fuel from head to toe and set themselves on fire.
Suicide is a stigma in conservative Muslim societies such as that in rural Kurdistan, where men take second wives and poor, uneducated women in particular are second class citizens under their husband’s thumb.
Few admit to self-harm and explain their horrendous burns, from which most never recover, as a cooking accident.
The secrecy makes it difficult to track statistics, which range from the dozens to hundreds dead each year.
“Every year there has been an increase in killing. Saying it’s a cooking accident is just a lie. We must put pressure on the government to change the law,” 42-year-old Aso Kamal said.
He quotes from newspaper reports that from 1991 to this year, 12,500 women were murdered for reasons of “honor” or committed suicide in the three Kurdish provinces of Iraq.
Around 350 died in the first seven months of this year, he said.
“We want to speak out about this. There is silence in Kurdistan. People say it’s a family matter. We want to change the patriarchal system in Kurdistan. Honor killing is against the law but the law is not being enforced,” he said.
Only five people have been arrested in connection with the deaths — none of whom have been brought to the courts, he said.
His organization, the Doaa Network Against Violence — named after a 17-year-old girl stoned to death for eloping — is campaigning for a government budget to tackle domestic violence and has launched an awareness campaign.
Kurdo Qaradaghi, a surgeon who performs reconstructive surgery at the specialist burns hospital in Sulaimaniyah, says most women with burns from the countryside had attempted suicide.
“We have a problem. A serious problem. It may be in self-sacrifice or it may be extreme attention-seeking … The youngest are aged 12 to 14,” he said.
The Women’s Union of Kurdistan in Sulaimaniyah said it recorded 83 cases of women burning themselves in the first six months of last year and 95 in the first half of this year.
Touring the burns unit at the hospital, plastic surgeon Srood Tawfiq believes few of the excuses, lingering by the beds of two women at death’s door from horrific burns that he says could only have been self-inflicted.
“On average we admit one such patient a day. We suspect most of the women of suicide. Only once did I see a young boy say he attempted suicide. He wanted to marry a girl and they refused,” he said.
Flaying her heavily bandaged arms around a face horribly disfigured with raw burns, 39-year-old Shawnim Mahmud has spent two days screaming in agony after being brought in following what she said was a cooking accident.
“She has 79 percent burns. Even if a cooking machine exploded, it doesn’t cause these kind of burns. There’s no chance she’ll live,” says Tawfiq.
In the next bed lies Sirwa Hassan, a 27-year-old mother of three from a village near the Iranian border, tubes running in and out of her nose, barely whimpering as her 86 percent burns slowly kill her.
“She said it was kerosene but kerosene will not make this kind of explosion. I don’t expect her to live,” Tawfiq said, gazing down at her bandaged feet, burnt shoulders and flesh, desperately sad eyes watching him in silence.
Anna Ahmed Mohammed, a physiotherapist at the burns unit and one of the few whom patients confide in, fears suicide is increasing as the economic situation deteriorates in Iraq and life gets more difficult.
“There are more economic problems because of the war, especially in Sulaimaniyah because more people from the south come to live here. Salaries aren’t enough to buy what you need. Prices have gone up,” she said.
“Here the men always rule their wives. Sometimes it’s unbearable and they can’t take it any longer. Fire is so easy. You can find it at home. Everyone has kerosene at home and a match,” she said.
Narmen Rostam, 16, has been in the hospital for 30 days with burn injuries.
Sitting in her tartan hospital pyjamas, she sobs on and off and admits to being depressed, yet she professes no sympathy for those attempting suicide.
“They are very foolish,” she said. “They have no mind in their brain. We used to tell them you’ll be suffering this pain now and in the other life.”
Medics cannot be sure that her own story about a cooking accident is true.
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Number of suicides by women rises in Kurdish-controlled Iraq
AFP, SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