Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Failed Suicides Create Plastic Surgery Demand

By Amanj Khalil in Sulaimaniyah (ICR No. 219, 27-Apr-07)
By IWPR
Suham Ghafoor obsessively tries to hide her face in public. Once proud of her beauty, she now is ashamed to show the scars left on her face by her attempt to burn herself to death.



Last year, after many bitter arguments with her husband, the young woman decided to end her life by setting herself on fire. It was the only way she could think of to escape a life of abuse at the hands of her husband.



Now she is one of a growing number of women having plastic surgery to remove the burns left by her failed suicide bid.



Before she set herself alight, Ghafoor said she wondered what would happen to her two children without her, but even that didn’t stop her.



"I knew it was the end of my life," she said, "I just wanted to escape from life and the insults of my husband."



Armed with five litres of kerosene and a lighter, she disappeared into the bathroom where no one could see her. Soon afterwards, she rushed out, covered in flames and screaming for help.



Neighbours came and smothered her in wet blankets before taking her to the hospital, where she spent several weeks in recovery before returning home to her old life.



But each morning when looking into the mirror, she knew she would never be the same - so she turned to plastic surgery to restore as much of her old self as possible.



"I regret what I have done to myself," she said, painfully aware of how difficult it will be to make the traces of her deed disappear.



Ghafoor, a woman with wide eyes and brown complexion, was proud of her beauty before attempting suicide. "I had many suitors when I wanted to marry," she said.



And Ghafoor is not alone. In Iraqi-Kurdistan, self-immolation - or setting fire to oneself - is the most common method of suicide for women.



Experts say that women are often driven to this desperate measure to escape domestic violence. A lack of psychological or marital counseling, as well as a strict social code that stops people discussing personal matters outside the family, means they often feel they have nowhere to turn for help.



In 2006, around 1500 women in the region have tried to end their lives in this way, according to statistics from the Sulaimaniyah Emergency Hospital. Almost a third of them died from their injuries.



Many of those who survive are now opting to have plastic surgery to get rid of their scars.



The first emergency treatment for burn victims at public hospitals is normally provided free of charge, especially those from families with low income.



When the victims are brought to hospital, the doctors will perform urgent surgery, such as skin transplantations. The victims must pay for non-essential surgery which is requested for cosmetic reasons.



It doesn’t come cheap – to remove an average-sized burn costs 500 US dollars - more than twice the monthly average income - but in spite of the costs, the demand for corrective surgery continues to rise.



Ari Rahim is a surgeon in one of the 18 clinics in Sulaimaniyah which offer plastic surgery to survivors of attempted self-immolation, as well as to those seeking routine cosmetic procedures.



He says that last year 600 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in the city, which has a population of approximately 600,000. He has more customers than ever, he says – many of them women need skin transplants after attempting suicide in this way.



Increased prosperity in Sulaimaniyah means more and more women in this situation can afford plastic surgery to treat their burns, he said. He added that the demand for surgery has also increased because improved technology has made surgery more effective.



He says the women he treats for burns have surgery in an attempt to lead ordinary lives after their trauma.



Depression, anxiety and nightmares are commonly suffered by victims, and there is no counseling available to help them come to terms with the experience. Once their burns have been treated, the women usually go straight back into the situation that first drove them into despair.



As well as the psychological scars, the women have to cope with the stigma of their disfigurement. They are often mocked in the street, and referred to insultingly as “the woman who burnt herself" or "the burnt woman".



Such a suicide attempt may do even more damage to an already troubled marriage because the husband is embarrassed by his wife’s action or rejects her because of her appearance.



“The [the women] resort to plastic surgery because they are afraid that people will make negative comments about their looks and their husbands might marry another woman," said sociologist Sameera Hama-Salih.



Hama-Salih, who is researching the cause and effect of self-immolation, said that in some cases, the woman’s suicide attempt is enough for an abusive husband to change his ways.



She said that after a suicide attempt, some women experience problems not with their husband but the family of their husband. High rents in the area mean that extended families tend to live together, which can mean a lack of privacy and family members interfering in each other’s lives.



But, she said, many couples have problems and even separate because the husband remains abusive towards his wife, or rejects her for another woman, “I saw a 25-year-old woman who had survived self-immolation. Instead of getting help from her husband, he married another woman and neglected her."



Hama-Salih said the woman had nowhere to go after her family refused to support her, so she was forced to stay with her abusive husband.



Ghafoor says her husband’s rejection is one of the reasons she has decided to try and get rid of her scars.



“My husband has not even kissed me since what happened to me," she said sadly.



She has undergone two operations so far - at a cost of 250 dollars each - and her scars are less obvious than before, but burns still cover her face, neck, chest and body, and is willing to pay all the money she has for more operations.



"I would do anything for my husband to want me again," she said.



Muneera Abdullah says that the reactions of other people - particularly her husband – is what has prompted her to plan cosmetic surgery.



She set herself on fire last year to escape the misery of an unhappy marriage.



Now she has scars on her hands, chest and neck which, she says, often repulse people and stop her from feeding her baby in front of others, even close relatives.



"My husband is disgusted by me," she said. “He is not intimate with me at night."



While Soz Akram wants surgery to remove her scars in time for her wedding day.



She wasn’t trying to escape an unhappy marriage when she set herself on alight three years ago, but was reacting to her father’s attempts to force her to marry a friend of his against her will.



"I wanted to make my father listen to me and leave me alone," she said.



This has left her with burns on her right hand and upper body, and she hides her right hand in public.



Now she has fallen in love with a man she wants to marry and her father has bowed to her will.



"I don’t want to have any mark of the incident [left] on my wedding day," she said happily. "I want to wear the most beautiful outfit and start a new life."



Amanj Khalil is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.



This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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