The Day I Set Myself On Fire

The Day I Set Myself On Fire

I paid your father the bride price for you, so you have to sleep with me whenever I want,” my husband, Karim, who was several decades older than me, told me when I refused to have sex with him. Perhaps it was the dismissive laughter that followed that was the trigger, or perhaps it was an idea I had considered before, subconsciously. No matter which way I look at it today, I can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to end my life by setting fire to my body to escape the physical and mental violence I had endured for six years.

It just happened.

I was on my way to the hamam (public bath), since we didn’t have a bathroom in our small house outside the city of Herat in Afghanistan. I saved money to be able to afford the luxury of bathing once a week at the public baths. As I was about to leave our tiny one-room apartment, Karim stopped me. He was of a much larger build and girth than I was, and a seasoned albeit unemployed martial arts teacher, and he was able to easily overpower me. And he often did, when he needed to satisfy his urges. He used to call it sex, but to me it was an extremely painful and horrifying violation of my body. Over the years, I had learned to block the trauma out, and eventually I even started to refuse him, at the risk of being severely beaten. On this day, he was angry at me from the night before when I had refused him sex. “I can’t sleep with you anymore, brother,” I told him. I hoped calling him “brother” would disgust him and discourage his advances.

“I do not consider you my husband, and I am not your wife. There is no relationship between us,” I said, which just made him angrier and more violent. I had been beaten and abused every day that I was married to Karim, whose name I’ve changed here for my safety.

He started calling me names and accused me of being unfaithful. “Why do you need to go to the hamam? Did you have sex with another man? Are you going to meet another man, sleep with him?” He shouted expletives loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He was trying to taint my character in the community. An Afghan woman’s reputation is everything, and without it she is vulnerable to all of the evils of the society. Women in Afghanistan have been stoned to death for much less, especially in the more remote and conservative parts of the country where the local tribal laws take precedence over women’s rights. Even within more developed urban parts of the country, the justice system does not favor women, and many women have been sent to prison on charges of moral crimes.

The accusation of being unfaithful and having to prove my innocence after everything I had been through was the final straw. The rage I felt, I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. “You are not a man, you are not a woman, you are an animal,” I screamed at him, and he just laughed at me.

I grabbed the canister of cooking fuel from the kitchen and poured it on myself. He realized what I was about to do and grabbed the matches. The neighbors, who had so far been eavesdropping from a polite distance, barged in to our house. They tried to calm me, but I was wailing as they told me, “Don’t break your home.”

I was still crying when they left. Not speaking a word to Karim, I once again gathered my chador to go wash the fuel off of me. Once again, he pulled me back. I was shaking with anger and still covered in kerosene, and I didn’t think twice about picking up the box of matches from where he’d left it — and lighting one.

I must have caught fire quickly because the hot anger I had felt moments ago soon translated into hot searing pain that took over every particle of my being. I don’t remember much after that.

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