Skip to main content

Isobel Coleman on the State of the Middle East

Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. She's an expert on economic development, Afghanistan and women's initiatives in the Middle East.

08:27

Other segments from the episode on January 25, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 25, 2006: Interview with Jackie Spinner; Interview with Isobel Coleman; Commentary on Mozart.

Transcript

DATE January 25, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. My guest,
Jackie Spinner, has written a memoir about covering Iraq for the Washington
Post in 2004 and early 2005. She had no war experience when she got there.
By the time she left, she was the Post's Baghdad bureau chief. She reported
on day-to-day life, car bombs and the battle of Fallujah. To better report on
the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib, she spent a night there. Standing
in front of the prison, she was nearly kidnapped. Spinner is a friend of Jill
Carroll, the journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq on January 7th. Spinner's
new memoir is called "Tell Them I Didn't Cry."

Jackie Spinner, welcome to FRESH AIR. What goes through your mind when a
journalist is kidnapped or when a journalist is killed in Iraq?

Ms. JACKIE SPINNER: It's very surreal because this is a scenario that all of
us in Baghdad have imagined one way or another for ourselves. And
particularly, in Jill's case, when it's somebody that I know who's a friend of
mine. I mean, I'm just terrified for her and also can't help but think,
`Gosh, that could have been me.'

GROSS: Does that mean that you dwell on it a lot or that you try your best
not to think about it?

Ms. SPINNER: A little of both. It's something that you have to remain
vigilant about, so whenever you leave your compound or I go out and I report
on the streets, I'm constantly thinking about how to keep myself safe so that
I'm not kidnapped. In that sense, I do dwell on it. I have to, as a security
precaution. At the same time, if you allow yourself to be consumed by the
fear, you can't do any work. You can't report any stories.

GROSS: Did you travel through the streets of Baghdad, reporting with Jill
Carroll?

Ms. SPINNER: We never reported together. We hung out. We worked for
separate news organizations, and every news organization has its own security
apparatus. I tapped into the Washington Post's. She had her own. We
traveled a little differently in the sense that I always was in an armored
vehicle. Certainly in the last year, that was the way that we traveled and
Jill preferred to go much more discretely so that there wasn't as big of a
barrier between her and the Iraqi people.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people wonder why anyone would take the kind of
risk that you need to take in order to report from Iraq, and some people
wonder particularly why a woman would take that kind of risk. And I think
your book in part is the answer to that question. But tell us why did you
want to go to Iraq. You had asked your paper, the Washington Post, repeatedly
to let you go and report from there.

Ms. SPINNER: Well, I was reporting about Iraq reconstruction contracting for
a year right after the war started. And I believed that I was only getting
half of the story. I was just convinced that I needed to go to Iraq to see
for myself how the money was being spent. And I was desperate to get there.
I just didn't feel like I could adequately report the story from Washington.
And as you mentioned, I begged my editors to go and convinced them ultimately
for entirely different reasons that I should go there.

GROSS: So when you did go to Iraq, I'm wondering how you felt about your
family's feeling about it. Here's what I'm thinking: You have a twin sister
who was very worried about you. Your father had recently died, so your mother
had just, you know, lost her husband. So she must have been very worried
about you going. Did that factor into your decision at all?

Ms. SPINNER: Originally, it didn't. My family has always supported me in my
journalistic endeavors, and I felt that support. Of course, my mother was
concerned. My sister told me when I left the first time that if anything
happened to me, she would never feel joy again. I carried that with me every
day, every minute, every hour that I was in Iraq. I knew what my family would
go through if something were to happen. But I think it was only when I got
home after the first nine, 10 months there that I really realized how selfish
I had been to put them through what I had. And I think that it was harder to
go back the second time for my second tour knowing that they were going to be
suffering as much as they were.

GROSS: As a woman in Iraq, were there times when you felt like you were more
of a target and other times when you felt like you were less of a target?

Ms. SPINNER: I would say for the most part, I felt that I was less of a
target, in the sense that I could put on a disguise. I learned from our Iraqi
staff how to look like an Iraqi woman, how to walk so nobody would notice that
I was an American. The very subtle nuisances of the culture. I learned to
adapt to that when I went out on the streets, just as Jill Carroll did. I
felt that I had this extra blanket of security because nobody would notice me.
The clothes did what they were intended to do which is make me anonymous. So
I actually felt that it was an advantage being a woman reporter.

