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.
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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 http://shaghayeghphoto.com/bio/.