This presentation draws on semi-structured interviews with Tajik, Iranian, Afghan, and Uzbek survivors of self-immolation, their doctors, surgeons, nurses, families, advocates, and communities, as well as 176 qualitative surveys from across the region, to offer the first empirically grounded conceptualization of the “affective language” of self-immolation as a modality of political protest. Against the western, liberal, and androcentric binary that reserves political agency only for agents of self-destructive violence with rationalized motivations, declarative manifestos, or ties to an identifiable collectivity (Biggs 2005; Lankford 2011), I argue in favor of re-imagining the interplay between agency and structure, the individual and the political, both in our meditations on regional women and girls’ self-burnings, and in the study of self-inflicted death in the “private” sphere more broadly. By highlighting the patterned struggles, common understandings, and conceptual transfers that often inform women and girls’ deployments of self-immolation across the region, I venture a descent into the “meaning worlds” (Bargu 2013) of self-destructive agents as well as probe the received understandings of their communities and the broader regional imaginary to reveal the ways in which women and girls’ threats and deployments of self-immolation serve to instigate, communicate, and embody a constellation of power struggles that coalesce around gendered frontiers of the political while also drawing our attention to the symbolic, affective, and political agency of their self-regarded injuries.

Sara Hassani is a Ph.D. Candidate and ACLS-Mellon Fellow in Politics at the New School for Social Research and incoming Assistant Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Providence College. Hassani’s research examines the steep and gendered rates of self-immolation plaguing the domestic sphere in the historical Persian belt countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and eastern Uzbekistan, and mounts a conceptual challenge to common distinctions between self-destructive acts of protest and suicide in the study of politics. She holds an M.Phil in Politics from the New School for Social Research, as well as an MA in Political Studies and BA in Political Science and Arabic from the University of Ottawa.