GROSS: I know you could put on the abaya, the full body cloak, and be
anonymous, and because you're shrouded, look like an Iraqi woman, but you
mentioned the way you walk, the way you carry yourself. How did that change
under the hijab?

Ms. SPINNER: Well, I learned to look the ground. You know, if I'm wearing
the very conservative Islamic dress, then I needed to also act very
conservatively. I didn't look any male in the eye. I learned to wear a lot
of makeup because Iraqi women wear heavy makeup. It's not something that I do
here in the United States, but I learned to do that, to carry my purse a
certain way, to wear the right shoes. It would have been futile to do all
this and to be wearing American shoes. I had Iraqi sandals, very cheap
leather that, you know, looked like any woman in Iraqi would wear. And my
staff reminded me not to smile when I went into public. They said, after all,
Iraqis are suffering. You can't be walking around with a big grin on your
face. You're going to look like a happy American.

GROSS: You were nearly kidnapped outside Abu Ghraib prison while you were
writing a story for the Washington Post. Let's start with what that story was
that you were researching.

Ms. SPINNER: I had gone to the prison the night before to cover one of the
detainee releases. Back in the spring and summer of 2004, the United States
military was routinely letting hundreds of reformed insurgents, I guess you
could call them, go. And we often as reporters would just simply stay outside
the prison and cover them, the buses rolling out full of the detainees, the
former detainees. And I decided that I wanted to be inside. I wanted to see
what it was like when they were preparing to leave.

I'd spent the night there with a photographer and had watched the buses roll
out from the other side. And as I was attempting to leave the prison, I was
dressed in my abaya and my head scarf, and I had a very Iraqi-looking bag
filled with my gear. And I walked out of the prison. And a man grabbed me by
the wrist and started pulling me toward a taxi vehicle. Another man came up
and grabbed me around the waist, and they were just dragging me. I don't know
exactly what they were planning to do. My guess is they were trying to kidnap
me and take me somewhere. Fortunately, the Marines saw from the guard tower
what was happening, started shouting, "American down! American down!" And
they came out and saved my life.

GROSS: How long do you think it took for them to actually get there?

Ms. SPINNER: It probably was a matter of minutes. I would say maybe two to
three minutes. I remember at one point looking up at the guard tower. I was
trying not to attract too much attention because there was still hundreds of
people outside of the prison waiting for the relatives to come out, and I
didn't want to be the center of attention. But I remember gesturing toward
the guard tower in sort of frustration, `Come on, guys. You must see what's
happening to me. Come get me. Come get me.' But it felt like an eternity.

GROSS: Did you scream?

Ms. SPINNER: I didn't scream. I really didn't want to attract any
attention. I felt that that would have been even worse. And so I was pretty
calm. I was trying to negotiate in English, which was probably futile. I do
remember when they pulled my abaya, it was, you know, Velcro. And they pulled
it off of me, and they saw my flack jacket, my bullet-proof vest and they
started saying to me, `CIA, CIA.' And I do remember at that point my voice was
raised when I said, "No, Washington Post. Washington Post." I didn't want
them to think that I was a spy.

GROSS: I guess I don't really understand why you were so worried about
screaming. I mean, not wanting to be the center of attention. This isn't
like a self-effacing thing, is it? I mean, your life is at stake here.
You're on the verge of being kidnapped. Why not scream?

Ms. SPINNER: I just thought that if the crowd saw that these men had an
American, they might have killed me on the spot. I mean, I remember looking
over at a woman and sort of making eye contact with her and thinking, `OK,
woman to woman. You see I'm a human being. Help me get out of this. You
know, intervene. Get me out of this situation.' And I have never seen anybody
look at me with as much hatred as she did.

GROSS: One of the many things this makes me wonder is here you are, risking
your life to cover the story of the Iraqi people and of the American military
and of our involvement as a country there. But part of what you're concerned
about is the fate of the Iraqi people. And then you look into eyes like hers
as you're on the verge of being kidnapped, and she hates you. So how does
that make you feel about continuing to risk your life to cover her story?

