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Self-Immolation: A Desperate Protest Against the Patriarchy

Self-Immolation: A Desperate Protest Against the Patriarchy

In “Roulah,” Iranian photographer Shaghayegh Moradiannejad uncovers a harrowing practice of suicide among Kurdish women across the Middle East.
Zahra, 35, single, set herself on fire in their backyard. Zahra’s mother keeps Zahra’s photo wrapped in a green cloth, which is associated with paradise and a sacred symbol of holy shrines to Muslims. Zahra’s father hanged himself on the front door of the house 2 years after Zahar’s self-immolation. 
Abdanan, Ilam, Iran © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

Two years ago, Iranian photographer Shaghayegh Moradiannejad left her homeland and relocated to Canada. “There was a lot of pressure on women, especially those involved with women’s rights. The government does not like these things,” she says. “When you live in the Middle East, you understand you cannot trust [official reports]. Because of that I realized I have to do something.”

Since 2017, Moradiannejad has been traveling through Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria to document the brutal practice of self-immolation (suicide by fire) among Kurdish women through her series “Roulah”. A desperate act of both personal and political protest, self-immolation devastates both the families who lose loved ones and those who survive, bearing the scars on their faces and bodies for life.

Soheila has an older sister, a younger sister, and a brother with mental illness. Years ago, her older sister, Najah, set herself on fire in the kitchen due to her brother’s illness and their living conditions. Due to the severity of her injuries, she died instantly. There is no mention of Najah at home, but Asemanha keeps a photo of Najah. Soheila’s mother died a few years later. The father is remarried but Soheila alone takes care of her siblings at home. 
Al-Darbasiyah, Rojava, Syria © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

“This story belongs to the Kurdish people,” says Moradiannejad, who learned about this practice after reading Silent Protest, a book by Iranian activist Parvin Bakhtiari-Nejad published after her death that documents the practice of self-immolation, the leading form of suicide among Kurdish women. Determined to find out more, Moradiannejad traveled to western Iran where the Kurds reside.

With a population of 8-10 million, Kurds are the third largest ethnic group in Iran and have their own language, culture, and religion. Although Moradiannejad does not speak Kurdish, she was received with hospitality and grace, the families willing to share their private stories of pain and loss. She named the project “Roulah” in tribute to them. In Kurdish, it means “my dear child” but, as Moradiannejad explains, for a mother it is so much more than that. “Roulah carries a world of emotions. It means ‘my world, my peace and tranquility, my breath, my whole life.”

© Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

A Common Practice

Unable to obtain information on Kurdish women’s suicides through official channels, Shaghayegh Moradiannejad did the research herself, discovering the harrowing stories that have gone untold. “Women commit self-immolation for four reasons: poverty, forced marriage and child marriage, low level of education, and mental illness,” she says.

Self-immolation is prevalent because it is an accessible form of suicide. Moradiannejad  explains the buildings are not high enough to jump, and women do not have access to guns, pills, poisons, or cars. But petrol is cheap and easily attained. The practice is so common that Moradiannejad notes half of the cemeteries are filled with female suicides.

Hezar Khalaf, 65, set herself on fire on September 16, 2020, at the ISIL war refugee camp in Dohuk, Kurdistan, Iraq. She burned herself in the toilet of the tent where she lived. Most women who set themselves on fire choose a place away from home, such as a yard or backyard, so that the fire does not spread to their livelihoods and their deaths do not cause financial harm to other family members. Dohuk, Kurdistan, Iraq © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad
Eidi Khalf Murad is 22 years old. She is a Syrian refugee living with her family in a UN refugee camp in Dohuk. Eidi Khalf burned herself in the bath with flammable materials, she screamed out and the family and other people found out what is happening. They tried to put out the fire as the tent caught fire and take her to the hospital. Eidi Khalf survived death but the severe burns are seen are her body and face. She cannot receive the much-needed treatment due to her displacement and lack of finances. Dohuk, Kurdistan, Iraq © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

Despite the fact that suicide is haram (forbidden) for Iranian Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims, Moradiannejad observes, “These women see suicide as a solution to their problems. This is the last chance for them and they want to use their body as an act of protest.”

Moradiannejad describes the harrowing destruction of flame upon flesh, and the ways in which many women survive the initial act only to die a week later in the hospital from infection. Those who survive are shamed and shunned, the object of slanderous rumors painting them as villains rather than victims. “The families don’t want to talk about the daughter or wife that died,” she says. “Many use drugs to try to forget the pain of losing a loved one. If a survivor lives with the family, she is at home all the time and doesn’t go out. The family tries to act as though the survivor is not there at all.”

Breaking the Silence

Fatemeh was 36 years old when she set herself on fire. She had a daughter and two sons. Fatemeh burned herself on the first morning of Spring, which coincides with the first day of the New Year (Nowruz) and died. She died in 2012. Fatemeh never loved her husband, and her family did not consent to divorce or separation from the husband. Fatemeh chose self-immolation as her only way to freedom. Fatemeh’s grave is located in the city cemetery, which is next to a holy shrine. Abdanan, Ilam, Iran © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

Shaghayegh Moradiannejad visited graveyards hoping to meet local people and connect with them. “The first time I ask them about it, they tell me ‘no,’ but as time goes by they begin to accept me because I am there every day,” she says. “They know I will respect their privacy because they don’t want neighbors and other relatives to know. I try not to show faces because I think their stories are more important than their identities.”

