By Tim Arango - June 6, 2012

SINJAR, Iraq - With her father sitting nearby, 16-year-old Jenan Merza struggled to explain why she was lying in bed recovering from a gunshot wound.

“I didn’t know the gun was loaded,” she said, resting under a red-and-gold blanket in a stark room with a bare concrete floor.

A couple of moments later, after her father left the room to fix tea and coffee, she cried softly and admitted what really happened, how she had shot herself in the abdomen with her brother’s Glock pistol after first trying with a Kalashnikov rifle — a weapon too long to point at herself and pull the trigger.

“I tried to kill myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to get married. I was forced to get engaged.”

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

Jenan Merza, 16, forced to wed a cousin, shot herself.


In this desolate and tradition-bound community in the northwest corner of Iraq, at the foot of a mountain range bordering Syria, Ms. Merza’s reaction to the ancient custom of arranged marriage is becoming more common. Officials are alarmed by what they describe as a worsening epidemic of suicides, particularly among young women tormented by being forced to marry too young, to someone they do not love.

While reliable statistics on anything are hard to come by in Iraq, officials say there have been as many as 50 suicides this year in this city of 350,000 — at least double the rate in the United States — compared with 80 all of last year. The most common methods among women are self-immolation and gunshots.

Among the many explanations given, like poverty and madness, one is offered most frequently: access to the Internet and to satellite television, which came after the start of the war. This has given young women glimpses of a better life, unencumbered by the traditions that have constricted women for centuries to a life of obedience and child-rearing, one devoid of romance.

“The society had been closed, and now it is open to the rest of the world,” said Kheri Shingli, an official in a local political party and a writer and journalist. “They feel they are not living their life well compared to the rest of the world.”

Last year the International Organization for Migration conducted a study on the growing suicide problem in Sinjar, where mental health services do not exist, and concluded that “the marginalization of women and the view of the woman’s role as peripheral contributed to the recent suicides.” A report compiled this year by a researcher at a local health center concluded, “The way to solve this is to put an end to forced marriages.”

That will probably not happen soon. In assigning blame for the rise in suicides, many people here mentioned the Turkish soap opera “Forbidden Love.” A romantic drama of the upper class, it is a favorite program of women here, and some people say it provides an unrealistic example of the lives that could be available outside Sinjar.

Ms. Merza said she watched the show, and she admitted, “I wish I had that life,” but her anguish seems more basic. At 16, she wants to remain a child.

“I want to stay with my mom and not go back to my husband,” she said.

Ms. Merza’s father, Barkat Hussein, interviewed later in private, said he was aware that the shooting was not an accident.

“We gave her to her cousin less than 20 days ago,” he said. “She accepted him. Like anyone who gets married, she should be happy.”

He said he would not force her to return to her husband, who lives next door. But, he said: “I hope she will go back to him. His father is my brother.”

He, too, blamed the Turkish soap opera for his daughter’s unhappiness, and he nodded toward the room where his wife was working. “I got married to my cousin,” he said. “I wasn’t in love with her, but we are here, living together. That’s what happens here, we marry our relatives.”

Like Ms. Merza’s family, a majority of the inhabitants here are Yazidis, who speak Kurdish but adhere to a religion that combines elements of Islam and strains of ancient Persian religions. Among their beliefs is a special reverence for a figure called Melek Taus, whom Muslims regard as Satan. For this, they have often been branded as devil worshipers, which has justified historical oppression of the sect by extremist Muslims.

In 2007, Sinjar suffered the deadliest coordinated terrorist attack of the war years, when several trucks packed with explosives and driven by suicide bombers exploded, killing nearly 500 people and destroying the same number of homes, most of which were made of mud.

The town’s economy has historically relied on tobacco and figs, but neglect and war have rendered the agriculture industry dormant, and many men seek work as day laborers in the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniya. Its proximity to Syria means that refugees come from the west, and smugglers of cigarettes and weapons for the Syrian rebels trace their path back.

The area is a cordoned-off no man’s land, where neither the central government nor the Kurdish regional government seems to have much control.

A visitor here might notice a big blue sign on the outskirts that reads, almost mockingly, “Happy Land,” the name for a dilapidated amusement park. In the early 1970s, the opening scenes of “The Exorcist” were filmed here among the ancient Yazidi shrines.

Officials here say that some cases that are judged as suicides are actually honor killings, in which family members kill women who commit adultery or seek to marry outside their religion or class and then cover it up by claiming suicide.

“This happens, too,” said Dr. Majia Khalaf, who runs a government health center.

In one recent case, a father tried to claim that his 19-year-old daughter had stabbed herself to death, but her brothers were being held on suspicion of murder.

The father, Abdella Hassan, said that he had recently married his daughter to her cousin, and that shortly after the wedding she began “talking nonsense” and having hallucinations.

He took her to a Yazidi sheik, who said the devil had overtaken her and who advised an exorcism rite that involved covering herself in dust from a Yazidi shrine. Before the rite could be performed, the father said, he found her dead.

“I saw her happy in her marriage,” he said. “It wasn’t that.”