A calamity

By Farnood Alam

MORE than two hundred suicide cases have been reported from Gilgit Baltistan in the last five years. There are approximately 120 men and 105 women who have committed suicide. Keeping the River Gilgit on your right if you exit the city, you enter the district of Ghizer. In this district alone there have been approximately 115 deaths. Less than 40 percent are men, and more than 60 percent are women. In the last forty days there have been more than 17 suicides. As I write these lines, news of another suicide from Yasin, an area in Ghizer reaches me, making the total 18.

If you walk along the winding roads of Ghizer you will cross the heights of the Shandur Pass and enter Chitral. During the last seven or eight years the number of suicides here have crossed 500. In comparison to Gilgit the number of women committing suicide in this area is greater. The age bracket of majority of the men ranges between fifteen and twenty-five. This is very alarming to say the least.

The question arises why only in Gilgit and Chitral? Why in these areas specifically, where the literacy level is even higher than the larger cities in Pakistan. Here, on the surface of it, the youth don’t seem unduly downcast. They dress well, they eat well, they are well groomed and clean. They sing and dance, read poetry and listen to music. They have sweet gentle smiles and speak softly. Then why do they kill themselves? Has tranquility surpassed its limits? Or is there something gnawing from inside, which the introvert North does not want to share with anyone?

There are many divergent voices. Some say that all seems well on the surface, yet, in that wellbeing something bad lurks. When there is education, it will give rise to competition. A person receiving two marks less, has to hide his face and avert questioning eyes and pointed questions. Anyone who gets left behind in education has no place to go. (The uneducated from the north have an extra year of learning compared to the rest) Misfortunes resulting from unemployment, lack of resources, societal pressures and antiquated customs are separate. This particular situation pushes the youth into the arms of loneliness, and then it depends entirely on the whim of loneliness where it directs the youth. These days it is leading them into the deep valley of death.

Some say that women are ahead in the field of education, this is a blow to the male ego. Women are working, they are equal, in some cases they shoulder the responsibility of running their homes. This raises a few questions in patriarchal societies particularly in relation to men’s egos, which eventually transforms into a psychological problem. Those suffering from mental anxiety finding no solutions are forced to turn to death for answers.

In some cases, women face tremendous challenges. The educated ones are forced into roles of traditional wives. They are given no preferences, nor are they allowed to exercise their rights not even in determining when they should marry. What the elders decide is final. Faced with cultural norms they are forced to surrender and marry incompatible men. Sometimes the only qualification these men have is the fact that they are men. This male supremacy comes with a heavy price, which the woman has to pay on a daily basis. To live and die daily is a difficult task.

Ignorance is bliss. If you don’t know what a plum is, then you don’t know what it tastes like. If you don’t know what it tastes like, then you don’t know what you are missing out on. However, once you have tasted the fruit only then do you learn to appreciate it. When desire and longing are not given shelter then it leads to a neurosis. The uneducated women in certain parts of Gilgit are content. They have not seen what lies beyond the mountains, therefore, there is no feeling of loss.

In areas where there is female literacy, there is awareness. Through education these girls have witnessed the many colours life has to offer. They know their rights and have understood the power dynamics in society and seen their horizons expand. On the one hand they have the ability to determine their future prospects, while on the other, custom dictates they clip their wings and head home to bear children and raise them, run homes, and serve as soulmates and cup bearers to their respective husbands. All dreams and hopes of success are sacrificed at the altar of customs and the wishes of the elders. They were deceived by life and lured out of heaven, and when they started to enjoy life, they were asked to step back, back into heaven. In short, this is the life-threatening collision of antiquated values and dreams. If you follow your dreams, you leave your elders broken hearted. If you pay heed to them, then you shatter your own dreams.

If you ask for a solution people say there are two ways; either you deprive the youth of education and the quest for life, or people tied to traditions compromise on their values. Evolution dictates that antiquated customs will have to lay down their arms, even if they don’t surrender, dreams will conquer in the end, but it might be too late. A compromise will have to be reached; it will save the nest from being set on fire.

There is another aspect which is of grave concern. It is said that most of these suicides are actually honour killings. These murders are committed at the hands of brothers, fiancés, boy friends and husbands. Young men have also been killed in this narrative. These honour killings are committed in secret because those perpetuating the crime are not considered heroes. Unlike other areas a murderer can not sit in a jirga puffed up with pride.

Most female suicide cases are associated with the river, whereas suicide committed by hanging, ingesting of poison or gun shots are associated with men. Some people find it a point to consider, why the river? They believe that this is a safe way to commit murder, there is no gun involved nor the problem of fingerprints. Firstly, the body of a drowned person is rarely found, or if found is disfigured beyond recognition. So, in the name of honour the killing fields are the river.

The tendency to lay the blame on suicide in personal rivalries resulting in murder is common. It has been proven that approximately 60 cases from so called suicides were in fact murder cases. From the 18 suicides in Ghizer District, four have been termed suspicious by the police.

The extraordinary numbers of suicides somehow fail to mobilise support from local and regional institutions. I wonder why? International organisations give a cursory glance when called upon and quietly go back to their work. Committees formed by the government are an exercise in gathering and dispersing. There has been no authentic report on this human tragedy which is a combination of psychological, cultural, environmental, and economic issues. Only scattered speculations abound.

The civil society in Ghizer District has decided to get a grip on this tragedy. They have called for a jirga of four hundred youth from the northern areas. In this jirga society will speak, and decision makers will listen. At the end of this meeting a ‘charter of demands on mental health,’ will be presented.

Tragic events on one side, the new catastrophe in the making is the glorification of death because of laziness, negligence, and poverty. This confused, unpleasant, ennui is being considered a characteristic of seriousness mindedness and intellectual depth. Suicide is being perceived as something noble. There is great interest in listening to narratives of suicide, particularly those committed by famous people, there is also a poet from Karachi called Sarvat Hussain, a couplet written by him is on every lip these days, in fact this couplet is carried on bios on social media.

‘Sarwat there is a charm in the demon called death

People can say what they want about suicide’

I pray that like the youth of Ghizer, others will rise in the country and erase Sarwat’s couplet from people’s minds and engrave it with Farah Rizvi’s couplet instead.

‘There is no charm in the demon called death

Don’t ever speak about suicide’

Source: Deutsche Welle

Translated from Urdu