Valentina Sinis on the lives, deaths, dreams and resilience of abuse victims in Iraqi Kurdistan

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Photo: Daroon, 20, trying to stand up, helped by her mother on the day before her first surgery. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 03 November 2019 © Valentina Sinis.

To coincide with the launch of Female in Focus 2021, Sinis discusses her winning series from last year: Broken Princess tells the story of women in Iraqi Kurdistan who try to escape – and protest – domestic violence by setting themselves on fire.

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Amina, 47, sits in the speckled light of a sombre hospital waiting area. Her 20-year-old daughter, Daroon, lies next door, three hours into a complex skin graft operation. The Burns and Plastic Surgery Centre of Sulaymaniyah – located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, not far from the Iran border – has treated many hundreds of women like Daroon for attempted self-immolation: a desperate and harrowing form of protest whereby victims of domestic violence commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. Daroon, who got engaged to her abuser aged 18, would remain in the hospital for three months, recovering from 30 per cent burns to her body.

“She’s a very complex person,” says Italian photographer Valentina Sinis, who grew close with Daroon while shooting her Female in Focus 2020 winning documentary series, Broken Princess. “She reminds me of a Jane Austen character. Fierce and determined, yet at the same time fragile. Quiet, but very charming. She has dreams of being a teacher.” 

Since the region gained autonomy in 1991, the act of self-immolation has emerged as a disturbing phenomenon in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite substantial social and economic progress in recent years – more and more women attending university and getting jobs; legislation built to crack down on gender-based violence – many Iraqi Kurdish women remain trapped in archaic structures. Many suffer acutely at the hands of their husbands. And many are driven to unfathomable measures to escape it.

Disproportionately common among the poorer and less educated (those for whom independence is the most out of reach), as many as 10,000 Kurdish women were estimated to have died by self-immolation as far back as 2014 — including girls as young as 13.

Daroon's mother Amina (second left), 47, waits in front of the surgery room. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 04 November 2019 © Valentina Sinis.
Daroon is sitting in her family living room waiting for her mother to help her to stand up. Ranya, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 21 November 2019 © Valentina Sinis.
Daroon plays with her young cousins at her grandparents’ home. Ranya, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 07 January 2020 © Valentina Sinis.

“The question of why Iraqi Kurdistan women would choose the pain and devastation of setting themselves on fire is really what compelled me to begin the project,” says Sinis, whose ongoing work – which incorporates photography and video with poignant biographical commentary  – serves as tribute to the lives, deaths, dreams and resilience of these women. “Fire is a very special element in Kurdish culture,” she explains. “It means light, goodness and purification. Kurdish women even go as far as to say ‘I burn myself for you’ to bear witness to their loyalty to their beloved men.” 

“Gas stoves are present in every household, so it’s also very simple for women to access gasoline,” she continues. “And in many cases, it’s important to them that they do it at home. When other people are in the house – the husband, the mother-in-law, the sister-in-law – it becomes a very visual declaration of suffering, shared by the people who need to understand it.”

Due to go on show as part of the Female in Focus 2020 group exhibition at El Barrio’s Artspace, New York, between 06 and 18 July 2021, Broken Princess tells the story not just of Daroon, but several Iraqi Kurdish women: survivor and mother of two, Barzy (21), who set herself alight on her balcony after her arranged marriage derailed into frequent abuse. Sewan (23), who died with her children in what her husband claimed to be a suicide incident — until two years later, when a court found him guilty of having murdered them in an arson attack.

A view of Saywan Cemetery overlooking Sulaymaniyah, which has a section for unidentified people. The majority of them are women. Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 31 August 2019 © Valentina Sinis.
A picture of an unidentified woman kept in the morgue of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, 29 August 2019 © Valentina Sinis.

“Fire is a very special element in Kurdish culture. It means light, goodness and purification. Kurdish women even go as far as to say ‘I burn myself for you’ to bear witness to their loyalty to their beloved men”

The last laundry of Sewan, a 23-year-old mother of three, who died with her children in a fire in December 2018. Chamchamal, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq, 26 August 2019 © Valentina Sinis.

Historically, the phenomenon of self-immolation has proved difficult to investigate. Due to the cultural shame attached to suicide in Middle Eastern countries, many survivors insist the fires were accidental; bodies often remain unidentified, since parents are not openly willing to claim them. But over the course of shooting – which began in January 2019, and continues sporadically to this day – Sinis has gained the trust not only of survivors, but their families: staying in their homes, sharing their meals, and participating in their healing. “I think with trust, there is often something magical or chemical about it,” she says. “It’s been easier, because I’m a woman, to make that emotional connection. My subjects trust me to tell their stories because they want to help other women like them.”

Broken Princess – which encompasses observational portraits, poetic architectural shots and still life depicting Sewan’s last load of laundry before she died – is gut-wrenching to behold; a stark and overwhelming reminder of the rampant misogyny that persists around the world. But even so, women like Daroon and Barzy are not depicted as helpless. Their images are imbued with dignity and agency as they strive to rebuild their lives: returning from hospital, playing with young cousins, undertaking physiotherapy. “Our ability to manage pain is limited,” says Sinis. “It is impossible for anyone to handle more than a certain amount of pain. But these women have overcome, almost angelically, that border of possible pain.”

“The fact that I am only witnessing their pain is a privilege,” she continues. “I have the chance to leave, and tell the story of what I’ve seen. The best I can hope for is that people around the world will hear me.”

Daroon does her routine exercises with her mother and father. Ranya, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 07 January 2020 © Valentina Sinis.
A view of Malkandy girls’ high school with metal windows that reflect the overall gender discourse in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, 18 November 2019 © Valentina Sinis.

Enter Female in Focus 2021 now

Broken Princess is exhibiting as part of Female in Focus 2020 at El Barrio’s Artspace, New York, between 06 and 18 July 2021

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.