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Tajikistan in Denial over Spiraling Suicide Rate

Desperate young women choose death by self-immolation to rebel against suicide taboo.
By Nargis Zokirova

Around the cemeteries of the northern Sogd region, there is no hint of this district’s status as the suicide capital of Tajikistan.


Sogd’s supreme religious council ruled that suicides be buried outside Islamic burial grounds three years ago, but today there are few signs of their graves.


Yet official statistics show that 90 of the 200 suicides recorded in Tajikistan last year took place in Sogd.


And in the first six months of this year, another 47 people killed themselves in the region - over half the total number of suicides reported countrywide in the same period.


Suicide may be a growing problem in Tajikistan, but its people have yet to acknowledge it.


For many Tajiks, taking one’s own life is a religious and social taboo. Islamic teaching condemns suicide and society stigmatises the relatives of people who have killed themselves.


As a result, most suicides go unreported. According to Davron Mukhammadiev, a specialist in the study of suicides, family members tend to cover up such deaths as accidents in order to avoid the humiliation of having a relative’s body denied a religious burial and excluded from the cemetery.


This is not the only obstacle to suicides being recognised for what they are. Tajikistan’s Muslims also believe the body of a dead person should be buried within hours of dying, which makes it very hard for the authorities to conduct anything but the briefest of post-mortem examinations. According to the World Health Organisation, only 7 per cent of the deaths in Tajikistan receive any kind of autopsy.


The reluctance to recognise suicides also makes it difficult for authorities to estimate the full scale of the problem.


The state body in charge of statistics says there are, on average, four to seven suicides per 100,000 people. Independent observers believe the true figure is even higher.


Latest figures from the interior ministry point to two emerging trends. The average age of suicides is falling, with most victims typically between 14 and 26 years of age, and women account for the vast majority – many of them cases of self-immolation.


The recent death of a woman from Khatlon region is a typical example.


Married life for Latofat was a catalogue of abuses – from the outset, she was forced to share a house with the in-laws who insulted her. When her husband left home to find temporary work in Russia, they started beating her as well.


The final straw came when villagers started gossiping that her husband had found himself a new wife in Russia. Not long afterwards, Latofat poured kerosene over her clothes and set herself alight. She died of her burns a few days later.


Specialists have a theory about why more and more Tajik women like Latofat choose to burn themselves to death – they believe this type of suicide is a way of rebelling against the taboo. It is a dramatic way of dying that cannot easily be passed off as an accident.


According to Muhammadiev, word travels fast about such cases as Latofat’s, and other women considering suicide follow her example – a process he likens to the spread of an epidemic.


However, Zafar Saidov, a researcher into Zoroastrianism in Tajikistan, believes the increase in self-immolation is linked to the country’s pre-Islamic belief system. According to Saidov, the Zoroastrian reverence for fire as something that cleanses the soul and removes torment has gained a new relevance for long-suffering, suicidal women.


Another recent suicide involved a 25-year-old mother-of-three from the Kurban Tyube region of southern Tajikistan. Mohira killed herself after her husband brought home a 17-year-old wife.


The two women did not get along, and Mohira tried to move back to her parents’ house. But they turned her away, insisting that she rejoin her husband.


Mohira returned, walked into her husband’s barn and set herself alight. Her cries alerted people nearby. They vainly tried to save her. As she was dying, she said she was only trying to get her husband to pay her more attention.


For those who fail in their attempt to kill themselves in this way, the damage is nonetheless irreversible. The person is disfigured by their burn injuries, and their psychological wounds worsen.


According to Muhammadiev, the spread of suicides can only be tackled head on. He says the solution lies in offering confidential psychological help in regional clinics and getting the interior ministry and social welfare and religious institutions to work together closely.


Nargis Zokirova is correspondent with Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper.


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