Mazar-e-Sharif Suicides: Poisonous Freedom for Afghan Women

PHOTO: Afghan women wait to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan at the Hazrat-e Ali shrine in Mazar-i Sharif in northern of Afghanistan on July 17, 2013.

Women in Mazar-e-Sharif have straddled the worlds between Western freedoms and conservative traditions for a decade. As the Taliban gains strength and the West pulls out, Afghanistan's most liberal city is being plagued by a rash of suicides.

Fareba Gul decided to die in a burqa. She put on the traditional gown, which she usually didn't wear, and drove to the Blue Mosque. There, at the holiest place in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, she swallowed malathion, an insecticide. She then ran over to the square, where hundreds of white doves were waiting to be fed by visitors. When she was surrounded by the birds, the cramps set in.

"Fareba was lying on the ground when I arrived, and people were standing all around her," says her uncle Faiz Mohammed, whom she had called before taking the poison. "She was screaming for help." He lifted up his niece, carried her to a taxi and took her to a hospital. Foam was pouring from her mouth, and she was slipping in and out of consciousness. One hour later, 21-year-old Fareba Gul was dead. She died on the same day, and in the same hospital, as her 16-year-old sister Nabila.

Behind the tragedy lay a harmless love affair, relatives say. The sisters had been fighting, and Nabila had taken things too far: She had fallen in love. Fareba, the relatives say, got angry, calling Nabila's behavior "indecent" and demanding that she end the affair. Both got very upset and were screaming at each other. Their mother entered the room and slapped Nabila. Then, Nabila reportedly took the poison from her father's cabinet and swallowed it in her room. A few hours later, Fareba took the same pills. "She felt guilty," says her uncle.

The sisters' double suicide hangs over the city like a dark shadow. Mazar-e-Sharif is widely viewed as one of the most peaceful and liberal cities in Afghanistan. But could this be an omen of what lies ahead for the country once Western troops start withdrawing in the near future?

Living in Mazar-e-Sharif means living in relative security. But now more and more women are starting to hurt themselves here, as well. It leaves one baffled, but it is still no coincidence.

More than anywhere else in Afghanistan, women in Mazar-e-Sharif are torn between tradition and their newly won freedom, between family expectations and their own sense of self. They are trapped in a society that is at once deeply conservative but also offers just enough freedom for women to discover a modern, Westernized lifestyle. Girls can go to school, women can work, and both can surf the Web and watch cable TV. But forced marriages, domestic violence and many limitations continue to exist for many of them -- and are all-the-more difficult to bear. Under these circumstances, choosing how and when to die can become a form of self-determination.

When asked about the women killing themselves, the city's police chief claims that such things "only happen in Heart province or in remote mountain villages." Women's rights organizations point to poverty and a lack of education as the main factors behind the suicides.

But the family home of the dead sisters is located in one of the best areas of town. It is spacious and in good condition, with a garden full of blooming roses. Marzia Gul, their mother, says "Please, come in," and sits down on the sofa in the living room, sinking into the red upholstery. "Fareba, my oldest daughter, studied law," she says. "She wanted to be a lawyer like her father" and was just a year away from her final exams. Nabila, the younger one, also did well in school, she continues. "She wanted to be a journalist."

Marzia gets up, walks over to the cupboard and takes a photo from a glass tray. The picture shows a smiling little girl with pigtails and freckles. "She was so kind and helpful," she says. Then her voice breaks.

A Place of Despair

The sisters' suicide is particularly unsettling because the girls led privileged lives in this long-suffering country. They watched Bollywood films, had mobile phones and Internet access. Along with jeans and makeup, they wore headscarves but no burqas. They didn't have to hide from the world.

And they lived in a city that does not force the well-off to barricade themselves behind concrete walls. A powerful governor controls life in this part of Afghanistan -- so effectively, in fact, that residents hardly have to fear death from a bomb attack. Foreign aid workers are permitted to move around freely. Visitors barely see any weapons in the streets. Instead, they can watch women in the bazaars trying on shoes, their eyelids shaded with the traditional cosmetic kajal and their hair lightly covered by a headscarf.

