I set myself on fire

By Fariba Amiri

“I gave your father a gift, so you have to sleep with me whenever I want.”

This was what Karim, my husband said, when I refused him his conjugal rights;he was  a man who was several decades older than me. I don’t know if it was Karim’s disdainful laugh after that or maybe it was an idea that I had unconsciously thought of before. No matter how I look at it today, I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to end my life by setting myself on fire, to escape the physical and mental abuse I had endured for six years

Since we didn’t have a bathroom in our small house on the outskirts of Herat in Afghanistan, I was preparing to go to a public bathroom. I was saving money so I could enjoy the comfort of a public bath once a week. As I was leaving our one-room apartment to go to the bathroom, Karim stopped me. He was much bigger and stronger than me and could easily overpower me. Often when he wanted to satisfy his desires, he did so. He called it ‘sex’, but to me, it was a violation of my body, in the most painful and horrible way possible. Over the years, I learnt to avoid this physical and psychological harm, and sometimes, at the cost of a severe beating, I would  reject him. But the day I wanted to go to the bathroom, he was angry with me since the night before when I refused intimacy with him. I told him that night: “I can’t sleep with you anymore bro.” I hoped that by calling him “brother” I would make him dislike me and stop his progress.

“I don’t consider you as my husband,  I’m not your wife,” I said . “There is no connection between us.” This made him angrier. Since the day I married Karim, I was under torture.

He began to abuse me and accused me of betrayal. He said:

“Why do you have to go to the bathroom? Have you been intimate with another man? Do you want to meet another man and sleep with him? He raised his voice so that the neighbours could hear. He was trying to tarnish my image in society. The good name of an Afghan woman is her everything. Without it, the Afghan woman is vulnerable to all the evils of the society. Women in Afghanistan have been stoned to death for matters less important than good name and chastity. This is especially common in remote areas and traditional communities of Afghanistan. In the traditional societies of this country, tribal and local laws take precedence over women’s rights. Even in the urban and more advanced areas of this country, the judicial system does not take the side of women and many women are imprisoned for moral crimes.

With the seal of betrayal that Karim had stamped on me and the fact that I had to prove my innocence after all this pain and suffering, the knife reached the bone. The anger that I felt that day, I had not experienced before and I have not felt it since. “You are neither man nor woman, you are an animal,” I shouted. He just laughed at me

I took the barrel of petrol from the kitchen and poured it on myself. He understood what I was trying to do and snatched the sulphur from my hand. The neighbours, who were listening to our argument, rushed to the house. They tried to calm me down as I cried and moaned. “Don’t destroy your home,”said one of them.

My crying was not over when the neighbours left us. I did not say a single word to Karim. Once again, I picked my shawl up to go and wash the petrol that had spilled on my clothes and body. He stopped me again. I was shaking with anger and my head and body were covered with dirt. Without a moment’s thought, I picked up the box of sulphur from where he had left it and lit one .

I must have caught fire early because the outburst of anger that I felt inside me moments ago was immediately replaced by a burning pain that covered every bit of my being. I don’t remember much after that.

I don’t remember my wedding day. But I remember being excited the week before the wedding. I was just a little girl, 13 years old, and the thought of having red lipstick on my lips – something I was forbidden to do at home if I wasn’t a bride – was all that mattered to me. I didn’t understand the concept of marriage as well as I should, but the idea of a wedding was exciting to me. I did not even think of opposing it. I understood the wedding when my husband’s family took me to their house. I couldn’t stop crying and begged my mother, “I want to go home. I don’t want to live here, please…” But the work was done and the wedding could not be disturbed.

Before marriage, Karim was a martial arts teacher in Herat, but now he could not find a job for himself. He was full of hatred and anger, which I found in him the first night after our wedding. When I was younger, I was told to never let a man touch me; That if I let someone touch my body, I have committed a sin. That’s why I cried on the first wedding night when he touched my body. The next day they sent me to my father’s house and I complained to my mother because I thought that my mother could save me. Instead my mother told me that he [Karim] was going to touch me again and I shouldn’t stop. On the third night of the wedding, when I went back to Karim, he tried again. When I resisted and tried to scream, he covered me with his body, grabbed my hands with one hand and covered my mouth with the other. He inflicted such intense pain on me that I passed out. After that, I was very sick for a few days and they had to take me to the hospital. But as soon as I got better, the same thing happened again. And it was repeated…

I asked my father to take me home, to divorce me. In Afghanistan, a woman cannot talk about divorce. If a woman even utters the word divorce, the whole community joins hands to convince her to stay with her husband. People say: “Don’t destroy your own home.” They didn’t know that “home” would destroy me.

When I got pregnant for the first time, I was still just a child and I didn’t know that I was carrying another child inside me. Karim beat me because I was sick. One day we were at his sister’s house when he complained about my frequent nausea episodes, nauseating and puking at how lazy I’ve become. It was then that his sister found out that I was pregnant. But it was wrong to think that I could expect sympathy from his mother and sister. The women of his family would lock me in the “warehouse” and take turns beating me for hours to prepare me for a “hard-headed” mother I remember that later, right at the moment when I set myself on fire, the neighboring women who came to my rescue said:

“Don’t destroy your home with your own hands!”

In everyone’s eyes, I was the one who was destroying a home, not the one who escaped from prison.

When I woke up in the hospital, with a burnt body, covered in pain and wounds, I saw Karim sitting next to my bed and holding my little child in his arms. I screamed when I saw him. I shouted with all my strength that “He brought this disaster on me. take him away from me.” He whispered softly in my ear that he had told the doctors that I had been burned in the kitchen accident. But I told them the doctors the truth and the hospital staff helped me call my parents, who were unaware of my condition.

Seventy percent of my upper body, hands and feet were burned. I could not walk and the doctors were sure that I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life. The doctors were kind and treated me even though I had no money. I later learnt that the severity of my burns had greatly reduced my chances of survival were crushed. I couldn’t imagine a future, good or bad, for myself. I may have survived the fire, but I was not alive. I was stuck between life and death. Setting myself on fire was a form of protest, a way to take control of my life by ending it.

After several months of treatment, the burns began to heal.

My treatment process was intensive and American doctors worked on my burns. The bandages on the wounds were changed several times a day and I was prescribed a series of medications to prevent my body from getting infected. I couldn’t move much and I needed help for every little thing.

It took me several months to sit up on my own. Finally, with the help of physical therapy and nurses, I was able to stand up and walk a few steps after about a year. But when I recovered and learnt to walk again, I had no choice but to go to Karim’s house because of my three children. My father offered to try to get a divorce for me, but I couldn’t go ahead because I knew that I would lose three of my children. I wanted a divorce when I was newly married, but now it was too late. A divorced woman in Afghanistan does not have any rights towards her children Once again, I was captured by the man who had caused me the most pain. If there was kindness and intimacy between us before, it was over now. We lived under the same roof but not a word was exchanged between us.

A few months later, while I was still in recovery, barely able to walk and still in need of medication, Karim took our children and me to India, hoping to get asylum from UNHCR. However, he made it clear that he would not support me or our three children, the oldest of whom was only 7 years old. He preferred us to beg at the gates of mosques to survive. For the first few days of my stay in Delhi, I walked slowly and with great pain and difficulty to find something for myself. I didn’t succeed, mainly because I couldn’t speak the language. We used to live with the charity of others; We ate only when someone gave us food out of compassion. I had no medicine to help heal my burns or pain, and my children barely had a roof over their heads.

When I was looking for work outside, Karim forced my children to beg at the gates of mosques. He would dress our eldest son in old clothes and make him hold our little child wrapped in tattered clothes in his arms to gain sympathy from the people. When I found out about this, I was angry and shouted at him for abusing our children like this. Although he punched and kicked me in response, he never took the children to the mosque again

However, he would say bad things about me to our children.

It was painful; Watching him take my children away from me. He would make sure they didn’t spend time with me, and when I was out working, he would tell them nasty things about me; That I do bad and immoral things when I go to work.

But later I started learning Hindi with the help of some neighbours. I already had a brief acquaintance with this language through watching movies. But as my language skills developed, I found a way to earn money. Many

Afghans travel to the Indian capital for medical treatment and services, and most of them cannot speak Hindi or English. With my nascent language skills and knowing the ways and means of Delhi, I was in a position to help these travellers, for a fee, with their location and translation. I reached out to the Afghan community and helped Afghans travelling to Delhi with their needs like booking hotels, doctor appointments, buying medicine, getting around through Delhi’s public transport and even entertainment and

shopping It’s amazing when you don’t expect it at all, you find strength and resistance in your being. When you think you are the weakest, you realize that you can be the strongest. This experience has a spiritual burden.

Within a few months, I could earn up to 3,000 rupees ($30) a day. As my skills improved, my reputation as an Afghan guide grew wider and wider. On the other hand, I would accept any extra work I could find, such as washing and

preparing Afghani food. Within six months, I could earn close to one lakh Indian rupees ($1,500) per month. I even bought a small bike to commute around town to save some money.

I was making more money than Karim had ever made in his entire life – and I was paying for it with my daily pain and suffering. But I was determined to make a better life for my children. With the slightest movement, he would take most of my money and beat me up. But being the breadwinner of my family, I felt empowered. Being the breadwinner had given me a strength I could not have imagined before.

One day, he and I had an argument over the money that I had saved away from Karim’s eyes. This speaker was violent. He kicked me in the stomach and tried to strangle me with my tent. But this time, I didn’t give up. I screamed, asked for help and someone called the police. I filed a complaint against him and the Afghan embassy in Delhi got involved. When the embassy officials visited us, I told them that I wanted to get a divorce. They forbade me, and again I was told, “Try to make things work. Why do you want to destroy your union?”

However, UNHCR in Delhi was aware of my case. They rejected Karim’s request for asylum and registered my case independently. Shortly after this incident, my children and I received asylum. When Karim learned about this, he got angry and broke the windows of the UN office. UN staff called me to tell me not to come to their office that day because they were afraid I would get hurt. Breaking the window of their office was enough to fire Karim.

The last battle between me and Karim was the hardest battle.

He wanted to take my children back to Afghanistan with him, and according to Afghan law, nothing could stop him

I offered him 500,000 Afghani ($6,600) – everything I had and didn’t have that I had saved and borrowed – to give up my children. But he wanted 10 lakh Afghanis. “I spent money on you,” he said in a conversation with me at the embassy.

All the children are mine.” I told the embassy staff what he did to me. I said, “Torture, burn marks on my body and years of sexual abuse; You are the one who must pay the price.” I knew that the embassy staff, who were not used to seeing an Afghan woman speaking like this, would be shocked. But no one supported me.

I suggested again: “Five lakhs for two of them.” He did not accept. Finally, with the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who provided me with legal advice in negotiations with Karim, I was only able to keep my youngest child with me for four lakhs. I lost my two children that day and I haven’t seen them since.

The authorities kept Karim in custody until I could escape.

After I left India, he was sent to Afghanistan. Since then, he has been harassing my family every day. When my parents rejected his marriage proposal [to my younger sister], he threatened to kidnap my sister. He made me so bad that even if he dies, I can never go back to Afghanistan for fear of my life.

But finally, at the age of 21, I got divorced and got rid of him. This story is from eight years ago. I have now built a new life in a completely new place with my son. I now work as a translator at a refugee center in the country I now call home. Karim and his family do not know where I live. I was able to rent a small apartment and start our new life. My son is going to Kindergarten and I signed up for night classes in English and other subjects. Finally, I found two other jobs; One as a cleaner and the other as a waiter. I want to earn enough money to give my son the life I never had in Afghanistan.

I have also learned to drive and recently purchased a new Toyota Corolla for commuting to work and taking my son to school. When I was still a young girl, I fantasized about driving a car. At that time, this wish seemed like an impossible dream. But now, wherever I go, I go with my car

Today I live in a country where women have many rights.

Although I have been here for several years, the freedoms I enjoy in this country still surprise and amaze me. I am strong and have confidence that I have never had before.

All the freedom in the world cannot ease the pain of losing my two children. I yearn for them every day. The eldest son is 13 years old and his younger brother is 9 years old. I am waiting for Karim to die and I can be reunited with my children. But I imagine Kareem told them terrible things about me. They probably think I’ve abandoned them and run off with my youngest child. I am thinking about the conversation we will have when we meet. I think about what I will say to convince them; That separation from them was never my thought.

Most of the wounds on my body have healed well. There are almost no burn marks on my face and the scars on my hands and upper body have almost disappeared. Emotional scars and wounds remain. For me, they are a reminder of my strength. My scars are a reminder of what I have lost, my children, who are not with me today. My scars are a reminder of many women who cannot escape from a tyrant and torturer like me. These wounds remind me of those who ran away from a tyrant into the embrace of fire and succumbed to its flames. The same fire in which I burned.

11 April, 2023