In a desolate stretch in the northwest corner of Iraq, something strange is happening. There is a growing epidemic of young women who are killing themselves after being forced into arranged marriages, often with their relatives. In the city of Sinjar, the practice is centuries old, but as their society is slowly being exposed to the outside world—in large part because of the war—women are reacting to the tradition in new and tragic ways.
The New York Times has a story of what's happening in Sinjar, where it's estimated that there have been up to 50 suicides so far this year, most die either from self-inflicted gunshots or setting themselves on fire. With only 350,000 people living there, that's a rate that's more than double what you'd see in the U.S. While deeply upsetting, it's completely understandable to those of us in modern society that a young girl would find it unbearable to be forced to marry someone she does not love and spend her days as a kind of unseen domestic servant. But the realization that there might be something better is new to the citizens of Sinjar, a rural community that is incredibly impoverished and isolated. While some people blame the suicides on the poverty brought on by an economy devastated by war or on the age-old excuse of "madness," there appears to be something different at work: television and the internet. After the war began, satellite TV and access to the internet became available in what had been a completely isolated community. Kheri Shingli, a local political official and a journalist, explains the powerful effect:
The society had been closed, and now it is open to the rest of the world. They feel they are not living their life well compared to the rest of the world.
One influence that seems to be blamed most often is a popular Turkish soap opera called Forbidden Love:
A romantic drama of the upper class, it is a favorite program of women here, and some people say it provides an unrealistic example of the lives that could be available outside Sinjar.
Specifically, it provides a glimpse into a life where women are not just child-rearing servants of their husbands. It also introduces the concept of romance, which must be a breathtaking idea in a society where marriage has nothing to do with love. And so, it seems that once women have a glimpse of what is possible in life, it makes it impossible to stomach the restricted and oppressive life they're being forced to live.
The Times talked to a 16-year-old girl named Jenan Merza who shot herself in the abdomen in an attempted suicide. She said, "I tried to kill myself. I didn't want to get married. I was forced to get engaged." In fact, she was forced to marry her first cousin. Like many girls, Merza watches Forbidden Love and says of it, "I wish I had that life." But it's not as if she's waiting to be swept off her feet, instead it seems more like she just wants a little control over her own destiny. She says, "I want to stay with my mom and not go back to my husband."
Her father blamed the soap opera for his daughter's suicide attempt, and he doesn't seem to understand why she can't just be happy, since marriage is nothing but a simple fact:
I got married to my cousin. I wasn't in love with her, but we are here, living together. That's what happens here, we marry our relatives.
He says of her future, "I hope she will go back to him. His father is my brother." But he did acknowledge that he won't force his daughter to go back to her husband, who lives right next door.
While many girls are reacting to impending marriages like Jenan Merza did and killing themselves, there's another even darker problem that's part of this epidemic: honor killings that are covered up as suicides. Officials say that families sometimes kill a woman who has committed adultery or dared to marry outside their religion or class and call it a suicide. For instance, the family of one 19-year-old girl who was recently married to a cousin claimed that she'd stabbed herself to death. Her father said she started acting oddly after the wedding, hallucinating and "talking nonsense." He doesn't connect the two events, however: "I saw her happy in her marriage. It wasn't that." He took her to see a religious leader who said she'd been possessed by the devil and recommended an exorcism, but before that could be done, she was found dead. Her brothers have since been arrested on suspicion of murdering her.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight for the women of Sinjar. What's especially tragic is that there are no mental health services available and no other mechanisms in place to help women deal with the pressures of living in this kind changing society. They're stuck in the terrible position of knowing there is something more for them in the outside world but not having any power to get there or to change the rules in their own community.
A study last year by the International Organization for Migration determined that, "the marginalization of women and the view of the woman's role as peripheral contributed to the recent suicides," and a report done by a local health center points to just one way to fix this problem: "The way to solve this is to put an end to forced marriages." But given that it is a deeply entrenched practice and the city is virtually free from government control because of its isolation, that's sadly not likely to happen anytime soon.
Where Arranged Marriages Are Customary, Suicides Grow More Common [New York Times]