The role played by women in disasters, conflict and other situations of violence – be it as recipients of assistance or providers of humanitarian assistance – is a subject of great importance to the ICRC. For International Women’s Day 2017, we are highlighting stories of three women humanitarians from different regions who have taken forward the Red Cross mission to deliver assistance to affected communities.
This piece is shared by Tahniyat Siddiqi, who works as a ‘Missing Delegate’ for the ICRC in Baghdad, Iraq and was earlier with the ICRC New Delhi delegation.
By Tahniyat Siddiqi
I’ve been with the ICRC for eight years now. I was earlier based at the ICRC’s Regional Delegation in New Delhi and have been in Iraq since July, 2016. Essentially my work here is to work with the families of missing persons, understanding and assessing their needs. Iraq is a country with a high number of missing persons, all affected by conflicts past and present. Tens of thousands remain missing and this remains one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns in the country. The job gives me the opportunity to meet not only with the families affected but also other contacts and this helps us work on ways in which we can try and help families.
My personal motivation is my engine in working on this file; it’s what keeps me going. I’m passionate about trying to help affected families. Generally those unaccounted for after/during conflict are referred to as “The Missing”. And this file, anywhere in the world – has a very strong humanitarian dimension, and this is what drew me to come here in the first place.
The work can be tough, emotionally and physically sometimes but I’m grateful for the opportunity to work in this region. I’ve been able to explore a little in my free time. I love to travel and it has only added to broadening my outlook and perspectives, showing me what life is like beyond India.
On a day-to-day basis, what keeps me going is to be able to go the gym. For me the treadmill is where I can let go of stress and generate some positive energy for myself. Speaking to my family and friends on a daily basis also gives me the fuel for my internal engine. And finally, because I like to write, I keep a journal in Iraq. This is my reflective space.
Working in a country that’s not your own takes you out of your comfort zone, and you are challenged at every level. You have to constantly learn and “un-learn”. I don’t think it matters if this is a big operational delegation or not: once you are out of your comfort zone, you have to quickly learn to adjust. Challenges come at you from every angle, from the environment and to the way you experience yourself in this environment.
When I think of my life back in Delhi, I see myself as a very confident woman, doing things without thinking twice, because I am so comfortable in my own shoes. But here, I have to constantly be aware of cultural aspects and there are so many unknown parameters. At times, this has challenged my confidence a little but it is also a great learning experience. I see myself developing, growing and sometimes it’s the smallest things – like Iraqi food and traditions – that makes me feel empowered and motivated to do more and better.
When it comes to Iraq, the main difference I have experienced is the fact that I am in a place where conflict is currently taking place. This is different from talking about conflict taking place somewhere else, and it does somehow make things more personal for me.
I’m proud that I chose to do this, especially as there are currently very few women from Kashmir who chose to pursue this path. What I care about is that this work is needed. If I wasn’t sent here, someone else would have been sent. There is a definite need for women like us to step out of our comfort zones and explore work that they are passionate about, no matter how complicated the context.
Restriction of movements here for our safety is something that I’ve found to be a challenge. This is outweighed by the fact that I’m able to spend time with people I can relate to and find common interests with. Another challenge is not being able to do things outside work freely, like going to the theatre, or seeing friends for coffee. But you learn to carve out space for yourself and adjust, you try and find ways to reconcile your previous and current lifestyles. Every chance I get I try and connect to things / activities I miss from India. Most recently, I went to a poetry reading by one of my favourite poets, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in Dubai, which was pure bliss.
My mission in Iraq is for one and half years; I have 11 months left but I’m savouring every minute. The best times here for me are when I’m able to connect with families of the missing persons in Iraq. Professionally I try my best to understand the challenges they face and their needs but beyond that, I try to have a conversation with them – learning about their lives, their culture, their food and the family that they surround themselves with. There are tears, there is laughter and they are also very curious to know more about me sometimes. They asked me, for instance, about Bollywood movies, and it was gratifying to be able to share that with them and talk about our respective lives. Understanding Iraqi culture and way of life by having conversations with people and drinking Iraqi tea, helped me see the diversity and richness of Iraqi society. Though the ingredients of the tea I was offered in different places were the same, each tea tastes different. Just like life, we may all look alike, but essentially, we are so different.
Read more from our women’s day series: