Meanwhile, women are immolating themselves in Afghanistan

Terror of a Different Kind


by: Nushin Arbabzadah, The Guardian UK

An afghan woman shows the scars that she received after setting herself on fire. She did so in protest to a forced-marriage arrangement. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Across Afghanistan, women are setting fire to themselves. What drives them to this level of desperation?

When Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself at a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963, few of the Afghan women who later followed his example were even born. Most of them had probably never heard of the burning Buddhist monk, of the way pictures of his spectacular protest made the then US president, John F Kennedy, famously shriek "Jesus Christ!", or of the way, as some say, his self-immolation speeded up the downfall of the regime against which the monk was protesting.

His death triggered many questions and interpretations. In the words of one commentator at the time: "To set oneself on fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance." Thinking of the Afghan women who set light to themselves, just what is this thing of utmost importance that they are trying to say? Since March 2008, there have been a hundred cases of self-immolation in southwestern Afghanistan alone; 100 women who got hold of fuel, soaked themselves in the liquid and lit the match to stage a small-scale domestic revolution of a spectacular nature. If they wanted to say something, they wanted to say it with vehemence. If they wanted to leave this world, they didn't want to leave quietly. But what is their motivation? And who or what is the subject of their protest?

Unlike the burning monk, who wrote down all his hopes, wishes and complaints prior to his death, little is known about what motivates the Afghan women. Few of them survive to tell the tale and those who do survive are unwilling to talk. Afghan documentary film maker Olga Sadat spent months at a hospital which specialises in treating burns. She waited patiently but persistently to win the trust of the women she interviewed for her film Yak, Do, Seh (One, Two, Three). The film is a documentary cautionary tale the aim of which is to discourage self-immolation. In an interview with Germany's Deutsche Welle international radio, Sadat said,

Unfortunately, in the eight months that I was working on the film, only one of the many women who had set themselves on fire and were brought to the hospital managed to survive. But even that woman is in a bad state.

The woman had set fire to herself in protest against maltreatment on the part of her husband.

Sadat told Deutsche Welle that she believes that the women who set themselves on fire are confident that someone will come to their rescue while they are in the process of catching fire. Those she did manage to interview for her film said that when they lit the match, their aim was not suicide. They just wanted the people who maltreated them to take notice of the suffering they had caused.

Forced marriages and maltreatment by husbands and fathers is often cited as the cause of the despair that leads women to use household fuel to set fire to themselves. But a closer look reveals a more complex picture.

Sometimes the protest is directed against other women, such as an unkind mother-in-law. Other times girls have set fire to themselves for the love of a man they could not marry. And then there's protest against institutions, like case of the woman in Laghman, northern Afghanistan, who came to the court hiding petrol under her burqa. She had petitioned for divorce and was awaiting the verdict when she set fire to herself.

Female drug addiction is an equally powerful trigger that has led to self-immolation in places like Ghore, in western Afghanistan. But the fact remains that the women themselves are usually silent on the meaning of their own suicides and the meaning of their acts remains essentially ambiguous.

In a recent statement, the Afghan women's affairs minister said:

As long as all individuals, but especially the families, fail to ensure women's social and human rights, it's impossible for the government or the related offices to have any notable success in reducing violence against women.

Other officials, like Sima Shir Mohammadi, the head of the women's affairs department in Herat, blame the war. They say violence stops government offices and aid agencies from reaching remote areas. That's why cases of self-immolation have fallen in the cities but increased in rural areas.

Earlier, in an interview with an Iranian feminist website, Shir Mohammadi said her department had worked hard to tackle the problem: "We had meetings with religious scholars and asked them to make use of religious texts, Qur'anic verses and the prophet's sayings in their Friday sermons and in radio and television speeches to tell the people in rural areas that suicide is not the solution." The clerics also tell worshippers that maltreatment of girls and women is not allowed in Islam. Both Shir Mohammadi and the women's affairs minister believe that the cooperation of religious scholars is essential in solving this problem. This society is traditional and the people respect the clerics and follow their advice.

Time will tell whether the preachers' message will prove effective and discourage women from resorting to fuel and matches to get their message across. What's certain is that the traditional path of "patience and forbearance" has lost its appeal to Afghan women.

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Gate to the temple of Osun, Osogbo

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Ore yê yê ô!

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Osogbo, Nigeria

Bent double by age, the high-priestess of Nigeria's Yoruba spirit-world shuffles forward from under the trees, reaching out a white, blotchy hand in welcome.

