Although twice as more men commit suicide in Pakistan than women, it is almost with certainty that one can say the women that do are married. This is according to the ‘The pattern of suicide in Pakistan’ by Murad Moosa Khan and Hashim Reza in the journal, The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. The institution of marriage can be disastrous for women; most women are little girls, their consent is not sought in most cases, they are at the bottom of the decision-making ladder on important life-altering considerations and, of course, gender-based violence is the norm. They become mothers before reaching adulthood and the perils are grand and pitiful. It is no surprise that a pint of local insecticides are thought to be a better option than facing a stove burning, a brutal beating or the course of nature itself when left unaided by modernity and progressiveness.
Perhaps when Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote this stanza in Intesaab, he encapsulated the essence of what breaks women’s backs in our society: poverty, inexperience, lack of educational and health support and the inevitable tired weary arms of mothers: “Un dukhi maaon ke naam/ Raat mein jinke bacche bilakhte hain aur neend ki maar khae hue bazooaun se sambhalte nahin/ Dukh batate nahin/ Minnaton zariyon se bahalte nahin.”
If we allow ourselves the power of context of this one woman in Chitral, where this problem is endemic, we realise that we need to get our act together and stop making Pakistan uninhabitable for its women. This woman’s name was Tahira Bibi and she died only a month ago. Although she committed suicide we really need to ask ourselves if this act, which is used as an escape from extreme violence, is really not murder.
And if we were to assume that it is murder, then 40 to 50 women are ‘murdered’ in Chitral every year. Violence from the husband and in-laws was the main cause cited for these suicides. This number comes from a roundtable named Siasi Bethak, organised by the Awaaz Forum of the South Asia Partnership (SAP) in Islamabad on December 12, 2014. Last year, more than 800 women committed suicide, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Ahead, I explain why this number may be underreported.
Life, with its exhilarations, triumphs, laughter and joys, has failed these women. Faced with trauma for years in a chronic state of hyper-stress, they feel numbed to the glory of this gift and are convinced that the dark abyss is better than any chance they may have of changing their situation. But it is not just life that fails them. It is this society with its ultra-religious stigmas around the endemic of suicide. Islam prohibits suicide but it would also be great if the custodians devise an alternative route for those who had clinical depression and had no recourse to another, better reality. In our conservatism, we have created a no-go zone on this issue: we have madrassas (seminaries) but no rehabilitation centres; we have mosques but no woman can enter to hide her head underneath what is the house of God, and we have our television talk shows inundated with clerics who have not once announced a place where anyone who feels they have no one, can turn to. This was ideally a faith that lifted the downtrodden. The stigma also blocks civil society from taking up the issue head on. We need to set up helplines, advocate the human rights of women and, more importantly, give power to women’s feet to move away from oppressive homes.
Any serious attempt of estimating suicide in Pakistan must begin with accurate reporting. Given the stigma, most reports are limited to news reports. If the World Health Organisation (WHO) report on Preventing Suicide, 2014 is to believed, the actual numbers are much higher than those reported in the press. A staggering 7,085 is what was reported for suicides amongst women in 2012 alone. Many of these committed suicide between the ages of 12 and 29. The day we stop telling our daughters that when they get married we do not want them coming back in times of crisis is the day our suicides will decrease, if not end. That is also the time murders will end. There must be a war on that sermon given to girls being wedded off. More importantly, women must be counselled on how they should work towards being able to hold their own when their guardians fail them. They must be told that they are enough.