Ms. SPINNER: Well, I understood her hatred. I mean, she wasn't looking at
me as Jackie Spinner, the reporter, the American reporter. She was looking at
me the same way that the looked at Lindie England, the woman, very, you know,
well-known in Iraq for the American soldier who was photographed dragging a
naked detainee on a leash. She saw me for the reason that she had no
electricity, that her children couldn't go to school safely, that she worried
about suicide bombers every time she left her house. I mean, I was not human
to her. I was every failed promise from the Americans. And I understood her
hatred.

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner. Her new memoir
is "Tell Them I Didn't Cry." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner. She's written a
new memoir about reporting from Iraq called "Tell Them I Didn't Cry."

Let's get back to what was happening to you. You were on the verge of being
kidnapped. Finally the Marines, after about two or three minutes, they saw
what was happening. They rescued you, and the guys who were kidnapping you
fled?

Ms. SPINNER: They did. They scattered the minute the Marines ran out. I
didn't see them again until I got back inside the prison, and they brought a
man to me who they said was the original one who grabbed me by the wrist and
asked me if he was the potential kidnapper. I was 98 percent sure he was the
one, but I wasn't 100 percent, and I was really reluctant to point a finger at
him because I thought if he's not an insurgent now, after months in Abu Ghraib
for potentially kidnapping this American woman, he will be when he gets out.
And I just couldn't do that.

GROSS: So you said, `No, it wasn't'?

Ms. SPINNER: I said, `No, I can't be sure.'

GROSS: OK, so you get free of this situation, and then, what, you go back and
you report the story you were initially reporting on which is the release of
prisoners from Abu Ghraib?

Ms. SPINNER: I did. I went back inside the prison and eventually got a ride
back with the military to Baghdad to our bureau. And that afternoon, I sat
down and I wrote the story about the prisoner release and never mentioned what
had happened to me that day.

GROSS: Why didn't you mention it?

Ms. SPINNER: Because I didn't think that I should have been part of the
story. I mean, once journalists get on the stage, once we become part of the
story, it changes the story, and I'm very conscious of the fact that, as much
fear as I had in Iraq, and as much as I dreaded the violence that was aimed at
me, the Iraqi people dreaded it, too, and they were really the story, not me.

GROSS: You were reunited with your interpreter after you got free of these
kidnappers, and you said to your interpreter, "Tell them I didn't cry." And
that's the title of your memoir, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry." Why was that so
important?

Ms. SPINNER: At the moment, it was really important to me that, as much as I
was shaking, and I knew what had almost happened to me, but I hadn't cried and
at that time, it was a badge of honor. I have to say my sister protested the
title of the book. She thought it was me apologizing as a woman for not
having cried and somehow saying that it would have been not OK if I had cried.
But I can't really tell you what was going through my head at the time except
that I was very proud of the fact that I had survived this and I hadn't broken
down.

GROSS: It became very difficult for reporters to report in Iraq and you
described some of the things you had to do in order to get the story,
particularly at times or in areas where you actually couldn't go out yourself
or be on the scene yourself. So tell us some of the ways that you would use
the Iraqis who were working with the Washington Post to help you get the
story.

Ms. SPINNER: There are numerous ways. I mean, you know, our Iraqi staff, I
can't thank them enough. I can't honor them enough for the work they're
doing. They are our eyes and ears, and I say this in the book. They are
really our eyes and ears in the country. If there's a car bomb in a
neighborhood where it's not only dangerous for me to go as a Westerner but
it's dangerous for an Iraqi translator to be seen with a Westerner, we would
often send them on their own, and they would go out and do all of the
reporting and come back. And I would sit there and interview them and
question them about what they saw and who they talked to and what the people
said. And this was a very routine way that we covered a lot of the violence
that was happening on the street. It just wasn't safe enough for us to go
together often and certainly not in the last few months.

GROSS: I realize how impossible it must have been for you to firsthand get
the story each time there was a story to be covered, but did it violate your
instincts initially to get a story secondhand like that?

