Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why are a growing number of young women in this relatively safe corner of Iraq showing up in local hospitals, dying of suspicious burns?

msnbc:...Kurdistan has long been considered the one consistently safe and relatively prosperous region of Iraq. So why, in increasing numbers, are the territory's young women showing up at local hospitals dying of suspicious burns? According to the Women's Union of Kurdistan, there were 95 such cases in the first six months of 2007, up 15 percent since last year. A December 2006 report from the Asuda women’s rights group in Sulaimaniya says that the "phenomenon is increasing at an alarming rate." Ninety-five percent of the victims are under 30, and roughly half are between 16 and 21. On the day before I stopped by the emergency hospital in Sulaimaniya, six young women were admitted with major burns, three of them telling suspicious stories.

When I called Zryan Yones, the Kurdish health minister, he said that the trend among young women is more disturbing than a recent outbreak of cholera. He provided a startling statistic: since August 10, Kurdistan had had nine deaths from its cholera epidemic; in the same period, there were 25 young women dead of burns. "I have one young girl lying in our morgues every single day," he told me.
So what's going on? Most of the survivors tell doctors that the burns resulted from a "cooking accident." But surgeons told me they can tell that the vast majority are not telling the truth. Kerosene, the fuel used to cook here, is not particularly volatile; if a woman comes in with burns over the majority of her body, it is likely intentional. Women's rights advocates in Sulaimaniya believe that the majority of the burn cases are suicide attempts; the remainder are suspected to be honor killings or other murders disguised as accidents or suicide. ("Cooking accident" has long been a euphemism for dowry killing in India.)
Doctors told me that it's virtually impossible to distinguish between murder and suicide based on the burns and the women's stories. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend may be aggravated by a copycat effect among Kurdistan's teenagers. One 20-year-old woman, Heshw Mohammad, who briefly considered burning herself after her father killed her boyfriend two years ago, told me that self-immolation has become a sort of fashion among teenage Kurdish women. "They imitate each other," she says. What's the motive...
Most of the burn cases in Kurdistan—whether suicides or honor killings—revolve around love and dating. Heshw Mohammad's case is typical. When she was 18 she fell in love with a local boy, and the two started seeing each other, which is generally frowned on in Kurdistan's traditional society. They communicated secretly by text message on their mobile phones to arrange meetings. But her father had other ideas about his daughter's future; he had already promised her to one of his friends. When Heshw's boyfriend asked her father to let the girl marry him, her father gunned the boy down with an AK-47, she says.
She later attempted suicide by overdosing on medication, but she acknowledges that burning herself "crossed my mind." After the killing, her boyfriend's father took her to a women's shelter in Sulaimaniya, where she now says she sleeps late and spends her time watching South Korean soap operas on satellite TV. "I have no plans for the future," she told me. "I'm quite sure I will be killed in the end." Rights advocates explain that the introduction in the past several years of inexpensive mobile phones and e-mail to Kurdistan have made dating and casual sex easier, even as the old patriarchal social structures remain in place. "The explosion of technology has alienated people from themselves," says Samera Mohammad of the Rassan women's rights center in Sulaimaniya.
She says that a disturbing number of the suicides involve boys who take pictures of their girlfriends with their camera phones and then show their friends. But rights advocates say that even something as simple as bad grades can be a motive for self-immolation. The Iraq war only made things worse. Refugees from Iraq's cities, some of whom have turned to prostitution to earn a living, have flocked to Kurdistan from elsewhere in the country, challenging rural sexual mores and the religious beliefs of the mostly Sunni Muslim Kurds. Kurdistan's lakeside resorts are said to be a popular destination for sex workers in search of easy income. "With the arrival of prostitutes, men have become more suspicious of their daughters," says Paiman Izzedine of the Women's Union of Kurdistan. Economic factors have also aggravated the problem, according to locals. The price of kerosene, for example, has tripled since the war began, its price swinging wildly, black-market dealers told me.
That means households now stockpile the fuel for the winter in large quantities when they can get it cheap—providing young women with inspiration and an easy weapon. For now, the suicides are a phenomenon that is seldom discussed openly in Kurdistan. Srood Tawfiq, the surgeon at Sulaimaniya's burn center, says he has seen only five or six cases in which the patients admitted to a suicide attempt. Rights advocates told me that they're beginning to hold conferences in local villages to educate teachers and other community leaders about the problem. Yet even Tawfiq acknowledges that he doesn't press his patients too hard about their real motivations. "We don't insist on the cause," he told me, as we talked outside the burn unit. "We just ask once; we don't push it." Even in relatively peaceful Kurdistan, sometimes the truth is too merciless to speak.


RoxieAmerica said...

Ever so sad, another humanitarian crisis, and not so accidental.

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

And the world thinks the Western culture is nuts?


Jungle Mom said...

Poor girls. This does seem to happen when a closed society is exposed to more open ways. If the existing culture and religious beliefs are torn down while not providing another set of values, it leaves the young without much hope.Thus suicide, and the elders confused and angry.