Saturday, April 25, 2015

Price of war

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 26, 2015

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”.
 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 unrecognisable.

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 of movement.
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 war.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone is watching you

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 12, 2015

Big Brother is watching you. Photo: V. Ganesan

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 privacy.

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.