Ms. SPINNER: Of course. As a journalist, the entire reason why I do what I
do is because I want to be there first, and I want to hear things for myself
firsthand. And it was very frustrating not to be able to get out and to do my
own reporting. But I also knew that I couldn't do it. I physically could not
go to all the places that I wanted to go to without really endangering myself
and endangering the lives of our Iraqi staff. And so I just sort of settled
on the fact that this is how we were going to report the Iraq story. It was
the way that we had to do it.

GROSS: Did the Iraqi staff have to keep secret in their neighborhoods what
their jobs were?

Ms. SPINNER: They do, and to this day, most of our translators have never
told their families where they work. Their parents may know, their siblings
may know, but aunts and uncles are off-limits, cousins are off-limits, their
neighbors don't know where they go every day when they get in their cars and
come to our office. Two of our translators have told their neighbors they
work at Internet cafes, which would explain why they're gone for long periods
of time. But, no, it's a secret. They can't tell anybody where they work.

GROSS: One of the stories you covered for the Post was the battle of
Fallujah. In fact, your editor asked you to cover the story, and you were
reluctant to because you didn't really want to go into battle to get the
story. So did you consider saying no?

Ms. SPINNER: I absolutely tried to get out of it. I talked to my editor and
asked him if it was wise to send me, mostly because I had never embedded
before. I had never really spent any time with the military. For the first
five months or so that I was in Iraq, I was the street reporter who went out
and talked to Iraqis. I was not the military reporter, and I thought that,
you know, I would do something either to mess up the story or to get myself
killed.

GROSS: So why did you end up saying yes?

Ms. SPINNER: I felt like I didn't have a choice at the end of the day. I
didn't want to be seen as a chicken, but when I did get to Fallujah and I
realized I had a front-line spot, I think the military thought they were doing
the Washington Post a favor by giving us this great spot in the front line. I
traded places with another reporter because I wanted to be in the middle. I
didn't want to be on the front. I had no desire to be that close to the war,
and I had tremendous guilt about that because I knew that there were reporters
who had a lot more guts than I did, but I simply did not want to be that
close.

GROSS: Did your editor have any problem with you trading places?

Ms. SPINNER: I never told them. I told them that, and this was true, that I
thought it would not be prudent for me to be in a fox hole during the battle.
I was only one person for the Washington Post. Our competitors, the New York
Times, had two to three reporters covering the battle, and I thought it was
better if I had a broader view of the war, and that's how I justified it to
them and to me. And I think it was the right call in the end. I think our
stories were better because I was standing over the battle field and not, at
least on the night that the battle began, I wasn't right in the thick of
things.

GROSS: I think it was right before you went to Fallujah when your mother
found out that you were being sent to Fallujah on assignment. She called your
foreign editor to make sure that you were OK, and you were just appalled. You
describe this a little bit in your memoir. Tell us a little bit about why
your mother called and what your reaction was.

Ms. SPINNER: Well, I've never really talked to her about it directly because
I know that she was probably a little bit embarrassed in retrospect having
done that. It was a mother's instinct. My father was in Vietnam, and I think
that she was reliving a lot of her anxiety about him being in war when I was
in Iraq. Just that not knowing what was going to happen. I was appalled. I
wigged out. I called my sister, and I said, `You can't believe what mom did.
She called the editor.' I think I was afraid of not being taken seriously as a
foreign reporter, but after I thought about it for a while, I realized that
she must have been absolutely terrified. It was so out of character for her
to have done that, and I felt terrible about the anxiety and the angst that
she had that would have prompted her to do that.

GROSS: Jackie Spinner is a reporter for the Washington Post. Her new memoir
about covering Iraq is called "Tell Them I Didn't Cry." She'll be back in the
second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more with Jackie Spinner about reporting from Iraq.

Also we discuss how the centrality of Islamic law in Iraq today is affecting
women's rights with Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. And
Lloyd Schwartz celebrates the 250 anniversary of the birth of his favorite
composer, Mozart.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jackie Spinner. Her new
memoir, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry," is about covering Iraq for the Washington
Post from May 2004 to March 2005.

