PRAGUE, 8 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Nasrin Mohammadi is a member of a women's NGO in Marivan in Iran's western province of Kurdistan. She says the number of women who attempt to kill themselves through self-immolation is growing in her city.
One of the recent cases involves a woman who set herself on fire to protest her husband's decision to marry another woman.
"I know this woman who is illiterate; her husband became very rich in a very short time and he forced his wife to sign a letter of consent so he could marry another woman," she said. "She didn't know what she was signing. Since then she has attempted to commit suicide by self-immolation; 80 percent of her body is burned and considering her condition I think she will die [soon]."
"We should at least boost the women's morale; we should give them some hope for the future so that they don't feel that they are totally alone and defenseless."
Little Hope And A Grim Future
Mohammadi tells RFE/RL that due to conservative traditions and social restrictions, women in her region have little hope in life and often a grim future.
"Desperation is the main reason for the self-immolation [of women]," she continued. "Women face more pressure in a traditional society and in our region because of deprivations and the rule of [old] traditions this pressure has become much stronger. Women in our region are seen as 'second class' citizens. The economic situation of women is a main factor; they are totally dependent on men and also the laws of our country are such that the courts never protect women."
The Kurdistan Human Rights Organization has said that for many women in the region, burning oneself is an outcry against the "patriarchal system" that rules the society and also against the abuse of their basic rights.
Mohammad Sadegh Kabudvand says violence against women is one of the main reasons for suicide among Kurdish women.
Subjected To Violence
"It is certain that pressure and domestic violence and religious prejudice is causing this problem," he said. "In the Kurdish regions men have more [rights] at home and in the society and women are considered inferior."
Kabudvand told RFE/RL that all the documented cases of self-immolation of women in Iran's Western Azerbaijan Province involve young women -- between the ages of 14 to 30 years old -- with little education. He says his organization is planning to document cases of self-immolation in other provinces such as Ilam and Kermanshah where self-immolation is reportedly common.
Mohsen Janghorbani is a professor of epidemiology at Isfahan University of Medical Sciences who has done some research on attempted suicides in Ilam. He believes easy access to flammable materials such as petrol makes self-immolation the most common method of suicide in Ilam. Professor Janghorbani told RFE/RL that self-immolation is not just a way to end life, but also a way to send a message to their families and to the society.
"I think that women do not want to really commit suicide but they want, in fact, to make their cry for help to be heard and say that they are facing injustice," he said. "They use this means, [even though] it is the worst form of suicide. Most of them are young women who are suffering in forced marriages or have some other family-related problems."
He believes better protection of women's rights and economic development in the region could help tackle the problem. He adds that a woman's access to a better education would make them more aware of their rights and help them express their despair in other ways.
Nasrin Mohammadi from the Cultural Society of Marivan's Women agrees. "Laws should be changed in a way that they will protect women," she said. "[The mentality] of the families should change and also the culture of the society [should change]. It needs a long time. Currently we can't do much but we should at least boost the women's morale; we should give them some hope for the future so that they don't feel that they are totally alone and defenseless."
Experts believe the availability of family mental-health centers and psychological programs may reduce the rate of self- immolation in the region.
The Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan has called on media and NGOs to help raise people's awareness about women's issues in an effort to help change social and cultural patterns relating to men's behavior. The organization has also called on the Iranian government to join international agreements and conventions that guarantee equal rights for women such as the UN Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Violence Against Women.