Art March 18, 2010 By Jennifer Pappas

The subtitle of the show is “A Cry for Help”. Who do you think these women are seeking help from?

Anyone who will listen. Most of the women who set themselves on fire were very young and uneducated. I think a lot of the girls didn’t realize that they might survive this. In this case, survival is actually worse than dying because they’re totally deformed and disfigured. Afghan society isn’t very welcoming to the disabled- mentally or physically, and their families really reject them as a result of that. 
     A lot of the girls featured in the Biennial were photographed before the new burn ward, so they didn’t even have the option of skin grafts like they do now. The women often poured the kerosene on their chest, so it was usually their necks, arms and chest that suffered the worst burns. If they survived, and a good portion of them didn’t, it ended up really restricting their movement.

Is there a deeper, cultural significance to the act of setting oneself on fire?

It’s a form of suicide common not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan and parts of India as well. Traditionally, that’s what’s most available to these women. They’re working in the kitchen and they don’t have electric stoves so everyone cooks with kerosene and gas. 
     I met one woman, also featured in the Biennial, that’s shown holding her sister who’d committed suicide and actually died. I met with this woman a year later and she told me, “I want to set myself on fire too.” It wasn’t like she didn’t know what was going to happen. She was a teacher at a girl’s school so she was even more educated than others. It just goes to show how very, very primitive and difficult their lives are. 
     Many of the reasons given for these attempted suicides seem so minute and yet it’s life or death for these women.
In Afghanistan, men are kings. I met a 15-year-old girl who’d been stabbed by her husband for trying to visit her mother without his permission. One girl said she broke her husband’s television set. That just shows the type of fear these women live under. The 15-year-old girl, Marzia, was married, and consummated the marriage at the age of nine. That’s something we would prosecute as rape and abuse. To say these women are fighting an uphill battle is a vast understatement.

How does one help women like these, who are consumed by such desperation and hopelessness?

I think just by staying involved. There’s been a lot of good discussion that’s come out of the Whitney Biennial. We made a lot of promises to the Afghan women when we entered this war. We told them to take off their burqas, go to school…. Now we’re talking about pulling out and nothing has changed for these women. This work reminds people that this is what’s happening, and is still happening, even though these photographs were taken in 2005.

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