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Comment
Last Updated: 12/08/2004
Self-immolation in Tajikistan
Tahmina Khakimova

A significantly large number of young women in Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia, forced into marriage attempt suicide by setting themselves alight. The author explains why.


Woman has been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the shaping of which she had no hand. In a plan of life based on nonviolence, woman has as much right to shape her own destiny as man has to shape his .

Martin Luther King Jr.

 

In order to explain gender roles in RT it should be clarified that in legal basis or de jury, women and men have equal rights and opportunities, de facto, it is the opposite. To support the first claim, the extract from the chapter 2, article 17 of the Constitution of RT is given:

All people are equal before the law and the court law. The state guarantees the rights and liberties for every person irrespective of his nationality, race, sex, language, religious beliefs, political persuasion, knowledge, social and property status. Men and women have equal rights[1]".                                 

 

In spite of the government s attempts to promote gender equality by signing various conventions and having special 10 year program on increasing de facto the status of women, the situation of Tajik women is not equal. According to Martin Luther King Jr. in reality you cannot have economic and political equality without having some form of social equality .[2] This is the case with Tajikistan, since Tajik society is a patriarchal society, and most traditions and customs which are practiced discriminate against women. Matters have actually worsened since independence because Tajik men, while searching for their national identity, started to apply the ancient practices toward women, treating them as inferiors. Thus, there is now increased social inequality between men and women in the society.

This is a form of structural violence practiced in the country, and it is this kind of violence that imposes conditions which place people at high risk of unemployment, suicide, crime and this concept has transactional links with domestic violence.

According to Swiss Development Agency s data on violence against women in Tajikistan:

  • 50% of women suffer from physical violence;
  • 51% psychological violence from her family;
  • 47% from sexual violence from her husband;
  • 24% physical violence from the side of other people;
  • 47 % psychological violence outside the family.

Violence against women is very high in Tajik society. The problem is that for instance domestic violence in the family or physical violence (men beating their wives) is considered to be normal, and that is the way things should be. Traditions and religion (Islam) are confused, in this way clergy and older women use misinterpretation of religion as a tool to oppress, control women.

Enormously distressing is the number of female self immolations in Central Asia, and  this particularly common in Tajikistan.

 History of self- immolations  in Tajikistan and Central Asia

Women s self-immolations became one of the first issues open for discussion in the society in the period of glastnost (openness) at the end of 1980s and beginning of 1990s[3]. During the Soviet era the problem of self- immolation of women was also high but it was ignored by the government. Doctor Oripova, NGO representative of Umed and the specialist on burns/self immolations from the year 1971 says, During the Soviet time nobody wanted to talk about it, in the Soviet Union everybody was supposed to talk only about the high harvest of the cotton and about how many new cars appeared in the roads, and the negative news were not encouraged. [4]

In Central Asia self-immolations are the most wide spread practice of committing suicides among Muslim women. In the Samarkand region alone according to the official data around 35 women burn themselves annually. Most of representatives of relevant NGOs consider[5] that in reality, the real figure could be 2-3 times higher.

Official statistics of Tajikistan show that in 2002 there were 200 suicides in the country as a whole. The state body in charge of statistics says there are, on average, four to seven suicides per 100,000 people[6]. Independent observers believe the true figure is even higher.

The issue of suicides among women has been under investigation for some time by the Tajik government, especially in relation to self-immolation. However, authorities contradict themselves, since  they censor  the press data about the numbers of such cases and do not want media talk about existence of this issue, although this problem was discussed in the report which was prepared for the UN by the working group dealing with issues of role of women in development, vision for the UN internet-conference Pekin+5 , and also in the report of the Committee of UN on elimination of discrimination against women, which was submitted in January 2001.

It is difficult to regard self immolation as a form of non violent action, since according to the definition:

Non-violent action is a technique of conflict engagement or prosecution that aims to achieve political objectives through the imposition of sanctions and various supporting methods excluding physical, violent acts.[7]

 

Since, in the definition clearly states that the methods used should exclude physical, violent acts, a question arises violent toward whom? If we suppose that a non-violent action is if individual uses non-violent method towards his opponents, then we can apply this definition in the case with self-immolation.

According to Gene Sharp, we can consider self- immolations as a method of non violent protest under the heading of a symbolic public act .[8] However, women who commit self- immolations do not do it publicly, they do it in their private homes and there are identifiable reasons for these acts.

Grievances and Causes

One of the suggested reasons is that desperate young women choose death by self-immolation to rebel against suicide taboo in Tajikistan. Since for Tajiks, taking one s life is a religious and social taboo and a big sin. Islam condemns and prohibits suicide, thus society stigmatizes the relatives of people who have killed themselves. Consequently, the majority of suicides go unreported. According to Davron Mukhamadiev, a specialist in the study of suicides, relatives of those who killed themselves try to hide the real story of the death as accidents in order to avoid the embarrassment of having a relative s body denied a religious burial and expelled from the cemetery.[9] Self-immolation, however, is such a dramatic way of dying that it cannot easily be passed off as an accident.

Another interpretation is offered by Zafar Saidov, a researcher into Zoroastrianism in Tajikistan, who claims that the increase in self-immolation is connected to the region s pre-Islamic religion. According to Zafar Saidov, the Zoroastrian worship of fire as something that cleanses the soul and removes suffering has gained a new relevance for long-suffering, suicidal women[10]. 

