Berma, 26, lies in a white hospital bed in the female burn unit in Erbil. Her body lies in an uncomfortable position — because her legs are not allowed to touch the bed — and her eyes show she’s in a lot of pain. Her husband and four children are nowhere to be found; only her best friend stays with her the whole time. The friend softly caresses Berman’s head, the only place on Berma’s body that has no burn marks.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is relatively safe, its economy is flourishing and it is regarded in the West as a liberal haven in an often conservative region. But since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there has been an alarming trend — more than 1,000 women have died after setting themselves on fire. Berma is one of the young women who probably burned herself, although she will never admit it.
“One day, the family of my husband came along for a picnic in the village. We ate a snack and drank some tea. It was a nice day. At home, I washed the cups and spoons in the kitchen. All of a sudden I got really cold,” she whispers. “So that’s why I turned on the heating stove. When I put the kerosene in the stove, I forgot to cut off the electricity. The thing exploded and I caught fire. It was an accident.”
In Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kurdish parts of Turkey, self-burning is known as the usual method of suicide attempt by Kurdish women. Often, it is a way out of abusive situations, like domestic violence or social injustice. Therefore, in Iraqi Kurdistan it is classified as violence committed against women.
When she is being asked if she is happy with her husband, Berma pauses for a brief second. “I was 16 when I married him. No, it was not a forced marriage. He was a friend of my cousin.” She avoids the eyes of her friend.
Rosh, a male nurse in the female burn department, says the story about the stove is probably false. Lack of electricity means that every house has a plentiful supply of oil and while some cases may be accidents, the nature and scale of the injuries suggest that most major burn cases are deliberate. “It almost looks like a code: When a woman mentions the stove, we all know that it was self-inflicted. We cannot do anything about it, unfortunately.”