For the last two decades, Chitral has witnessed an alarming rate of suicide among its youth. A survey conducted by this writer as a part of his university research showed that 300 individuals committed suicide between 2007 and 2011. Likewise, 176 cases of suicide were reported from 2013 to 2019, abnormally high for a region with a population of about 450,000. Social stigma and poor reporting system mean a sufficient number of cases remain unreported.
Surprisingly, 82pc of the casualties belonged to the age group 15-30, including 58pc women. Among the women victims 55pc were married. Majority of the victims (36pc), including 77pc of the women, took their lives by jumping into the Chitral River, 28pc of the deceased youth, mainly boys (85pc), shot themselves and the rest of the victims either hanged themselves or took poisons.
Suicidologists across the globe agree that in traditional societies socio-cultural factors are more prominent in case of youth suicide. Traditions in such societies retain the status of laws which are harsh on women. Deviation offends honor and honor is more valuable than human lives. For centuries, these traditions tied individuals in a collective whole by providing them with socio-cultural integrity what French Sociologist Emile Durkheim calls “integration-regulation”.
The bonds between individuals and society, however, turn weak under drastic social change introduced by modernity. As the youth are the agents of this progress, their ambitions are colliding with centuries-old traditions resulting in increased frustration exposing them to suicide.
The traditional Chitrali culture had flourished and preserved in solitude. For centuries it regulated and provided socio-cultural identity to its people. This, however, turned subsiding when the district was abruptly exposed to globalism, trans-cultural ideas and modernity.
Chiral has gone through three stages of drastic social changes. First, while becoming a part of Pakistan, second after 1985 with NGOs starting working on mass mobilization and, finally, after 2000s with the opening of Lowari Tunnel and telecommunication-cum-educational revolutions. These induced modern aspirations among the youth which are resisted by outdated traditions.
The induced high dreams of the youth are difficult to realize in a traditional and poor region like Chitral where norms are oppressive and the local market offers too little. The situation is more annoying for women as social taboos further restrict their options. Young women dream which could only be materialized in civilized societies. In Chitral, the ground reality is such where even well-educated women are obliged to serve family by burning woods and rear domestic animals. Domestic issues (45pc), violence, mismatched marriages, mental illnesses and lack of support network further add to the miseries of women. My research indicates 58pc of the victims were women including 55pc married women.
The culture earlier was able to regulate and integrate the dormant aspirations of the youths. The youth especially young women previously being unaware of their rights remained in harmony with patriarchal values. The abrupt change has disturbed this. Women no longer find value in patriarchal values. Traditions are collapsing, and modernity remains unstable. Neither traditions are strong enough to regulate and integrate the youths nor can the youths celebrate their freedoms. The old order is disturbed and the new order is yet to appear. This is what Durkheim calls “egoism-anomie” i.e. increased meaningless and deregulation increasing vulnerability to suicides.
Another factor which is haunting the minds of the youths is the obsess of competition in academia and the job market. Securing high marks and government jobs are assumed as the guarantee for social mobility and, hence, excessive stress on both. The result is pressure on the minds of the youths and those who didn’t succeed get frustrated. 11% of the youths ended their lives after getting low marks. To quote Bertrand Russel “The trouble arises from the generally received philosophy of life, according to which life is a contest, a competition, in which respect is to be accorded to the victor”.
The frustrations of the youths could be felt by interacting with them and also through their poetry or love songs. Contrary to old ghazals the present-day love songs by the youths are full of despair, dejection, frustrations, urge to die in love, suicide ideations and moans against the cold-blooded hearts of the beloved. Such poetry could be categorized as the ‘confessional poetry’ or ‘the poetry of suffering’ containing suicide ideations. In fact, the youths are denouncing the outdated traditions that tend to suppress their ambitions. The situation is more thwarting for women as being tabooed they even can’t express their frustrations by writing ghazals, increasing the vulnerability to suicides.
The deceased youths get the sympathies of the community and family members in the form of sighs, regrets and mourning. Those who survive get their demands fulfilled which otherwise are denied. This may be setting up suicide psychology as how to react under anxiety. Youths resort to threatening “I will kill myself.”
To sum up, the traditional culture of Chitral under drastic social change is failing in sufficiently regulating and integrating the emerging ambitions of the youths. The result is crumbling norms and hybrid modernity annoying youths making them prone to end their own lives. The suicides are tips of ice-berg while the invisible part consists of individuals who are living with depression and anxieties.
(This article is based on the author’s personal research and the data is copyright protected).