Indeed, in theory, Mazar-e-Sharif is a place of hope. But at least in the regional hospital's department of internal medicine, the city is a place of despair.

"Fridays are the worst," says Dr. Khaled Basharmal as he takes out a notebook. "Eight attempted suicides on a single day." He reads off the names of the most recent patients -- Raihana, Roya, Shukuria, Terena, Rahima. There are also the names of two young men.

"It's a disaster. Since late March, we've had more than 200 cases," Basharmal says. The sisters, Fareba and Nabila Gul, were among his patients as well.

Basharmal is sweating underneath his white coat, and he is exhausted. It's noon now, and he was forced to work another shift that lasted through the night.

No official statistics are kept, and no one can confirm his figures. Nevertheless, Afghanistan is believed to be one of the few countries in the world that has more women taking their lives than men. A recent study concluded that five out of every 100,000 women are committing suicide each year. But the real number is likely to be much higher, especially in rural areas far away from the big cities. More than 1.8 million women in Afghanistan, which has an estimated population of 31 million, are said to be suffering from depression.

A Cry for Help?

Anyone visiting the department of internal medicine in Mazar-e-Sharif doesn't need statistics. It is a hospital room with empty walls and no medical equipment; there are only eight beds. A new patient is brought in, another suicide attempt. Nurses put her in one of the empty beds. The girl's veil has been pushed up, revealing a strikingly beautiful face. But the eyes are strangely lifeless. A nurse inserts a tube into the girl's nose. A salty liquid flows into her body. When it's pumped back out of the girl's stomach and into a plastic bottle, the liquid is pitch-black. "Sleeping pills," Barshamal says.

In another bed lies Roya, a skinny young woman among those who survived the previous night. Although her family claimed she is 24 when she was admitted to the hospital, Barshamal thinks Roya is probably closer to 18 years old. She barely has enough energy to speak but, in a fading voice, she says she injected rat poison into her veins and points to the inside of her left arm.

Roya had meticulously planned her own death. She first went to her general practitioner and got a prescription for low blood pressure and a syringe. Then she got the rat poison. She says that she was desperate, that she wanted to die.

Roya's mother enters the room along with her brother. "She's has a happy life," he says. "There are no problems." Roya only nods. She doesn't dare contradict him.

One floor below lies Zarghana, a 28-years-old relative of Roya. She took sleeping pills and pesticides, and now the poison is attacking her internal organs. She was rushed to the emergency room, which she shares with two other women. One of them is naked, her body covered with bruises; the other is a mere child, bloody and in a coma. Are the women victims of an accident? Of domestic violence? The nurses give inconclusive answers.

"Nobody is listening to me!" Zarghana had kept screaming throughout the night. Now that someone is asking to hear her story, she's pushing the sheets and the edge of her robe aside with trembling hands. She points to her neck and shoulders; the skin is scarred and destroyed, full of white blotches.

Zarghana says that she has tried to kill herself twice. The first time she almost succeeded. She took gasoline from a generator in the bathroom, doused herself, lit a match and was burning like a human flame. But then she thought of her children, and the pain became so strong that she reached for a blanket hanging from the laundry line in the yard. She managed to put out the flames. Afterwards, one could see through the flesh on her back, right down to the bones.

That was six months ago. Zarghana received treatment in Kabul, where doctors performed skin transplants. Her father, a wealthy civil servant, paid the bill.

"Many don't really want to die," Dr. Basharmal says. "They are looking for a way out. They want to set an example." Yet in about one of 10 cases, he adds, this supposed cry for help actually does end in death.

Trapped in a Spiral of Self-Destruction and Depression

A search for clues that might explain Zarghana's attempted suicides leads through a dusty street on the outskirts of town. She has now been released from the hospital and returned home. She is unlikely to recover from the piercing pain that keeps plaguing her; the poison has severely damaged her stomach and kidneys.