While you were reporting from Iraq, you got your share of nasty e-mails from
readers about, you know, you had an agenda, you were just reporting the
negative stories and not the positive stories. Would you talk a little bit
about the e-mails that you got and what effect they had on you?

Ms. SPINNER: I think probably the worst e-mail I ever received was from a
woman who said, `I wish you had died today instead of that Marine.' You know,
the ones that accused me of being anti-American were really difficult or
accusing me of having an anti-military bias. And I was confused a lot of the
time because, you know, here I thought, `Here I am. I'm risking my life to
deliver the news.' My mother is, you know, constantly worrying about me here
and yet when I write stories, people don't believe what I'm writing. They
don't believe what I'm reporting is accurate. And after a point, you wonder,
`Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I assuming this risk if nobody
believes what I have to say anyway?'

GROSS: Did you get positive e-mail?

Ms. SPINNER: Very rarely. I think when people are happy with the news, they
don't take the time to write as much as they do when they have a visceral
reaction to something that you've written. I actually was befriended by a
woman from Minnesota. Her son was in the Army, and she wrote me and said,
`Look, I can't publicly defend you. I'm a conservative. You work for the
Washington Post, which has a reputation for being a liberal media outlet, but
I want to let you know, thank you for being there.' And she and I ended up
over the course of time developing a friendship, and she would often write me
and tell me to hang in there and she was thinking about me and hoped that I
was staying safe.

GROSS: There was a time in Iraq when there was actually a price on your head?
What was that about?

Ms. SPINNER: Five thousand dollars. That's what I was worth, I guess, to
the insurgents. I had been featured in a newspaper article. An Iraqi
reporter had listened in on an off-the-record discussion I was having with
members of the Iraqi press about objectivity. The US Embassy had asked me to
come and speak on the subject, and I did. And it identified me by name in a
newspaper, and a stringer that we have, a former intelligence officer, I used
to call him our insurgent liaison because he certainly had contact with the
insurgents which is why we kept him on the payroll. He came and asked if
there was a Jackie Spinner who worked for the Washington Post, and our staff
said, `No, no. That's not that woman,' you know. `She goes by a different
name.' And he basically was telling them that he was being offered $5,000 to
let them know my whereabouts. When I returned to Baghdad this fall, when I
shook his hand and he was very happy to see me again, I said, `Hi, my name's
Susie.' I didn't want him to know my real name. And he said, `Hello, Jackie
Spinner. Welcome back to Iraq.'

GROSS: So he knew and he protected you.

Ms. SPINNER: He knew. He knew. He was basically giving us a warning that
the insurgents were looking for me.

GROSS: You have a twin sister who was, you know, missing you very much and
very worried about you while you were gone, and she contributes some of the
writing to your memoir. And I want to quote something that she writes after
you returned from Iraq. And she shares, "During our evening dinners together,
my sister drank too much wine, talking angrily and loudly about the morons
around us. I tried to hush her, but she lashed out at me, too. When I
pointed to her shaking hands wrapped around her third glass of water in 10
minutes, she pushed herself a little farther from the table, farther from me.
In the hotel room we shared, she refused the bed, opting to sleep in the
closet instead. As the weeks and months wore on, I began to realize that
whatever Iraq had given my sister, the war had taken more." Do you agree with
that? What goes through your mind reading your sister's perceptions of you
when you got home?

Ms. SPINNER: It's hard for me to read that and to hear that. It's 100
percent accurate. I had a very difficult return, certainly the first time I
came home. And I know that my family just wanted me to be the same old Jackie
who had gone to war. And I'm not. That experience forever has changed me,
and it was so difficult for me to come back and to see my family needing me to
be in the role of protector and to be the strong one, when all I wanted to do
was break down. I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning, and I know
that it was just so difficult on them. And it still is. I mean, they still
want me to be here, and I'm not really here.

GROSS: She mentioned you were sleeping in the closet in the hotel. Was that
where you had to sleep in Iraq, in the closet?