Human Rights Watch claim that they have proof that domestic violence and the number of suicides in the family are interrelated. NGO activists state that ignoring the problem of violence in the family serves as one of the factors of the growth of the number of women who commit suicides[11]. If a woman gets married and she suffers from domestic physical violence from her husband and his family, and if she returns to her parent s house they will not protect her. They simply send her back to her husband and tell her to be patient and that that is the way it should be. That means, that the closest relatives are complicit in the deaths of the girls or women, who do not understand and do not pay attention to the victims with love and understanding. As a result of such attitude toward them women decide to commit suicide and potentially threaten their souls. Following are examples of women who have committed suicide:

A woman burned herself just because her mother in law yelled at her that she did not clean the house properly. Another reason was that a woman committed suicide because she was part of a polygamous marriage which is illegal in Tajikistan[12].

My personal opinion from my experience working in the Crisis Center is that the main causes of suicides are violence against girls and women by men and older women. The system of arranged marriages is also widely practiced, which violates the right of girls and is one of the forms of violence against women. Tajikistan is considered by World Bank the poorest country in Commonwealth of Independent States recently[13]. Approximately one million of men migrated to earn money in Russia as illegal migrants. Women are left and for the first time are the head of households and have to support their families since their husbands rarely send them money or most often marry Russian woman in another country or just forget them. Hence, economic factors also play a big role in why women chose to kill themselves. Another issue is the institution of mothers in law who provoke violence against their daughters in law, I suppose as a revenge for what they themselves have gone through. Mothers in law and husbands control behavior, clothes, where to go, how to talk and other things of young woman. Woman becomes a slave. At some point, she becomes fed up and decides to commit a suicide. 

 The main goal of women who commit a suicide by this way is that they want to die and they sometimes write a note before they commit a suicide with the reasons why they did it. Their goal is mainly to stop violence which was conducted towards them and to stop this violence toward other women.

Many suicide notes blame their husbands or mother-in-laws with the aim of having them prosecuted by the police and there have been cases where this has happened. The method which they chose is very tragic.

However, according to the research which I conducted, I would like to mention that before committing a suicide these women apply different tactics, like first talking to their perpetrators: husbands, mother s-in law, then the pre final step is going back to their parent s house where they are not accepted and send back to their husband s house. Only, then they commit a suicide.

According to the movie which was actually shot by Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation in 2000) with several women who actually tried to commit a suicide but survived it is just one moment, when you don t think about anything else but to die, since this violence continues every day. [14] The interviewee also mentions that now she looks back and asks why did I try to kill myself instead of fighting for justice, but it is just one moment of total despairness.

According to Mirzo Aminov the prosecutor of Kulab region in Tajikistan the role of mass media is significant and that is why his observation shows that media provokes suicides of women, since after women know what other women in their situation did they want to do the same[15] . I partially agree with this statement. Since, other women or protagonists they also tired of violence and they see that other women did not find a solution to this problem and decided to kill themselves and killing themselves in such a way that society actually paid attention to them, people talk about it and media shows it and their perpetrators will be punished for this.

The effects of these instances are that if the goal of a woman is to punish and successfully imprison her husband. Another success is if actually her death makes an impact on those who used violence against her, and if they change.

Another success (I do not feel comfortable calling the results of women s protests by self immolation success) is to bring attention to the issue and help NGOs and other organizations to deal with the fundamental issues at stake. Hence, women, by their desperate acts, do raise the issue of violence against them on national, regional and international level.

The failure, obviously, is that many die or are disfigured. Most of the time, after they commit a suicide, their husbands and relatives will be sad but after a while her husband just gets a new wife and forgets about his first wife. The thing is that he continues the same violence toward his new wife, and he does not think that this woman could do the same. Hence, I consider self immolation as a method of non violent struggle a failure, Women should not kill themselves but fight for their rights.

Conclusion

By discussing self immolations of women I wanted to stress how women struggle in Tajikistan and to show their protest against violence or their responses to violence. These two stories are like a drop in the sea , there many injustices and violence against women in Tajikistan.

I do not support the chosen women s method in order to protest against violence. I think that they should fight for their rights, for the rights of their daughters. There is simply no alternative for them they think. However I think that there is always a choice, they simply do not know about them and a special women s movement should be created in Central Asian region which will fight for the rights of women, give alternatives for women so they do not even think about such tragic death and self-immolation. I am sure that if women activists create this movement most women will join them, since most of them are fed up with injustices toward them.

Women chose non violence resistance, but non violent toward their oppressors and violence to themselves. I would like to apply the definition of non-violent resistance which implies the very opposite of weakness. It requires strength, and there is nothing automatic about the resoluteness required for using non-violence methods in political struggle and the quest for Truth[16] . Government and other parties who do not support women in these cases think that women in these cases are weak, but they are in fact strong by choosing non violent methods to their opponents and one day soon they will have a bigger impact and change stereotypes and achieve their goals. To my mind they need a good leader and good strategy and tactics to achieve their ultimate goal.

 



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Tahmina Khakimova is from Tajikistan where she has worked in a crisis centre dealing with women victims of violence. See also http://www.monitor.upeace.org/innerpg.cfm?id_article=225


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