Susanne Wenger and her adopted daughter Doyin Faniyi
Mrs Wenger resurrected the traditions of the river-god Osun

Half a lifetime ago, Susanne Wenger dedicated herself to reviving the traditions of the pre-Christian Yoruba gods, "the orishas", and left Austria to make Nigeria her home.

The frail 94-year-old artist, with one seeing eye, has been a driving force in Osogbo town, where she is in charge of the sacred grove, a place where spirits of the river and trees are said to live.

In an upstairs room of her house, surrounded by carved wooden figures of the gods, she receives well-wishers and devotees, who she blesses in fluent Yoruba.

When she arrived here, she found traditional culture in abeyance, all but destroyed by missionaries who branded it "black magic" or "juju", a word Mrs Wenger reviles.

Friends paint a picture of a dedicated, tough and far-sighted leader who has helped revive a culture thought destroyed by Christian and Muslim evangelists, and secured protection for one of the Yoruba tradition's most sacred sites.

But she is very humble about her achievements.

Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove Festival

"Osogbo is a creative place, it is that by itself, it didn't need me," she says.

Followers say she has channelled the river-god Osun into her body, learning the knowledge of pre-Christian deities like no other European has ever done.

Orisha worship is a controversial belief. In the past it involved human sacrifice and there are rumours that still happens at secret shrines elsewhere in the country.

Devotees of the orishas can worship either good or evil gods in order to get what they want.

But thanks to Mrs Wenger, the town's annual festival of Osun has grown in size and popularity and thousands of Yorubas come every August to renew their dedication to the river-god.


Mrs Wenger arrived in Nigeria in 1950 with her then husband, the linguist Ulli Beier and travelled widely in south-western Nigeria.

Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala
Maybe you can call Susanne our saviour
Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala

In 1957, she fell ill with tuberculosis in an epidemic in which many thousands died.

Friend Ajani Adigun Davies says Mrs Wenger believes the illness was a kind of sacrifice, in return for the knowledge she was receiving about the gods.

"The Yoruba beliefs all depend on sacrifice, that you must give something of value to get something of value, you must suffer pain to gain knowledge," he says.

In her early years in Nigeria she met Adjagemo, a high-priest of creator-god Obatala.

"He took me by the hand and led me into the spirit world," Mrs Wenger told a French documentary maker in 2005.

"I did not speak Yoruba, and he did not speak English, our only intercourse was the language of the trees."

She divorced her husband and moved in with Adjagemo in Osogbo, where she resolved to live for the rest of her life.

Mrs Wenger believes that the spirit world has long been neglected by Western culture, and spirits can appear to anyone as long as they are willing to accept them.

"You need special eyes to see them," she says.


Enemies in churches and mosques have tried to smash her sculptures of deities and burn down the forest that shelters them.

But artist Sangodare Gbadegesin Ajala, Mrs Wenger's adopted son, says many local people accepted her eagerly.

Ajani Adigun Davies
Susanne's knowledge of the behaviour and character of all the deities means she has actually become Yoruba now
Former curator Ajani Adigun Davies

"Maybe you can call Susanne our saviour," says Mr Ajala, now the high-priest of Sango, the lightning-god.

"Was Christ an African? Muhammad was an Arabian. Why can't our saviour be European?"

The first time he met her was the day of his initiation into the cult of Sango, when he was 11.

His father was an unapologetic devotee of the old gods, and refused to let his child be baptised or go to schools run by Christians or Muslims.

But Mr Ajala wanted to learn to read, and he thought a white woman would let him.

"I saw some children reading books, and I wanted to be able to go to school to read these stories."

But six months after he moved in with Mrs Wenger, he asked her if he could go to school.

"She shouted: 'No! you cannot go to school, they will turn you into a Christian and your life will be over!'" he remembers.

Mr Ajala is still illiterate, but has a deep knowledge about the traditions of Yoruba spirit gods and says his adopted mother has made him see how important it is that Yoruba traditions have been preserved.

Yet he is now working to build a school where children can go and receive an education and also learn about the traditions of the orishas.

'Tug of war'

Mrs Wenger's ideas about the preservation of the forest have become central to the survival of the traditional beliefs.

Mr Adigun Davies, a former curator with the government museums directorate who first met Mrs Wenger in 1989, says the battle to save the grove was a "tug of war".

He recalls her lying down in the path of a bulldozer brought by a man who bought the grove from a relative of a traditional leader and wanted to build a house on the land.

"It's a disgrace to the Yoruba that the person who came to save our culture was a European," he says.

"But Susanne's knowledge of the behaviour and character of all the deities means she has actually become Yoruba now."

Ajani Adigun Davies explains what happens at the Osogbo festival

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