Zarghana can read and write, and she even speaks a bit of English. For years, she had been working for a local human rights organization. At first, she was a volunteer teaching rural women in villages and explaining to them what their rights are. Then she was taken on as a paid employee. The money sustained her family, as she earned more than her husband. "I was a very successful woman," Zarghana says and immediately starts to cry.

But this success is only half of Zarghana's real story. When she was only 13, like so many other women in Afghanistan, Zarghana was promised to her future husband. Between 60 and 80 percent of all Afghan women are still forced into marriage, an independent human rights organization has estimated, and some 15 percent of the brides are no older than 16.

Zarghana's groom was her stepbrother. "I was allowed to keep going to the school only because I fought for it," she says. One day, her husband disappeared, leaving her alone with their seven children. Over the past two years, he has only shown up sporadically. Zarghana has lost her job and her source of income. She wants a divorce, but her father forbids it.

When Zarghana speaks, she sometimes starts to shake so much that her teeth clatter. Her youngest daughter, merely 2 years old, is crouching in a corner. Zarghana's cries for help have faded away unheard. Her broken body keeps dragging her further down into a spiral of self-destruction and depression. The prospect of a happy life has slipped away from her.

Then the meeting is suddenly adjourned when several men show up at the gate to the garden. They demand that the journalists leave, saying there's nothing to see here.

Reversing Progress Made Since 2001

For so many Afghan women, and for some men as well, it is the deep contradictions that wear down their will to keep living. Their society's conservatism insists on controlling everything, right down to the most intimate details. But the urban middle class has come to know other ways of living, even in its own country.

There's Malalai Joya, the activist and former politician who demands that the warlords and heads of the drug cartels be prosecuted; there's Elaha Soroor, the singer who appeared on the TV show "Afghan Star" and keeps making music despite all the death threats; and there's Khatool Mohammadzai, the only female general in the Afghan army. All of them represent the seemingly impossible: freedom and resistance to tradition.

When Western forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ended Taliban rule, conditions started improving for Afghan women. For example, girls could go to school again, and women and men became equals in the eyes of the law. But now there are more and more indications that such progress might be reversed.

Over the past year, the number of women arrested and imprisoned for "moral crimes" has skyrocketed. In May, the parliament in Kabul opted not to pass proposed legislation outlawing violence against women; instead, representatives are now considering an amendment that would prohibit relatives from appearing as witnesses in trials, thereby making it significantly harder to prosecute cases of domestic violence. And the quota for women in provincial councils was recently reduced from 25 to 20 percent.

What's more, the Taliban are regaining some of their military and political power. Human rights experts are concerned that the West, as well as the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, might be willing to sacrifice women's rights in order to reach a compromise with the Islamists.

Should that happen, cases like the double suicide of the Gul sisters in Mazar-e-Sharif might no longer be an exception.

Grief upon Grief

Marzia Gul, their mother, is standing in her garden. "This is where I found Nabila," she says. "She kissed my hand and said she was sorry." At the hospital, Nabila was screaming in pain and shouting that she regretted everything. Relatives came to visit; her father and mother were sitting by her side, holding her hands and crying. Two hours later, Nabila was dead. Her father broke down, and the doctor gave him a sedative.

Nabila's body was brought to her parents' home in a wooden coffin. Her family was in mourning, praying and singing. Shortly after, her mother noticed that Fareba left the house wearing a burqa. "I thought she wanted to go out and tell the others," she says.

Instead, Fareba went to the Blue Mosque. When she didn't return home that night, her mother telephoned some relatives. "Fareba is in the hospital," they told her. "She is doing well."

Marzia spent the night next to her daughter's coffin, crying and kissing the wood. In the morning, she went to the hospital. There, she was told that Fareba was "already home."

When Marzia returned to the house, she found two wooden coffins lying side by side.

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