Ms. SPINNER: I slept on the floor in Iraq mostly because my bed was too
close to glass, which, if there had been a mortar attack would have sprayed me
with all the little sharp splinters. I was more comfortable sleeping on the
floor when I came home because it made me feel like I was still in Iraq. When
you come home, you don't want to resume your life as it was because that
negates everything that you've been through. It makes the whole experience
disappear. The hardest thing for me was coming back and sitting in the same
seat, in the same desk, in the Washington Post newsroom. You know, people
walked by me and said, `Oh, were you gone?' And I wanted to say, `Of course.
I just risked my life for this newspaper for 13 months, and I don't want to be
back where I started from.'

GROSS: You have a twin sister, and it sounds from the book like there was a
long period of your life where, I don't know if "inseparable" would be the
right word, but that connection was one of the strongest things that
identified each of you. And you had to see each other every day and you had
to share everything that happened to each of you. So how has this experience
affected you as a twin?

Ms. SPINNER: I think the hardest thing for my sister Jenny and me to cope
with is the fact that it's not possible at all for her to relate to the
experience that I've gone through. And I certainly can't relate to the
experience that she's gone through, that, you know, that dread that your twin
may die and every day--and a persistent dread and the loneliness that she felt
when she could not communicate with me. I would say that our twinship, as we
call it, is as strong as ever. I still need my sister. I talk to her at
least once, if not, well, probably more like three times a day, every day, and
you know, I could not have gone through the experience of being a reporter in
Iraq without her, and I don't know how people who don't have twins do it.

GROSS: Why? What did it give you to have a twin while you were there in
Iraq?

Ms. SPINNER: I had somebody that I could be perfectly honest with. Even if
I were trying to be brave for my editors and I would be saying to them, `Of
course, I'm fine. Everything's great. Yeah, I know. I haven't slept in
about three days, but I'm still going strong,' I could call my sister or
e-mail her and say to her very honestly, `I don't know how I'm going to get
through the next 12 hours.' And when I survived the mortar attack on the
Sheridan, and I literally thought I was going to die that night, I didn't call
my editors and say, `I'm terrified. I almost died.' I called my sister, and I
was able to talk to her about the fear that had besieged me that night.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SPINNER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: And thanks for the work that you did in Iraq, for all the risks you
took to do it. Thank you.

Ms. SPINNER: Thank you.

GROSS: Jackie Spinner is a reporter for the Washington Post. Her new memoir
about covering Iraq is called "Tell Them I Didn't Cry."

Coming up, how Islamic law is affecting women's rights in Iraq. We'll talk
with Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

and Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:

The new Iraqi constitution states that no law can be passed that contradicts
the established rulings of Islam. "Women, Islam and the New Iraq" is the
title of an article in the new edition of Foreign Affairs by my guest Isobel
Coleman. She directs the Women and US Foreign Policy Program at the Council
on Foreign Relations and is working on a book about how the US can advance the
role of women in the Middle East. We invited her to talk with us about how
Islamic law, or Sharia, is affecting women's rights in Iraq.

You argue that in Islamic states, and Iraq is now one, that it's probably more
likely for women to promote equality if they work within the religious context
than if they work from the secular context, that secular women don't really
stand a chance in an Iraqi state. So if you hope to work toward equality, do
it from a more liberal tradition within Islam.

Ms. ISOBEL COLEMAN: Secular women in Iraq are incredibly important and have
been incredibly important in raising issues, in pushing the thinking, in
keeping women's issues forefront on the agenda. But I think if we pin all of
our hopes on their ability to push for women's rights within Iraq, we will be
disappointed. I don't think it's politically realistic within Iraq. There is
a debate during the drafting of the constitution over whether Sharia would be
in or out of the constitution, and very clearly, those who wanted it out lost.
It's in the constitution. It's very central to the constitution, and public
opinion polls in Iraq and in many Muslim countries around the world indicate
that the majority of people want Sharia. To assume that you can go in with a
secular perspective, saying, no, it doesn't belong there, I think, is a
failing proposition.

GROSS: The Shia have 48 percent of the seats in parliament and the majority
of Iranians follow the Shia branch of Islam. So is there reason to think that
the Shia in Iraq will want a similar interpretation of laws pertaining to
women that the Shia in Iran have put into effect? And if so, what would that
mean? What are some of the more restrictive laws in Iran?

