Kurdish Female Self-Immolation

Kurdish Female Self-Immolation

If a woman sets fire to herself it is widely perceived she is demonstrating she endures horrible pain and can’t bear the agony any longer.

Estimates suggest self-burning has claimed the lives of as many as 10,000 Kurdish Iraqi women, including girls as young as 13, since the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) gained autonomy in 1991. [The Economist, March 18, 2014]

An Extreme Public Health Failing

We all need to talk about the safety and the rights of women and children. Let’s not limit that topic to the Kurdish regions where a notable and alarming trend is taking women’s and children’s lives in a most horrifying manner and quantum.

The-RINJ-Foundation-Suicide-by-fireUnable to leave abusive marriages; unable to talk about rape; unable to talk about beatings and oppression; unable to talk about the molestation of their female offspring; for fear of being killed by their partners or families, and without government support for vulnerable women, victims turn to suicide. The complex feelings and the belief of fire’s cleansing, results in a self-fueled funeral pyre being the cause of death or worse, endless suffering.

This topic has and continues to cause explosive reactions among the angry patriarchal conservatives of Kurdish society who send us outrageous mail demanding we be raped and killed for speaking “against Kurdistan” by advocating for Kurdish women (including Yazidis). The one thing we have plenty of is Ace Inhibitors so hopefully we can keep the men’s blood pressure down while we talk women’s rights, and hopefully, save some lives among the female members of their families who might today live in a certain hell. Literally despite or because of Kurdish men’s explosive anger, women are burning in hell on Earth.

The KRI men have their own problems too, but for now let’s talk about the chronic public health problem of women and girls setting fire to themselves in ethnic Kurdistan and more particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Where Is Kurdistan

Kurds are the largest ethnically distinct group in the world without a state [Anderson, and Stansfield 2004, and O’Leary, 2002].

Why the Kurds do not have their own state is as complex as it is astounding. If you try and find someone opposed to that concept you only need to go to Damascus, Erbil, Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad where leaders don’t want to talk about total Kurdish statehood. In Turkey there is an ongoing skirmish between the parties over possible Kurdish secession.

For most of the rest of the world there appears to be widespread support for the notion of Kurdish statehood and many people are comparing this goal to the creation of the state of Israel. Kurdistan statehood would likely be universally popular.

Meanwhile the Kurds themselves have staked out a significant section of Syria they call Rojava which actually looks like the state of Kurdistan since it exists in somewhat of a no man’s land of the failed state of Syria. We tend to callRojava Western Kurdistan but technically, it is the State of Kurdistan fought for and won in a war against the Islamic State Caliph which previously took the area from Syria. That is the simple version. The long version is still playing out.

Historically, Kurds are ancient Indo-European people, who are ethnically distinct from Arab, Turkic, and Iranian neighbors [Anderson, and Stansfield 2004, P: 158].

Ethnic Kurdistan is a mountainous area, and politically divided within five countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia [Hawny, 1999].

Anderson and Stansfield 2004, and Ghassemlou, 1973, acknowledged that, for the political reasons, it is impossible to obtain the accurate demographic figures for Kurds from the countries in which they reside. However, the estimate population of ethnic Kurdistan is 44,950,000 persons [Kandy 2007]

With a land mass of 517,000 km2, some 212,000 km2 lie within the Turkish Kurdistan; 195,000 km2 lies within Iranian Kurdistan; 84,000 km2 lies within Iraqi Kurdistan; and 17,000 km2 lies within Syrian Kurdistan [Kandy, 2007].

Ethnic Kurdistan stretches across: southeastern Turkey; northwestern Iran; northern Iraq; and eastern Syria [Bengio, 2003].

By size, the ethnic Kurdish occupied area is bigger than England, Belgium, Netherland, Switzerland, and Denmark [Ghassemlou, 1973].

Observations of Medical Staff is Instructive

There is a large medical clinic in Nineveh Governate with no sign on the door. It is staffed exclusively by women for women.

