In December 2010, in a provincial Tunisian town, 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. He was a fruit-seller, unable to get an official permit. As a result of this, agents from the council would extract bribes from him in return for allowing him to trade. Eventually, their exploitative behaviour became too much for Mohamed, who refused to pay them the bribes they were demanding. As a result, the officials confiscated his goods and beat him up. When he tried to seek help at the town hall, Mohamed was turned away. Seeing no other option, Mohamed bought a bottle of petrol and set himself alight.
Mohamed died from his injuries a month later, but his story remains fixed on the pages of history. His self-immolation is now credited with being the catalyst which sparked the Arab Spring, a wave of anti-government rebellions which spread across North Africa and the Middle East earlier this decade.
The act of setting oneself on fire has a long history of association with protest. TIME magazine’s story on the evolution of the method across the ages pinpoints key instances where figures have self-immolated to draw attention to political or religious causes. The Washington Post notes how the act often sits at the intersection between protest and cry for help. It has been a method deployed by religious martyrs, aiming to demonstrate their anger at being persecuted. It has been a means of suicide commonly associated with women in Afghanistan, 87% of whom experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes. A recent memorable instance of the act was when an Iranian woman self-immolated outside a court in Tehran after being put on trial for attempting to challenge the country’s strict laws against women spectating at sports fixtures.
Self-immolation signifies extreme anguish, both personal and political. It occurs when societal conditions become untenable for people’s personal lives. It is not an act lightly taken, and is often a warning symbol which heralds greater unrest.
So when a woman in Barnet walked into a council housing office and set herself on fire in September 2018, why did her actions fail to reverberate beyond the confined setting of the act?
Melanie Smith had been facing eviction due to rent arrears for some months when she went to the statutory homelessness team at Barnet House. Aware that she was unlikely to be rehoused in a suitable property in her local area, Melanie was getting desperate. According to The Guardian, her life was rooted in Barnet, and she had struggled with poor mental health for some time.
The Guardian reports that when desperation drove Melanie to set herself on fire that day, the council allegedly ordered its employees not to discuss what had happened with the media. There was little to no press coverage of the incident at the time, and only The Guardian has covered the details of Melanie’s life and death - albeit a year after she killed herself.
It seems that what happened was hushed-up; the true significance of Melanie’s actions never had a chance to be properly considered.
Research from UCL has linked the coalition government’s austerity policy to 120,000 extra deaths in England since 2010. Many of these additional deaths have been associated with the drop in social care spending that was seen under David Cameron’s government. But by 2015, research also indicated that austerity may have been a factor in 1,000 extra suicides following the economic downturn.
We all know that austerity and many of the policy changes it has brought about can kill. We know that reduced public spending has had an adverse effect on our nation’s mental health. But the case of Melanie Smith is not simply a tragic reminder of the social ills which have grown this past decade. In its public and flagrant nature, what Melanie Smith did was both personal and political, regardless of whether she meant it to be.
Like many of the self-immolations which have triggered political angst worldwide, Melanie’s suicide took place in a public space, a space related to the source of her discontent. She was a woman who desperately needed help, but was struggling to get what she required from existing systems. As for so many others, her cry for help translated into flames. By deciding to kill herself thus, Melanie’s plight was encapsulated by the arresting symbol of fire.
And the thing with fire, or at least the fervour behind it, is that it usually spreads.
But this time, nothing. The media silence at the time remains a cause for concern. It is understandable that journalistic outlets have to be sensitive in reporting suicides, lest copycat behaviour take hold. Yet Melanie Smith’s suicide received a startling lack of coverage, considering both its nature and its likely cause. Indeed, as part of The Guardian’s analysis of the incident, Labour councillor in Barnet Barry Rawlings commented on the extremity of Melanie’s methods: ‘It’s the level of desperation that I find frightening.’
Perhaps because of high profile cases in war torn and inequality stricken nations, public self-immolation almost seems like something that can’t quite happen here. But it can do and it has. The historical connotations of such an act should serve as a reminder that nations classed as ‘developed’ are not immune to social or political evil. The only way to resolve such evils is by acknowledging them and facing them head-on.
According to new chancellor Sajid Javid, austerity is at an end, but some analyses suggest that the injection of public spending Boris Johnson’s government is promising will do little to reverse the real-terms cuts that the past decade has seen.
Meanwhile, few remember or know the story of Melanie Smith. And the stories of countless others have gone untold. There are the suicides of those who have lost out to the system of Universal Credit; there are elderly people who die after a fall where once they would not have done, simply because our care system is underfunded. These stories must be granted recognition; their significance must be acknowledged for what it is. And when the personal becomes political, we must not shy away from it. Instead, we must learn from what we see and right the wrongs in society today.