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, I think there is tremendous concern on the part of many
Iraqis that that is the direction that the country is going in, and that what
you're going to have in Iraq is some type of Iranian-inspired theocracy, which
would not be very good news, I would say, for women in that country. Right
after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, 1980, within sort of six or eight months
of the revolution, one of the first things they did is make existing civil law
null and void and put new Islamically justified laws in place that, for
example, lowered the marriage age to nine. And child custody, you know, was a
big point of contention for many women, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war
when fathers were killed and mothers, not only lost their husband, but then
suddenly lost their children to their dead husband's family because the
children at a certain age are then taken away from the mother and given to the
father's family. And these are just two examples of laws that women in Iran
found particularly onerous and fought through the legislative system to
change. And they have changed them.

And this is my point that what we think of as Islamic law is really a series
of laws that somebody has said, `Well, this is how we should interpret our
laws based on my reading or so and so, you know, whoever Islamic scholar's
reading of the Quran. And it's changeable, and it does change, and it has
changed. But there is concern in Iraq that the very conservative elements in
Iran are influencing the situation in Iraq, and it doesn't bode well for women
there.

GROSS: Sharia is Islamic law, but where can we find it, exactly. I mean, are
there actual laws that are laid out within the Quran?

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, that's part of the problem is that Sharia is a body of
jurisprudence that has evolved over the millennium, and there have been
different Islamic scholars and Islamic jurists who have read the Quran and
read the Haddis, the saying and the doing of the prophets, and said, `OK, from
that, we can determine that this must hold true or that must hold true.' And
over the centuries, different schools of Islamic jurisprudence have evolved.
And from that, Islamic law has evolved, and there are differences among them.
So there's a lot of room for selective interpretation and a lot of room for
developing laws that you can claim fit within Sharia. And so it's quite fluid
and evolving.

GROSS: Are women more pressured to wear a full body veil than they were under
Saddam Hussein, and if so, what's behind that? Is that law now, or is it just
pressure?

Ms. COLEMAN: Yeah, you actually saw an increase in women wearing abayas,
wearing Islamic head scarves, wearing Islamic dress, throughout the '90s, in
many parts of the country, particularly the south. I think Saddam Hussein
found his own political base weakened after the first Gulf War. He catered to
more conservative elements in society, and this was one of the results. You
saw more pressure on women to wear abayas. And certainly since the fall of
Saddam Hussein, you've seen it certainly around Iraq for a variety of reasons.
One is clearly pressure. I've heard many stories of Iraqi women being told
they cannot attend classes at the university unless they're fully covered, and
they're harassed and hassled in the street if they're not covered. And it's
also frankly Iraqi women themselves choosing to wear it because it gives them
a level of security. They feel like they're targeted if they don't have it
and they just want some anonymity on the street because the situation is so
violent and insecure.

GROSS: The Iraqi constitution says that 25 percent of the seats in the
parliament have to be held by women. So I'm assuming that's a minimum of 25
percent of the people elected to the parliament in Iraq are women. Can we
assume that they support women's rights?

Ms. COLEMAN: No, I don't think we can assume that they support women's
rights in the way that you or I probably think of women's rights. The women
who have been elected and I think just over 25 percent of those elected are
women, and the way they implemented it was they had a quota and every third
name on the list had to be a woman's name. But it is proportionate to the way
that the parties are represented in Parliament. So the United Iraqi Alliance,
which is the Shiite coalition, they got 48 percent of the seats. So roughly
half of the women in parliament are from that list, from the UIA. And they
will toe a pretty conservative line. They will pretty much stay within their
party platform. But it's unclear what they're going to do in terms of women's
rights. The hope for Iraqi women is that you will see these conservative Shia
women trying to find those more progressive interpretations of Islam, of
Sharia, to accommodate a more modern role for women within Iraq.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. COLEMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Her article, "Women, Islam and the New Iraq," is in the current edition of
Foreign Affairs. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz helps celebrate the 250th birthday
of Mozart.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

the greatest classical composer who ever lived
TERRY GROSS, host:

Friday marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. He was born on January
27th, 1756 and died in 1791. Although he lived only 35 years, his name has
become synonymous with classical music that still reverberates for modern
audiences. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, tells us why he things
Mozart is the greatest classical composer who ever lived.

