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