This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
According to reports prepared by the United Nations and Iraqi refugee
support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq today as a direct
consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a country not far from India,
women had rights and some freedom. They drove cars, even taxis. They
went out to restaurants and cafes. They worked as doctors, teachers,
lawyers, and in other professions.
Today, they dare not step out of their homes after dark. It is a rare
sight to see a woman behind the driving wheel. In a little over 12
years, this country has changed so drastically as to be virtually
The country I am referring to is Iraq. Even as our newspapers and
television news show images of wars across that region, and we are
informed of the war in Yemen as scores of Indians are evacuated, we
forget that there was once a country called Iraq where women had freedom
It is good to remember this because it reminds us, yet again, about the
price that war extracts from ordinary people but especially from women.
I was reminded of Iraq when I read a recent article about the situation
of women in Iraq. According to reports prepared by the United Nations
and Iraqi refugee support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq
today as a direct consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”. In
fact, one in every 10 families in Iraq is headed by a woman. There are
also over five million orphans.
How do these women support their families? In a country where women were
free to engage in all manner of jobs, since 2003, when the United
States and its allies decided that Iraqis needed a regime change, and
proceeded to destroy a functioning economy, women have been the hardest
hit. For many, the only option is low-paid jobs like housekeeping or
cleaning, and only if there is someone to care for their children. Many
others have resorted to begging. Even this is risky as the police round
up such women and throw them in jail.
The luckier ones are those who can still live in their own towns or
villages, even if some of these were reduced to rubble during the war
and thereafter. The fate of the internally displaced is many times
worse. In a population of a little over 36 million, 1.13 million people
are internally displaced because of the conflict. Some of them have been
uprooted several times in the course of the last decade.
During the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi women had access to education.
They played sport. “We were like normal people. We would go to
restaurants and cafes with our children but now all the women and
children rush to their home before the sun sets because they are
afraid”, stated Hana Ibrahim, director of the Women’s Cultural Center,
in Baghdad when she testified before the World Tribunal on Iraq. Not
only are women constrained from going out now, even those with
qualifications are not finding work. An estimated 68 per cent of Iraqi
women graduates can find no work.
Iraq: the women’s story is a film made three years after the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. Two Iraqi women travelled across the country for
three months. It was risky, as the war had not ended. They spoke to many
women not just in Baghdad but also in places like Basra in the south
and in a small town near the Syria border that had been flattened by
American bombs. The stories they recorded were heart-breaking. A
grieving widow left with six children when her husband, an ambulance
driver, is killed during the bombing of their town. An eight-year-old
girl recounts her experience of surviving when the car in which she was
travelling with her father and some others was shot down by the U.S.
military. Everyone died except her father and herself. Her father was
imprisoned on suspicion of being a terrorist. The little girl was
treated in a hospital by the Americans and finally allowed to return to
her family. She was shown the bloodied photographs of the dead men in
the car and asked if she recognised any of them. In the film, her
grandfather recounts how shattered she is by that experience even if her
physical wounds have healed.
These stories of war are familiar. They sound the same everywhere. Only
the locations differ, as do the identities of the victims and the
aggressors. What is a constant is the fact that at the very bottom of
the heap are often the women.
In Iraq, as elsewhere, the war has meant not just the physical
destruction of a country, but the specific attack on women, something
that continues till today. For the last 12 years, Iraqi women have had
to contend with abductions, death, torture, forced marriages and sexual
violence. Many are the stories that are never told. How many times can
you repeat the same story? Even the media loses interest after a while
as it moves to other killing fields, to war zones where the action is
more horrific. The situation of women in Iraq reminds us that if women
repeatedly speak up for peace, it is because they know the real cost of
Should we be worried or is this just paranoia? The recent uproar caused
by Union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani spotting
a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera allegedly pointing toward the
women’s changing room in a store in Goa raises many questions. While
the police will hopefully figure out how a camera placed for store
surveillance recorded women trying out clothes as has been alleged, the
incident draws attention to larger questions about surveillance and
So even as CCTV cameras proliferate in our cities, we have to ask how
what they record is being used. To catch shoplifters, all big stores
justify having surveillance cameras. To catch criminals and
law-breakers, and to provide “security” to law-abiding citizens, we have
cameras on the street, in offices, in buildings, in elevators, in
public places, at traffic signals, at toll booths, in railway stations,
at airports, in trains and in buses — virtually everywhere. People even
have them in their homes. But none of us care to ask what happens to the
footage recorded by these cameras, who views it and whether that
footage is secure. In other words, is the technology designed to enhance
security really secure or is it open to misuse.
We know now that there are an increasing number of reported instances
where footage from CCTV cameras placed in public places, such as the
Delhi Metro for instance, has been uploaded on the Internet without the
knowledge or the permission of the people depicted in it. The
Information Technology (IT) Act has provisions to deal with such misuse
but it has failed to act as a deterrent. The watchful eye behind the
camera can also be a voyeur and women, who are most often the subject of
such misuse, really have no way to protect themselves.
While CCTV cameras are worrisome, there is another kind of surveillance
that is, perhaps, even more menacing for women. Today millions of people
have cameras and recording devices on their phones. This has been a
positive development but it also has serious negative fallouts.
In terms of empowering women, there are dozens of examples from across
India where something as simple as a mobile phone has changed women’s
lives. In Dharavi, the enormous urban poor settlement in the heart of
Mumbai, women have been trained by a local non-governmental organisation
to record and report instances of violence against women by using their
cell phones. In Bundelkhand, U.P., rural women journalists are using
phones to record and report from areas that the mainstream would never
bother to cover, to tell stories that would otherwise remain untold.
These reports are printed in the different editions of their newspaper Khabar Lahariya
and distributed throughout the region. Young women in our cities use
the phone literally as a safety device. They speak on it to show they
are connected to a person when alone in a taxi or a train. They take
pictures of taxi drivers or potential harassers. So a simple technology
like the mobile phone has made a difference to the lives of many women.
But there is also the downside. This very phone in the hands of a man
can become the instrument of harassment. Women are targeted with
unsolicited and sexist text messages. Men are known to photograph and
film unsuspecting women and use that footage as “revenge porn” to
blackmail them. Not long ago, on a flight from Delhi to Guwahati, two
men were caught filming a woman passenger and an airhostess. The woman
noticed what they were doing, used her phone to photograph them and
uploaded the pictures on social media to name and shame them. But not
every woman has the courage or presence of mind to respond like this.
The majority get scared, intimidated and depressed if they are subjected
to such voyeurism.
A report by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) titled
“How technology impacts women’s rights” (March 2015) discusses the
gender perspective on technology. It points out, “People share images of
women without their consent because they think women’s bodies and
sexuality are shameful but also public property…The message is clear:
privacy rights do not extend to women.”
Of course, in India the concept of “privacy” is not just gendered but
also has a class angle. Only the privileged have access to a private
space; for the majority all space is public. The only space that is
private is what is in their heads. The majority of women and men living
in our crowded cities, and even in the villages, are compelled to create
the illusion of privacy in the absence of any physical private space.
Despite this, the recent incident in Goa ought to spark a serious debate
on issues of privacy, on excessive surveillance, on laws that we need
to protect the right of individuals to privacy and above all to
understand that technology is not always gender neutral.