‘Kurdish women burn themselves, surrender to death out of despair,’ says head nurse Nigar Marf, 1 of BBC’S 100 most influential women 2022


“The most difficult part of my work is when I face women who are forced to lie about their cause of burn injuries because they’re being threatened with their lives by their husbands or family.”

“But the stench of the oil gives away the foul truth,” said the chief nurse at the Burn and Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in Sulaymaniyah, one of the three provinces of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq with a population of 1,700,000.

Celebrated as one of the BBC’s 100 most influential women of 2022 from around the world, nurse Nigar Marf, 50, has devoted her career to helping female burn victims get the medical care they need.

In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the brutal practice of self-immolation has become alarmingly common, and the mortality rate among these types of burn victims is extremely high.

As the leading form of suicide among Kurdish women, it is a desperate act of personal protest, and those who survive bear the scars on their faces and bodies for life.

Having treated and spoken to burn victims, who share their personal stories of pain for almost ten years, Nigar observed how women who have problems with their husbands, parents or in-laws resort to suicide to escape this, by setting themselves on fire.

In the largely patriarchal society, Nigar noted, women have few rights, are frequently illiterate and often have no one to turn to for help even after making the desperate cry for help by burning themselves in fear of retaliation and further violence from the perpetrator.

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Asked about their ordeals, Nigar replied: “Kurdish women burn themselves out of despair and surrender to death because of the heavily conservative society. The women are living under an authoritarian patriarchal rule and are even sometimes set on fire by the men in their lives under the pretext of honour.”

“But even though there are still cases of self-immolation, the percentage of women burning themselves has decreased because they have become more aware and self-confident after having their problems solved by the law and within the courts more often.”

Across Iraq, gender-based violence rose 125 per cent to over 22,000 cases between 2020 and 2021, according to the United Nations (UN) children’s agency UNICEF, which has also pointed to: “A worrisome increase in depression and suicide among women and girls.”

And while some doctors estimate self-immolation has claimed the lives of as many as 10,000 women since the region gained autonomy in 1991, reliable data is scarce due to many women failing to reach the hospital.

Chief nurse at the Burn and Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in northern Iraq's Sulaymaniyah, Nigar Merf

Chief nurse at the Burn and Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in northern Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah, Nigar Merf

The actual figures are certainly more, according to Nigar, as many women have ended up dying from their severe burns before they reach the emergency department.

The majority of female suicides in Kurdistan happen in the home, where women have access to flammable liquids, such as kerosene. Moreover, it is common for abusive households to hide the victims while treating them with primitive methods in fear of it developing into a case for the police to investigate.

“The most haunting case I dealt with was with a woman who poured oil on herself in the middle of a serious quarrel with her husband after suffering from oppression, and in a moment of desperation, she set herself on fire,” narrated Nigar.

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“All the while, he just stood laughing and filming while her body lit up in flames until her neighbours came to help and wrapped her in a blanket. She suffered third-degree burns on her face, neck, chest and legs. It was cruel; her scars and cries will haunt me forever.”

Nigar described the victims as “heavy trauma patients” who are forever haunted by the memory of their pain at home, in addition to the intensity of the fire.

For long-term change, Nigar stressed that Kurdish women need to be taught to have more confidence, so they don’t succumb to pressures from society and their parents in particular. The most effective way to achieve this, she believes, is to begin educating the current and future generations on the importance of equality between men and women and the value of human rights.

“We need to educate all those at risk of suffering such fates as well as those at risk of imposing such fates. Everyone must learn that no one is better than the other and there is no such thing as the stronger or the weaker one,” Nigar shared.

While Nigar admits that sometimes she is at a loss for words when trying to comfort her patients, and witnessing traumatic situations has taken a toll on her mind, she also acknowledges the positive impact her journey helping women recover has had on her mental and emotional strength.

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By listening, advising and delivering practical guidance, over the years, the nurse has become more determined to help more women and contribute towards building a more equal and advanced society in which women can feel as safe and liberated as men. She is optimistic.

For her outstanding service and commitment to her community and survivors of self-immolation in Iraq, nurse Nigar has been included on the BBC’s list of 100 “inspiring and influential” women worldwide in 2022.

It is the 10th year of the “100 Women” list, and with the decade marker, the BBC said it was: “Taking the opportunity to explore what progress has been made over the last decade”, noting that “while there have been huge steps forward for women’s rights – from the number of female leaders to the MeToo movement – for women in many corners of the world it still feels like there is a long way to go.”

Nigar was featured alongside Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska for her work highlighting the suffering of the Ukrainian people, Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur who became the first Arab or African woman to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era and Bollywood actress and producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

‏“It was all the more surprising and joyful news for me because we, Kurdish-Iraqi women, have been living and witnessing a cycle of injustice and oppression for years, and to see our work and efforts of building a more civil and democratic society being recognised and celebrated is encouraging,” expressed Nigar.

“We need to keep going and doing better.”

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