The medical staff are mostly people from the Middle East who trained at the renowned Mosul University, Medical College.
RINJ Sexual Assault Clinics (RSAC)

Other nurses come from Erbil and Kirkuk schools. A couple hail from as far away as Aleppo and even Canada.

The female nurses and doctors treat patients on their way somewhere and others on their way to nowhere.

The patients are fearful and beg that the fact of their visit not be recorded nor shared with anyone. The nurses ask the patients not to tell of their location. There is a stronger than normal bond in all of that called sisterhood. They have found each other by word of mouth or by being sent there by another practitioner.

Only those who believe they are leaving the region can even wear a smile. For the others, depression is the most pervasive illness and almost every other physiological or mental health malady that can fall from that large, overshadowing, dark tree of depression illness.

If you ask the nurses what sort of ailment they treat most often they will tell you it is women’s health such as general obstetrics, midwifery, general malaise, traumas or burn cases. They deliver a lot of babies. Gunshot injuries and explosives are right up there with a poorly described pervasive malaise that although without a name in the local vernacular it looks like a failure to survive-type malady, or deep chronic depression.

The suicide rate in northern Iraq among women seems like it might be colossal. Nobody knows for sure. The men don’t like us to talk about it.

According to local history over the past twenty-five years of patriarchal wars and violence there has been a constant increase in the number of women who have self-immolated (Since the 1960s “self-immolated” has referred to setting oneself on fire, but the term once referred to a wider range of suicide options.)

Why are Kurdish women setting themselves on fire?

It’s as if their path to the next life is made better by burning alive the sin of being abused or raped. Nobody cares that they were abused violently; that they were raped since birth by multiple family members; that the security of their person has no sanctity. You don’t want to hear their stories do you?

Why are Kurdish women burning themselves?

Maybe in all the social injustice of their environment, the denial of their ownership of their own groin and uterus, has reached such long-enduring and overwhelming annihilation of self-worth that no one can possibly grasp the depth of their despair.

This is one of those catastrophic failures of public health no one dares talk about. There is enough guilt to go around the world. Every human has a responsibility to help these women.

Why are Kurdish women setting themselves alight?

The misogynistic foibles of the patriarchal conservative society of the Iraqi Kurdish are causing women to set themselves on fire. Is it a bizarre tradition among women who have been raped or suffered other similarly violent crimes against the person?

What It Looks Like – The Myth Of Self-Immolation

Patients arrive with burnt hands and arms and severe burns to their bodies. If the percentage of the body covered in burns exceeds 40% they will not likely survive. Between 40 to 50% of the body afflicted with second degree or third degree burns is the realm of miracle medicine for this region. The equipment and support is not available. The patients rarely survive burns this severe or even survive to reach medical care or live long enough for medical care to reach them.

Many patients less seriously injured by fire do survive and spend months in painful recovery.

Third degree burns can be awful. Complications such as infections, blindness, deafness, loss of smell, loss of sensation and more can compound the pain of recovery.

rule_of_ninesThe rule of nines assesses the percentage of burn and is used to help guide treatment decisions including fluid resuscitation and becomes part of the guidelines to determine transfer to a’burn unit’ if there is one available within reasonable access.
You can estimate the body surface area on an adult burned by using multiples of 9.


Those who survive being severely burned will try again to kill themselves before a week has passed. The nurse practitioner here maintains a policy of keeping all patients mildly sedated with anxiolytics if not more or less completely dulled with pain killers. The patient has frequent sterilized ‘scrubbed-in’ counseling sessions and hourly ‘scrubbed-in, bootied and masked’ sterile volunteer support worker visits during waking hours. It is extremely tedious high-effort work caring for such vulnerable patients. Sterilization, environment control and infection prevention are issues. Such patients are under 24-hour-monitored watch by both in-room staff and CCTV (computerized network).

Why Are So Many Women Killing Themselves

Kurdish women view their families as “people who might attack them at any minute”, says Falah Muradkan-Shaker of the Kurdish NGO WADI, which tries to tackle violence against women in all its forms.

It is true. The status of the female in the entire Middle East ranks lower than the family dog, on average. The women are severley restricted in their activities, have no vote, have no rights, have no status.

But the Kurds are beter than most of the Middle East. Men will point out that women have come a long way in ethnic Kurdistan. And they have. That does not equate to equal rights for women, however.

Kurdish women often face honour killings for being raped; Kurdish women are often betrothed at birth to cousins or tribal kinsmen; and a majority of Kurdish women have faced some form of domestic violence whether by fathers, husbands, or in-laws.

Obviously, despite advances made within Kurdish society, there is room for improvement.

War has brought widespread rape crime and other forms of gender-based violence. The stories heard by nurses in this region are horrifying although it is quite certain that the survivor/witness has held back some of the worst out of fear, pride or both.

A YPJ solider named Deilar Kanj Khamis, a.k.a. Arin Mirkan, blew herself up outside Kobani, killing 10-25 IS fighters, according to Kurdish forces. She has been set out as a hero for this selfless act. We don’t see it as anything different than any female suicide.

Kurdish Gender Equality: Discussion and Action Needed

Female suicide is a serious social problem in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI).

A 2010 study undertaken by Bangor University of Wales, UK found that the highest rate of female attempted suicide is among young girls. Attempting and committing suicide by self-burning is common and mostly affects the young.

The majority of respondents had a traditional pre-arranged marriage; their relationship with their husbands was bad, particularly if the respondents lived with in-laws.

More than half of the respondents had been a victim of significant domestic violence mainly from a father, male sibling or husband.

The majority of the respondents attempted suicide at their own house.

Most respondents can read and write, but have a low level of education which also seems typical of the region

Future studies should include both genders with larger samples to further illuminate the factors that the role of social tradition and value to attempt and commit suicide in the KRI will be necessary.

There is a very complex issue to deal with: matrimonial rape. The patriarchal conservative society of KRI demands women ‘service’ their male partner no matter what. Given the widespread marital partner abuse and the incumbent “buzz-kill/love-kill” of violence, sex often means the wife is raped. We have heard the stories. There is no other description. And this fits the suicide-by-burning criteria of catastrophic self-worth failure.

There are lots of simpler and less painful ways to commit suicide in this mountainous region besides setting fire to oneself.

Nothing screams agony like self-immolation! It is not a quick way to die; it is not a sure death; but for sure it is by all accounts the most excruciating pain known to humans.

Unable to leave abusive marriages; unable to self-value; unable to talk about rape; unable to talk about beatings and oppression; unable to talk about the molestation of their female offspring; for fear of being killed by their partners or families, and without government support for vulnerable women, victims turn to violent suicide.

The complex feelings of despair and the belief of fire’s cleansing, results in a self-fueled funeral pyre being the cause of death or worse, endless suffering.

Building a Kurdish state will require significant change in women’s rights. There does appear to be a spreading will to make this happen.

A Safer Society for Women and Children

Solving A Kurdish Public Health Problem

  1. Men who commit the crime of rape (including marital rape which is a pervasive problem) must be sent to prison for a lengthy period of time.
  2. Misdemeanor domestic violence needs to be addressed with jail sentences and required counselling for the convicted.
  3. Serious domestic assaults must result in prison sentences and restraining orders.
  4. Forced marriage is a crime against the person and should be treated as such.
  5. Honour killing is capital murder and should result in a life prison sentence.
  6. Education systems must include learning of this and the above.
  7. A public program of adult retraining to end the social injustice against women should be undertaken.
  8. Government can focus on creating and promoting the understanding of benefits to society of having women and men working together as equals toward common goals and good public health. That leads to better government and better public health.
  9. This problem needs to be studied further, openly and often. Everyone needs to start discussing this issue.

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