The Other Half Kalpana Sharma

Price of 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.


The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 8:42:13 AM |

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