Moradiannejad’s poignant portrait of Juwan, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman living in Iraq, offers an intimate glimpse of the scars survivors carry throughout their lives. Photographed overhead, we see Juwan sitting on the floor, body hidden by a voluminous curtain of dark hair, except for her legs, mottled by flame. After getting married in 2017, Juwan was forced to drop out of school. She immediately became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter.

© Shaghayegh Moradiannejad
Juwan is 22 years old. She got married in 2017 and was forced to drop out of school. In her first year of marriage, she gave birth to a girl and a year later following a dispute with her husband, she set herself on fire in front of her husband in the kitchen. She suffered third-degree burn up to 49%. Her neck, chest and both legs are burnt. She was hospitalized for 58 days. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

After an argument with her husband, Juwan set herself on fire and suffered third degree burns on her neck, chest, and legs. After spending 58 days in the hospital, Juwan was discharged and immediately filed for divorce. Her husband has custody of their child and Juwan can only visit one day a month. Since the suicide attempt, Juwan has undergone 19 surgeries for her injuries. She has resumed her studies, with the dream of becoming a surgeon.

A Symbol of Resistance

Other women use self-immolation as an overtly political act against the government. Hailing from Nusaybin in Mardin, Turkey, Rahşan Demirel was deeply affected by the 1992 uprising, when Kurdish rebels fought Turkish military in Cizre. On the day before Nowruz (Iranian New Year), Demirel learned holiday celebrations had been banned. The next morning, she awoke early and headed out to Kadifekale, a street in the city of İzmir. Before leaving the house, she wrote a note to her family saying, “I am celebrating Nowroz in Kadifekale with my body.”

Demirel set herself on fire in the middle of the street. The following year, her sister Nalan did the same. After Nalan’s death, Turkish intelligence agents went to the family home and confiscated all of the sisters’ belongings. All the family has left of their daughters are two photographs.

A painting of Rahshan while swinging with her beautiful smile is seen in this photo. It was painted by a Kurdish political prisoner inside a Turkey prison and delivered to Rahshan’s family. Mardin, Turkey © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad
Rahşan Demirel was born on 15 August 1975 in Nusaybin District of Mardin. Rahşan was deeply affected by the rebellions that lived in Cizre in 1992. The day before Nowroz, she watched on TV that the Nowroz celebrations were banned. The next morning, on March 22, 1992, she got up early and went to Kadifekale (a street in İzmir). Before leaving the house, she wrote on a piece of cardboard: “I am celebrating Nowroz in Kadifekale with my body.” That day, Rahşan set her body on fire to celebrate the banned New Year celebration. It was a political act. Mardin, Turkey © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

Since her death, Demirel has become a symbol of the Kurdish resistance and courage in the fight for freedom and justice. “Poems have been written to honor Rahshan’s sacrifice,” says Shaghayegh Moradiannejad. “A Kurdish political prisoner in Turkey painted a portrait of Rahshan and delivered it to her family. Her siblings are now married and have children who have heard stories about their aunts’ courage.”

Now that she has completed the project, Moradiannejad is ready to share these stories with the world and break the silence and the shame that surrounds survivors’ lives and victims’ deaths. She recognizes that bringing this practice to light is the only way to beget change through the work she is doing at the Roulah Foundation, a non-profit organization working with victims of domestic abuse, self-immolation, underage marriages, forced marriage, and child labor. “Every week I receive a message about a new victim,” she says. “I want to support the survivors who need surgery or help.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.

More information about Shaghayegh Moradiannejad’s work on her website 

Nabila was 25 years old when she set herself on fire. She had 5 sisters and 7 brothers. Nabila’s family is reluctant to discuss her story, believing that she suffered from mental illness. The mother is the only family member who talks about her daughter. Her mother is the only person who still reminds of her, she hangs a picture of her daughter in the room where the family members’ beddings are. She continues to keep Nabil’s bedding and refuses to believe her other children’s opinions about Nabila’s mental illness and does not acknowledge the reasons for her daughter’s self-immolation. Al Ba’ath, Syria © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad
The story of Sevan’s life is different from the story of all other women in this book. She did not burn herself but was burned by her husband. Sevan was born in December 26, 1995 and was married off at the age of 17. She had three children. Two sons and one daughter by the names of Darin, Lauren and Daroon. There were many disputes during the last years of Sevan and her husband’s life together. In 2020, Sevan’s husband set fire to Sevan and their three children and left the house. 6-year-old Darin, 2-year-old Lauren, and two months old Daroon died immediately but Sevan survived for a week and described everything that had happened to them in the hospital. Her husband was arrested and tried. On the tombstone of the children of Sevan there is no name of the father. Different from other tombstones in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the name of the deceased is written with the name of the father, only Sevan’s name is inscribed as their parent. Chamchamal, Kurdistan, Iraq © Shaghayegh Moradiannejad

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