Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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AUGUST 10, 2010 10:43AM

While we debate: Female suicides on the rise in Afghanistan

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TIME Magazine’s recent depiction of a mutilated woman on its cover to illustrate “what happens if we leave Afghanistan” (without a question mark, mind you) has heated tempers on all sides of the debate over the American occupation there. As Antiwar.com’s Jeff Huber put it today, “If [TIME editor Richard] Stengel wanted to show us what is really happening, why didn’t he run images of Taliban leaders receiving bribe money that came from the United States? Why not show pictures of President Hamid Karzai’s political machine stealing the most recent election?  Why not show the heroin crop our military has been ordered not to destroy? Let’s see the innocent women and children that we have maimed and killed in the course of pursuing a war that weakens our nation’s security and is counter to our best interests.” 

Afghan women 
Afghan women - the eternal poster children (with the
emphasis on children) of America's Afghanistan policy
(fawziakoofi.org)

The list is endless, but another candidate for the next TIME cover could be an image of one of the growing number of Afghan women who are taking their own lives. According to a report that former Afghan Health Minister Faizullah Kakar, who now works as a health adviser to President Hamid Karzai, submitted on July 31, more and more women aged between fifteen and forty are attempting suicide. Based on health ministry and hospital records, some 23,000 women and girls are trying to kill themselves each year, “a several-fold increase on three decades ago.”

Kakar blames the suicide epidemic on untreated mental illness and health issues, social disorder, loss of loved ones, poverty, rape, domestic violence, the general hopelessness of a country engulfed in permanent war, as well as the socio-economic hardships Afghan women are forced to endure every day. 1.8 million women and girls suffer from “severe depression,” Kakar says. 

These figures have not yet been confirmed by other agencies, Irin News reports, but are in keeping with other sources. These include the country’s epidemic of self-immolation. In the Herat City Hospital alone, there have been over 100 cases of women and girls setting fire to themselves over the past fifteen months. Seventy-six of them have died. The women who commit this desperate act to escape forced marriages, domestic abuse, oppressive mothers-in-law, crushing poverty, and a host of other ills at home – and live to tell the tale – regularly claim it was an accident. But as Dr. Mohammed Jalili told the BBC last year, “the cases are often easy to detect. Apart from the extent of burns, one tell-tale sign of an act of self-immolation is that there are no burns on the arm used to pour the petrol." 

According to UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, sixty-five percent of Afghanistan's 50,000 war widows regard suicide as the only way out of their desperate situation. Sixteen percent of these women may already have ended their lives. In any case, their life expectancy is approximately twenty years lower than that of women living in other parts of the world.

Ironically, there is some evidence that the increase in suicides, including self-immolations, may be connected with an increase in geographic mobility and social expectations brought about by the American invasion and occupation. In Herat province, for example, “former refugees who experienced a more open culture across the border are often blamed for demanding too much freedom on their return home. This, added to a growing awareness about basic human rights and the sudden influx of foreign music, television and fashion that accompanied the US-led invasion in 2001, has caused huge ruptures in the traditional fabric of society.“

Self-immolation in Afghanistan 
How about this image, Mr. Stengel?
A self-immolation victim in Afghanistan
(rawa.org)

Maria Bashir, a public prosecutor in the province and the first woman to hold this office in Afghanistan, says: “I have seen a woman whose husband cut her nose and ears off, a woman whose husband shaved her hair off so she would not go outside, a woman beaten with a heavy cooking pot until one of her ears was smashed into her skull, and a woman beaten with the handle of a shovel.“ All on our watch, I might add. So, are these tragedies our fault or that of "the Taliban"? Are they a reason for the US military to stay or to go? Will there be more or fewer such cases if we pack up and leave? Hurry up and decide – it's time for the next news story. 

By now it should be obvious to everyone who has seen the TIME image that using "the plight of women" to justify military adventure X, Y or Z is the oldest trick in the propagandist's playbook. By all means, let’s talk about “what happens to Afghanistan if we leave.” But please – let’s leave in the question mark.  


I've written about Afghanistan several times on this blog, including an article on "How TIME Magazine hijacked Afghan activist Malalai Joya."

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Excellent post!

These are very tough questions and ones we must ask. At times when we hear of yet another soldier's death, I wonder whether we should send our kids to die for a country that treats its women so terribly, or if our presence will help.

These abuses have been going on for so long and will probably continue; it's heartwrenching and impossible to know.
It makes me very sad to read this. But the truth must told even if it offends our sensibilities. I am so saddened that Afghanistan doesn't address the situation but I know that these types of desperate situations exist all over the world. I think we should do our part to help in whatever way we can, even if that means beginning at home. I question how it is that we raise our children to give over control of their bodies to a military machine - not just American children but children all over the world. And the desperation of these women, many of whom are mothers, points out just how much work needs to be done. Kristof's book, Half the Sky, points out that we need to help women, and your story is just one example of how much this help is needed. Where are the compassionate people in Afghanistan?
Ditto Bonnie. Excellent post. While I have seen much of the coverage it was never linked as a consequence to our presence there. It is a very good question.
Judy, thanks for posting this! I don’t know if you’re aware of the leaked CIA document encouraging “media opportunities” to show the plight of Afghan women in order to gain the support of European women for the continuing war in Afghanistan. I have an article today about this issue: http://open.salon.com/blog/bretigne/2010/08/10/saving_women_preventing_genocide_why_were_in_afghanistan
You surely aren't trying to imply that the reason these women are committing suicide and are being beaten and murdered is the fault of the people battling the Taliban are you? If so you are ignoring CENTURIES of abuse and subjugation of women in that region.

I personally have questions on how best to help the women of Afghanistan, but saying that "let’s leave in the question mark" as if we aren't SURE of how women will be treated under the Taliban or any Taliban influenced regime is disgusting. If you believe that we should walk away and leave these women to their fates have the guts to say that you are in fact throwing them under the bus to suffer and die and spare me the "ifs" or the "it's our fault" bullshit.

P.S. And we should give them all the knowledge and the means to successfully and painlessly commit suicide before we leave because that will be kinder than leaving them to the animals that will be taking over.
As you quite rightly point out in your conclusion, it is easy to hide behind "saving the women and children" when it comes time to justify a country's military actions in another country, especially one whose culture appear so very different from our own.

You cite a 7-fold increase in suicides over the past 30 years. Then consider this quote from a 2001 Time Magazine article (by none other than Hillary Clinton!) stating that "One reason is that pre-Taliban Afghanistan was a place where women did play an important role: before 1996, for example, nearly half the doctors, university students and teachers in Kabul were women." (Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,185643,00.html#ixzz0wEGhDsVb)

The current status of women in Afghanistan does not appear to be an issue of long-standing and entrenched Afghani culture (though it is quite possibly the case in more remote areas). Rather, it has been the successful imposition of an extremist culture that has clearly profited from 3 decades of internal strife to impose itself on a population.

Remember that back when the Taliban were more commonly referred to as the mujahaddin and fighting the Soviet invaders rather than the American ones, these same forces were trained, supported and armed by the same countries now fighting against them.

American policy created this monster. It is arguably also its duty to clean up the mess it has made.
Excellent Judy. Good to see you (miss "talking" with you!).
What is the solution? The horrors visited upon women everywhere in the world in the name of religion and violently warped civil mores, are pure evil. If I could I would endorse the creation of safe houses and an underground "railroad" to assist women who want to escape to freedom and safety, but they are "in culture" and not only would not leave, but would visit these things upon each other in the name of their so-called "law." Such a helpless feeling but not one that should keep us in war forever. The revolution of women must occur from within.
Great comments, everyone, thank-you. I hoped I would stir up a hornet's nest with this piece and get people TALKING to each other rather than just nodding their heads in one direction or the other and tut-tutting. I can only comment on a few before I run out the door:

Bretigne,
Thanks, I rather suspected that was going on!

Amy,
I don't claim that walking out on Afghan women is the solution. My point here is 1) I hate to see women instrumentalized in a political debate (and then instantly forgotten when they're no longer useful), and 2) I want to see that question mark left in the discussion. The horrors I describe here are taking place on our watch. To what extent are we part of the problem or the solution? I seriously want to know before we commit any more resources there, which always means killing even more civilians. You're assuming the American mission in this form is infinitely sustainable, but I have my doubts. We can't help Afghan women by making promises we don't intend to keep. Instead, we can actually start listening to them for a change. (I have more to say about this in my piece about Malalai Joya.)

Wordsmith,
Yes, I believe it! Afghanistan used to be a comparatively progressive country until it began its long descent into utter chaos during the Cold War. But if you have any concrete suggestions on cleaning up the mess American policy made, please forward them to Ms. Clinton!

Linnn,
Of course internal revolutions are the best, but they are a long time in the making. Maria Bashir herself says women will need "20 years" to liberate themselves. She may be an optimist.
thank-you for covering this....!
Only when women are treated as human beings and not property or incubators will this tragedy end. Unfortunately, religion is used to excuse horrible behavior and inhumane treatment of women-in the US, too. How many women are given that old Bible verse about being submissive to their husbands? Too many are under the thumb of the male-dominated society-especially in Arab nations, but also here! R
If this is their culture, why don't we just leave them to it & let them kill each other? Why is this our problem? Personally, I think we ought to bomb the country out of virtual existence, women & men alike. The women that wear burqas are no better than the Taliban. They belong together. Let them die together.
I've been reading of the reactions to TIME's cover elsewhere; glad you posted this here.
Excellent post - thank you. I've often wondered how people go on in desperate situations such as you describe, since I imagine I would try to end my life if it were me suffering that way. But suicide is often hidden or little spoken of - - e.g., I had no idea about this problem until reading this post of yours.
The root causes of social injustice need to be addressed instead of the best interest of those in power. This starts with violence at an early age, an enormous amount of superstition and prejudice in that part of the world and lack of concern about the best interest of the citizens by those in power.

Instead of using this as a false excuse for more military action this should be used as a legitimate excuse for more reform without violence.