(Soundbite of Mozart composition)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: No Western composer demonstrated a more Shakespearean
range of emotions than Mozart, from the comedy of self-deception to tragic
despair, from pleasure in worldly comfort to heroic defiance of convention,
from supernatural terrors to spiritual ecstasy. His most ravishing music
looks inside the soul about as deeply as art can. Many commentators have
pointed out that Mozart's instrumental work, sonatas and chamber music,
symphonies and concertos, have such a human, singing voice, they're like
operas, and no one composed operas that more subtly explore human nature,
infinite relationships, social morality, the conflict between individual will
and spiritual imperatives. Even his most cheerful music seems to hide tears,
and his greatest tragic opera, "Don Giovanni," is also a comedy. It's labeled
a drama jokoso, a jokey drama.

Maybe we today understand these complex qualities better than Mozart's own
contemporaries. I'm thinking of two remarkable movies, for example, that used
Mozart as a recurrent underlying theme. Mike Nichol's "Closer" from 2004 and
John Schlesinger's 1971 "Sunday Bloody Sunday," both of which are about
switching sexual partners. In fact, they use exactly the same music. This
sublime little trio from the first act of Mozart's opera, "Cosi Fan Tutte."
This trio is actually a prayer. Two sisters believe their lovers are going
off to war. Their friend, Don Alfonso, joins them in wishing the men a safe
journey, calm winds and tranquil waves. "May every element," they sing,
"respond benignly to our desire."

(Soundbite of "Cosi Fan Tutte")

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Suddenly, there's a stab of totally unexpected, almost sour
harmony on the word desire, desire.

(Soundbite of "Cosi Fan Tutte")

Mr. SCHWARTZ: In reality, the two fiances aren't leaving at all. Don
Alfonso has bet them that their girlfriends won't, can't remain faithful to
them. The title of the opera, "Cosi Fan Tutte," means "That's What They All
Do." The subtitle is "School for Lovers." The guys are going to return in
disguise, each pursuing the other's girl. So the trio is really built on
deception, the bet, and the self-deception of the girls' self-dramatizing
display of excessive emotion. In Peter Sellars' famous production of "Cosi
Fan Tutte," which we just heard, the iconic classic director literally brings
the opera into the modern world, a diner at a seaside resort. On that
suddenly bitter harmony in the trio, while the sisters lift up their arms in
prayer, Sellars has Alfonso bring his hands down over his eyes. He's hiding
his real desire to win his bet and maybe even his unwitting desire not to
prove his cynical point about love.

Sellars sees something even more radical in Mozart's music. In "Cosi Fan
Tutte," it's always hard to believe that the two sisters don't see through
their lovers' lame disguises, but Sellars suggests that they do see through
the disguises and that pretending to believe the deception gives the women
permission to experiment with switching partners. Mozart's insinuating music
more than suggests the intense attraction between the new partners. Unlike
most productions, Sellars' staging actually reflects both the words and the
music of the final chorus about the whirlwind all the characters are still
caught up in.

(Soundbite of "Cosi Fan Tutte")

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Mozart's resolution to the emotional impasse acknowledges that
a real resolution is impossible. What more appropriate music could John
Schlesinger or Mike Nichols have used in their films? What music could be
more profound, more modern in its understanding of human contradictions and in
its sheer beauty? What music could be more sympathetic to our human dilemmas?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Country Singer Marty Stuart Plays Songs Of Sin And Redemption

The Grammy winning singer-songwriter started out in Johnny Cash's backup band. Now he's being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stuart played some of his own music in this 2014 interview.

35:27

As Campuses Become COVID-19 Hot Spots, Colleges Strain Under Financial Pressures

Scott Carlson, Senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about the tough decisions colleges and universities are facing dealing with the pandemic.

05:44

'Ratched' Gives A First Name — And A Backstory — To The Iconic 'Cuckoo's Nest' Nurse

Violence and humor create a complicated character arc in a Netflix series that serves as a prequel, of sorts, to Ken Kesey's famed novel. Sarah Paulson gives a star turn as Mildred, AKA Nurse Ratched.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue