The story of Maha Abbas is a sad one. Apparently the 14-year-old Basra local soaked her clothes with oil and then set herself on fire. The teenager died 24 hours after being taken to hospital and after her death, her family locked the door of their house and refused to speak to anyone about the incident.
But the neighbours were soon talking. It was a suicide, they said. She was depressed, said one neighbour, Ahmed Mujber. “There were ten children in the family and the father would always fight with his wife and daughters. When he divorced he prevented the children from seeing the mother. That was why she killed herself,” the neighbour concluded.
The fact that Maha’s family tried to hide her death is not uncommon. Because when women in Iraq commit suicide they supposedly bring disgrace to the family and to the dignity and honour of their tribe. Suicide is also unacceptable in religious circles: Islam says that only God may take a life, including one’s own.
Because a lot of society in Iraq is still fairly conservative and also tribal, mention is not often made of female suicides. The suicide’s family may try to convince others that their daughter died in an accident and they may not even hold a funeral ceremony for the woman.
While when compared to the West, the numbers of women committing suicide in Iraq remain fairly low, some believe that those numbers are rising. Figures are by no means conclusive though and there is sometimes also deliberate confusion between suicide and an honour crime – that is, where a woman is killed because she has been sexually active in a way perceived as illicit by her family or husband. Although adultery is seen as dishonourable, suicide woman is worse – and no doubt, the murderer prefers to avoid jail time.
“People tend to gossip a lot about a girl who is suspected of having committed suicide,” says Kamilla al-Faza, who works for a human rights organisation in Zubair district, west of Basra city. “Mainly that is because the families of these girls don’t open up their houses to receive condolences and they try to cover up the reasons for the suicide.”
It’s due to a lack of awareness about suicide and a lack of laws protecting women’s rights, al-Faza believes. Al-Faza says her organisation conducted a series of interviews with local women, most of them already married between 2012 and 2103. Some of the women who thought of killing themselves had talked about their husbands’ infidelity, their poor living conditions and one even said her husband had married another woman in secret.
“Women in Iraq are under a lot of pressure. Usually any decision made by her tribe about a woman’s life carries more weight than any national law. And we’ve documented a lot of suicide cases where a woman was forced to marry or because they were accused of adultery,” al-Faza notes. “There may also be economic factors. We have heard of loan sharks giving women money and then using the loans to blackmail them into sexual abuse.”
Another reason suggested for female suicide among younger women was because their families had made them leave school and get married too young.
A local school teacher, Nasreen Hussein, says one of her students tried to commit suicide by swallowing all kinds of pills; her parents had forced her to leave school, Hussein says.
“Fortunately for her, she got to hospital on time and doctors saved her life,” Hussein adds.
“There are so many factors that limit women’s choices and combined with anxiety and depression that young girls can suffer from, they may lead to suicidal thoughts or suicide,” al-Faza explains.
Compounding the curtailing of female freedoms in traditional society is the fact that, these days, many young Iraqi women have a far wider outlook on the world. The Internet, which has brought social media to Iraqi youth, and the wide availability of satellite televisions means that young Iraqis are more exposed to liberal ideas.
“After being closed off for a long time, Iraqi society has become more open to other cultures,” says Salem al-Jumaili, a local psychologist. “So the new generation is more receptive to modern ideas. A whole generation of young Iraqis is being confronted with ideas that challenge the traditional way of life and they don’t know how to deal with it.”
“A lot of young women begin to perceive the old ways as unjust and discriminatory,” al-Jumaili explains. “They feel marginalized when they see that other young women elsewhere in the world have all this freedom and many more opportunities.”