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L. L. Cool J. On Making His Own Rules.

Veteran rapper LL Cool J has written an autobiography, entitled "I Make My Own Rules" (St. Martin's). In it he talks about his evolving life, from violent beginnings to his entrancement with rhyme and rap in high school, an obsession that made him Def Jam records' first recording artist at age 15. Mostly recognized throughout his recording career as the one with the gold chains and floppy hat, LL is also a two-time Grammy winner, actor, husband, father of three, and role model for youth.

21:16

Other segments from the episode on September 25, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 25, 1997: Interview with L. L. Cool J,; Interview with Mahnaz Afkhami and Azar Nafisi.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092501NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: I Make My Own Way
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

LL Cool J is a rapper who has had commercial success and longevity. He's had six platinum records and won two Grammys since he made his recording debut in 1984 at the age of 16. His first record was the first release for Def Jam, which became the leading hip-hop production company.

One of the records he's best known for, "I Need Love," was the first rap love ballad to become a hit. LL Cool J also stars in the sitcom "In The House," which started on NBC and moved to UPN. And now he has a new memoir called "I Make My Own Rules."

After his mother left her violent husband, they lived with his grandparents in Queens, New York. When LL was just a 11, his parent -- his grandparents bought him two turntables and a mixer so he could make demo tapes at home. His first hit, "I Need A Beat" grew out of one of those home tapes.

Let's hear it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "I NEED A BEAT")

LL COOL J, MUSICIAN, SINGING: I need a beat
I need a beat. I need a beat
(Unintelligible) beat some chick up
Disgusted
(Unintelligible) who some chick up disgusted, gusted
Your (unintelligible) percussion (unintelligible)

There's no glory for this story
(Unintelligible) rock, rock
Any territory, tory

(unintelligible) and designed it well
Well, beat elevates, the scratch excels
All techniques are a combination of skills that I have
For narration

GROSS: LL Cool J, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LL COOL J, MUSICIAN, AUTHOR, "I MAKE MY OWN WAY": Thank you very much.

GROSS: You were still in high school, I think, when this record came out?

COOL J: Yeah, I was 16 years old.

GROSS: So what was it like, you know, going to high school and having a hit record at the same time?

COOL J: It was funny because there was a lot of jealousy. A lot of guys tried to pick on me. A lot of people tried to tell me: "oh, you're not gonna make it. You're lying. That's not your record. You're not telling the truth." I went through a lot of different things, but I felt like I wanted to persevere. I said: "you know what? This music is for me. I like it. I enjoy it. I appreciate being able to express myself artistically."

And I kept at it. But it was interesting, you know, because it got to a point where I was focusing more on the music than I was on my school work, which in the long-run didn't benefit me that greatly. You know, it was cool that I concentrated on the music and it was cool that I made a decision to go after it because it did end up being something that I definitely -- a good thing in my life.

However, if I would have concentrated in school more, I think a lot of things that happened financially, especially during the middle years so far, like a few years ago, wouldn't have happened if I had concentrated more on school.

So it's interesting for kids, you know. They can want to be stars and they can want to be popular and they can want to make music and do all these things, but if you don't get an education, it's not going to benefit you anyway, because at the end of the day, you can't trust the people around you to make decisions for you. You have to be able to make the decisions yourself.

GROSS: Well, I think your grandmother gave you an ultimatum when you were in high school: either you stay in school or you get out of the house.

COOL J: She did. She did.

GROSS: So you ended up leaving the house, and you say you were homeless for a couple of weeks and you slept on the trains for a while until...

COOL J: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: Didn't you have any money yet?

COOL J: No, no I didn't. Actually, what happened was, I recorded my first song. It did OK. And after I stopped doing the shows, I didn't have any income, so I had no money. I remember getting a room in Brooklyn that was $40 a week, and struggling to keep it, you know, because it was just so hard that, you know, pay that $40 a week.

And we had, you know, a bathroom that everybody in the brownstone shared. But, it was real tough. So no, the finances weren't there. The finances didn't really come until the first album.

GROSS: OK.

COOL J: And even then, I didn't know what to do with the money, so it was, you know, it's kind of a strange paradox, you know. I started, you know, doing different things and doing different shows, but because of the people that I was involved with and the people that were involved with my financial and economic life, I didn't -- and myself, of course -- I didn't benefit, you know, greatly from, you know, the money that was generated.

GROSS: It sounds like early-on, you spent the money on cars and just really showy, flashy things.

COOL J: Yeah, I did. I think that my focus was a little lost. I was kind of caught up in the materialistic aspect of, you know, making music and being an entertainer. Gold chains were real important to me. You know, cars were real important to me. Young ladies were real important to me. Champagne was real important to me -- all of the negative things.

You know, the things that -- well, I wouldn't say that all of those things are negative, but in the context that I was, you know, utilizing them or being involved in them, they were negative.

So it was rough for me, but I kind of came through it, you know?

GROSS: Now tell me how you feel when you look back at old photos of yourself and see -- see a picture of you with that really thick, big gold chain?

COOL J: The really thick, big gold chain?

GROSS: Yeah.

COOL J: You know, it's funny and it's humorous, but it was in style at the time. I mean, you know, it's like John Travolta looking back at that white suit in "Saturday Night Fever"...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Sure.

COOL J: ... it was bananas. It was ridiculous. You know what I'm saying? But...

GROSS: I feel like if you had come to me and asked, I could have told you it was going to look really dated eventually.

LAUGHTER

COOL J: Yeah, I would have went with the jeans and T-shirt thing. That might have worked back then. But you know, hey, we -- we live and learn.

GROSS: So tell me how you kind of created your style in terms of your image, your look, early-on?

COOL J: Well, what it was was it wasn't even me creating my style. It was like I would go up to Jamaica Avenue, which was the place to shop in Queens in the area that I lived, and I would buy the clothes that every other teenager bought and every other teenager wore. And I would just happen to be wearing them on TV or wearing them on an album cover.

And then when I started generating some money, I was able to buy some of the things that most would consider luxuries at the time -- the gold chains, the car, the extras, the new sneakers, you know, the extra hat. And you know, that's all I did.

You know, and then it became -- because I was at the forefront of a new music movement or one of the people involved at the beginning, it became like a trend-setting fashion thing. But I never planned for it to be like that.

GROSS: How did the hat become so important to you?

COOL J: I don't know. You know, growing up -- like, when I talk about it in the book, I really just had a complex. I thought I looked cooler with my hat; never wanted to take it off no matter what; would get in arguments; get kicked out of class because I didn't want to take my hat off. I was just really insecure and had to have my hat on.

And that was one of the biggest things about, you know, this book. As silly and as crazy as it sounds to even me now, you know, I really didn't want to take my hat off back then.

GROSS: You had like the first, big rap ballad, I Need Love.

COOL J: Yeah.

GROSS: What made you think of doing a rap ballad? Rap is for the most part a music with other -- about, you know, bragging how great you are or how tough you are or how good you are making love. But there aren't a lot of, like, love ballads within the genre.

COOL J: That was funny. I think that for me, I always looked at rap music as a way to express -- a vehicle to express my feelings and my emotions. You know, coming from a abusive childhood, rap music was the thing that helped me to feel empowered. It helped me to kind of feel a sense of power and a sense of self-worth that I wasn't feeling at home or wasn't feeling when I wasn't involved with rap music.

So this art was an escape for me. I Need Love was just another expression of that. I was 17, 18 years old, and I really felt like I needed love. I felt like love was important, being, you know, having gone through all the things that I had gone through, and I never looked at it as a opportunity to humble myself. I never looked at it as a chance to do something soft or sensitive. I just looked at it as a way to express my emotions -- my sincere emotions -- on an artistic level. So I did what I really felt inside.

GROSS: You know, in your book, you say that in a way, this record was a risk because you could have looked soft. And I was wondering, do you -- well, what about, you know, like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye and Al Green and all that...

COOL J: It's funny...

GROSS: ... their kind of great, aching ballads of soul music and rhythm and blues.

COOL J: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

COOL J: I've never felt -- I never felt like -- me personally, I never felt like I could look soft. I think that at the time, a lot of people around me felt like there was some chance of this record making, you know, me look soft or something like that. But that's something that never really entered my mind. I never really was concerned with that.

You know, I had no fear when I did it, and I just put it our there.

GROSS: Well, this is LL Cool J, I Need Love.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "I NEED LOVE")

COOL J, SINGING: When I'm alone in my room
Sometimes I stare at the wall
And in the back of my mind
I hear my conscience call
Telling me I need a girl who's as sweet as a dove
For the first time in my life
I see I need love

There I was, giggling about the games that I had played
With many hearts, and I'm not saying no names
Then the thought occurred, teardrops made my eyes burn
'Cause I said to myself: look what you've done to her
I can feel it inside. I can't explain how it feels
All I know is that I'll never dish another the raw deal
Playing make-believe, pretending that I'm true

Holding in my lap as I say that "I love you"
Saying them all, kissing you on the ear
Whispering "I love you" and "I'll always be here"
Although I often reminisce, I can believe that I found
A desire for true love floating around
Inside my soul, because my soul is cold
One half of me deserved to be this way 'til I'm old
But the other half needs affection and joy

And the warmth that is created by a girl and a boy
I need love

GROSS: LL Cool J, recorded in 1987, I Need Love. And he's my guest, and he also has a new book, which is called I Make My Own Rules.

Now, you know, it's interesting, you say in your book that there was a period of your career that when you were on tour, the tours were more like whoring. You know, that there was just like so much sex you were...

COOL J: Whoring.

GROSS: ... having with, you know...

COOL J: A lot of whoring.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: ... yeah, with women waiting for you backstage and everybody wanted you, and I think, you know, that some of the rappers, and you're probably in this category, became so famous so quick so young and were so unused to having money and fame and admiration and all that they just went wild.

COOL J: You know what I really think?

GROSS: Yeah.

COOL J: I think that it goes above and beyond. I don't think that this is a cultural issue or an economic issue because I think that whether you're white, black, Asian, Latin -- it doesn't matter. I think the reality is anytime you take a young person and put them in a position of power or supposed power -- supposed power -- too soon, too quickly, give them a lot of admiration, you know, some money to play with and some women grabbing at them or some men grabbing at them according that if it's a girl -- it's a dangerous thing because you don't have the maturity to handle it and you have a tendency to act irresponsibly.

And I think that that's what happened. I think that all musicians go through this. I think that especially ones that come in young, whether you're a rock musician or, you know, a reggae musician or a soul singer. I think it's just one of those things that comes with the territory, unless you had someone to kind of steer you in a different direction.

GROSS: And I guess you didn't have that.

COOL J: Not at that point, I didn't.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, do you expect in several years to hear from women who say that you're the father of their children? You know, to have those kind of celebrated lawsuits?

LAUGHTER

COOL J: You're not going to send me one, are you?

GROSS: Not me. No.

LAUGHTER

COOL J: Just kidding. All right.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That was not the motivation behind the question.

COOL J: I know. I know. I'm just teasing. No, I tried to be as responsible as I could in terms of things like that, but -- and I hope that that never happens. And you know, what else can I say? You know, I've thought about it, though. It's definitely went across my mind a few times. Like, man, I wonder if somebody's going to come up to me with like 10-year-old triplets, talking about...

GROSS: Right.

COOL J: Hey -- yeah, this is Eeny, Meeny, and Miney -- and they're your kids and I want a check.

GROSS: Eeny, Meeny, and Miney J.

LAUGHTER

Now, now...

COOL J: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: You know, one of the people in your group was actually sentenced to 10 years for sexually assaulting...

COOL J: No, no, no, no, no.

GROSS: No?

COOL J: No, no.

GROSS: OK. Correct me.

COOL J: That was a security guard who was working on the tour.

GROSS: Oh, so he...

COOL J: That was the one.

GROSS: ... right. So he wasn't really in your...

COOL J: No, no he wasn't.

GROSS: OK.

COOL J: No, he wasn't.

GROSS: Nevertheless, he was kind of...

COOL J: Yeah, he was...

GROSS: ... in your entourage.

COOL J: Yeah, he was.

GROSS: And he was sentenced to 10 years for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old who had won a radio contest and the prize was a backstage pass to see you. What was your reaction when you found out that happened?

COOL J: I felt -- I was appalled. And you know, I hope that -- I hope that psychologically, she recovered, you know. You know, I wasn't there. I wasn't involved, so you know, what can I say? All I can say is that it's wrong to abuse anyone, and me coming from a background of child abuse, I know that you don't want to be abused.

I don't know whether the young lady was there. I don't know whether it really happened. I don't know what the situation was. All I know is that, you know, the courts decided that the gentleman was guilty.

GROSS: My guest is rap star LL Cool J. He has a new memoir called I Make My Own Rules. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with LL Cool J. He's written a new autobiography called I Make My Own Rules.

There are some rap concerts that end up with, you know, gunfire. I mean, one of the first rap concerts you went to, there was a gunshot.

COOL J: The first.

GROSS: The first, OK -- Sugar Hill Gang?

COOL J: Yep.

GROSS: So I'm wondering...

COOL J: Well, it wasn't the Sugar Hill Gang. It was actually at the Harlem Armory and it was like a festival-type show. So, there were a lot of groups.

GROSS: Right.

COOL J: I don't want to just say "Sugar Hill Gang" and make it sound like they were the guys 'cause these -- you know, it wasn't like that. It was like a festival show.

GROSS: Right. OK.

COOL J: A lot of different groups.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I'm wondering if you've ever felt in danger yourself while you were on stage -- if you ever felt that the crowd or individuals within the crowd were becoming or could become very violent?

COOL J: Well, you know, it's funny, you know. I think that rap music on a whole, as a whole, is -- it's very different according to the way you're performing -- who's performing; what rap artist; what group. Different groups attract a different element. Have I ever been -- have I ever felt like I was endangered? No. Have I had a lot of violence at my concerts? No, 'cause usually my concerts are a lot of young ladies, nice mixture of people, nice mixture in the crowd. And you know, it's usually peaceful.

But I can understand how some parents sometimes can be concerned with rap concerts. But when, you know, LL Cool J has a concert, I try to make sure that there's the best security. I try to make sure that we use reputable promoters that are going to get the proper insurance and get the proper buildings and have the proper metal detectors and the proper security systems, so that we can do everything we can to avoid these problems.

You know, violence exists whether you have a concert or not, all over the world. But when people come to a concert, I think they deserve at least, you know, to be made to feel -- at least, they should -- they deserve to feel safe. So I try to make sure, you know, I do everything I can to make sure they're safe.

After that, I can do no more. What they do in a parking lot, you can't control what people do on their way home. You can't control, but I try to make sure that they are as safe as possible when they're in an LL Cool J concert.

GROSS: A few years ago, E. Love (ph) of your group was shot by, I think, a chain snatcher outside of a club.

COOL J: Well, I -- yeah, but I, you know, that was...

GROSS: That was...

COOL J: So...

GROSS: Yeah.

COOL J: ... that was a totally separate incident, and he wasn't a member of my group contractually, but he was my man, you know. He was a guy that was part of my group early-on -- early days.

GROSS: Was it...

COOL J: But that was many, many years ago.

GROSS: Was that just a random shooting?

COOL J: Yeah, I don't -- yeah, I don't -- you know, that was a separate incident. I don't even know the details of that, you know. A lot -- I mean, I know a lot of people who got shot.

I mean, we all know there's a lot of violence, but I mean none of these things -- you know, I don't -- I hate to associate them with my music and associate them with my art. I think that, you know, on a violent level, I can describe a lot of scenarios of violence that have taken place -- even things that I've seen in the news.

But just because, you know, you know, I know these people, I don't want to like give the impression that, you know, that it has anything to do with the music. I think that that's -- when you get into violence and you start talking about who got shot and where, those are economic issues. Those are psychological issues that go beyond music.

GROSS: You know, I think in rap music, the earlier rappers are always seen with, well, a degree of ambivalence. You know, either like you're old school or -- and you're washed up or like you're one of the original rappers, and like you're really a god because of that. So I mean, I think your, you know, your -- the value seems to go up and down.

And you've been in the music for really a long time. You're one of the people who've really endured. What are some of the ways that you've seen rap change over the years?

COOL J: Well, I think that as far as like either, you know, disrespecting the guys who are thinking they're god, I do neither. You know, just -- you know, I -- my decision is just to respect people for what they've accomplished and respect the doors that they've opened because I think that artists stand on the shoulders of other artists.

So when I look at old-school rappers and when I look at rappers who helped pioneer the music, that's how I look at it. Hey, you opened a door up for me and I appreciate that. As far as them being gods, never. You know, I would never idolize a man or woman.

As far as what I've done, I've tried to spiritually correct myself. I've tried to be grounded. I've tried to give out the kind of energy I want to receive. I've tried to do things in a way that I can feel comfortable with.

You know, I have a camp for kids -- Camp Cool J -- and different things like that that I do that help me sleep at night and help me get through the day and feel like I'm, you know, making an impression on the world that's positive.

GROSS: You have changed your public image, and I imagine changed your life a lot as well. You're on TV now, and In The House you have a much more family kind of image. And you know, in your new book, you give advice to young people about how to -- you know, not make the kinds of mistakes that you made and so on.

How did you start changing your image? Do you think that there was like a turning point in your life where you wanted to change?

COOL J: Well first, let me say this: it's not an image, because an image is something that can melt. It's a -- that's a facade. That's something that's superficial; that's external. You know, my existence -- I exist on an internal level.

GROSS: I get what you're saying. You changed your life, and not your image.

COOL J: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah. OK. So did you have a turning point for that change?

COOL J: Yeah, I did. You know, when -- back in like '91 met a gentleman named Charles Fisher (ph). He gave me a lot of insight; gave me some spiritual doctrine. I read it. I felt good about it. It made me feel better. It made me realize how much of a important factor God was in my life.

And I kept reading more and more and more, and started getting more into Karma and the laws of the universe and how important it is to treat people right, and my responsibility to the youth of the world to kind of provide some sort of role model for them so that they can -- I can make their lives easier.

He made -- he helped me to get more in touch with the human family, and my human side -- my soul, so to speak. And I thought that that was important. And it was like a realization for me, 'cause it was something that I always felt; always tried to be generous, you know. And this isn't about me worshiping Charles Fisher.

This is about me saying that the knowledge and the wisdom and the understanding that he helped me to achieve in certain areas really has a strong reflection on what I'm doing today, right now, in terms of the people in the world.

GROSS: LL Cool J has a new CD called "Phenomenon," which will be released next month. His new memoir is called I Make My Own Rules, which is also the title of his record on the soundtrack of the Howard Stern movie "Private Parts."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: LL Cool J
High: Veteran rapper LL Cool J has written an autobiography, entitled "I Make My Own Rules." In it he talks about his evolving life, from violent beginnings to his entrancement with rhyme and rap in high school, an obsession that made him Def Jam records' first recording artist at age 15. Mostly recognized throughout his recording career as the one with the gold chains and floppy hat, LL is also a two-time Grammy winner, actor, husband, father of three, and role model for youth.
Spec: Music Industry; Family; LL Cool J
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: I Make My Own Way
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Muslim Women
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My two guests would like to show Muslim women that women's human rights are compatible with Islam. Mahnaz Afkhami is an Iranian living in exile in the U.S. She served as the Minister of State for Women under the Shah from 1976 to '78. She's organized an international conference on women's human rights education that begins tomorrow at American University in Washington, DC.

Afkhami developed a manual for teaching women human rights in Islamic countries. We'll meet her in a few minutes.

Azar Nafisi has used the manual to teach women in Iran. Nafisi is a former Professor of Literature in Teheran, and is now a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Nafisi is going to share some of her experiences teaching women in Iran. She has used literature as the jumping off point for discussing women's issues. One of the books she used was "Lolita."

AZAR NAFISI, FORMER PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, TABATABAI UNIVERSITY, VISITING SCHOLAR, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: If you remember, the main character -- the narrator in Lolita, Humbert Humbert tries to take a 13 -- a 12-year-old girl, who is a living human, you know, changing human -- dynamic human being. And he tries to turn -- to fit her image into the love that he had lost in his past.

So what he's doing in effect, he is trying to turn Lolita into a figment of his own imagination. And in doing that, he destroys both Lolita and himself. And I thought that this was a very fitting image for a society in which its government in the name of a past -- of a fictional past -- had tried to impose a sort of a static ideology on its living, dynamic, you know, present.

GROSS: Azar, when you hold workshops with women talking about human rights, women's rights and Islamic law, can you hold this out in the open? Or, do you have to do it underground?

NAFISI: The workshops that I had after I quit school was in the privacy of my own home. So we were much freer to discuss what, you know, we wanted to discuss. And also, we didn't have that fear of, you know, the dress code wasn't there.

A lot of the codes which public would impose upon you, you know, were broken. So the atmosphere was much more comfortable for both the girls and I in which, you know, we could, you know almost create a new sort of relationship different from the one we had on the university level.

GROSS: Did any of the women who attended have to get permission to come from their husbands or fathers?

NAFISI: They did have problems at home, a lot of them. One of them in the process of that whole class was -- when I left Iran, she was still trying to get a divorce from her husband, who saw her participation in the classes as a threat to their married life. And later on, you know, she wouldn't admit this to us for a long, long time, but later on we discovered that he used to constantly beat her up.

And she had been trying to get a divorce, and of course this is one other thing. A lot of judges, because you see in Iran what has happened is that the civil laws have been put aside and you can use the Sharia (ph) or the religious laws. So what happens is that a lot of times when you go to the religious judges, they don't think that beating is enough grounds for divorce.

In fact, I had one student who wasn't in this class, but she was telling me that her husband used to beat her and she went to a lawyer, and the lawyer told her: "well, my sister had been -- was being beaten, you know, for the past 20 years. This is not enough. I can't defend you."
And she said that at the court, the judge told her that she should look to herself and see what she had done wrong which deserved, you know, the beating.

GROSS: Did any of the women in the groups that you taught justify that kind of law? And say well, you know, I'm not happy about it, but I guess I deserved it. Or I'm not happy about it, but I guess that's the way it is and I have to learn to live with it that way.

NAFISI: No. They did have a sense of guilt and it came out in their readings and in the talks. Now maybe if I could explain to you a little bit the situation that these women, you know, were put in. You see, with Iran I always have to remind people that Iran is different from some other Moslem countries. Each country has their own characteristics.

Now, with Iran, unlike a country for example, say, like Saudi Arabia where women still do not have the right to even drive a car, Iran was a modern country before the revolution. Women had a lot of rights. They had cabinet ministers. They had women in the parliament. They had women as an integral part of the workforce.

So when the revolution happened, what was happening -- this contradiction came about within the life of the society, where you had a modern past and now you were trying to impose a sort of fictional reactionary present upon it. And women became the first targets.

Now my students, most of whom we could call "children of revolution," were born and bred within this contradictory situation. On one hand, the books they read -- the best things for them seemed to come from the past or from "the West" -- from the videos, the books; the way they liked to dress; the ideals they had in life; the kind of relationships they wanted to create; the kind of even married life they wanted to have -- all of these came from somewhere else.

But reality denied them all this.

GROSS: Did you teach this kind of material when you were teaching at the University in Teheran?

NAFISI: I taught the basic -- the basic context of my teachings were related to this material. If you take into consideration that the works I taught ranged from Fielding's "Tom Jones" to Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" to "Wuthering Heights" to Bellow's "This December." What I was trying to make my students understand was that first of all, and like -- you see, Iranian society is politicized in the negative sense of the matter; in the sense that politics enters your most private thoughts. Politics is, you know, not something just public. It comes in with the revolutionary guards into your home. It has a gun in its hand and it tells you how to dress even in the privacy of your home.

So what I had to make my students understand was how -- trying to understand and articulate their individuality; trying to create their private spaces was an important social act.

GROSS: Is this part of the reason why you're not teaching any more?

NAFISI: Well, yes it is, because...

GROSS: I mean teaching at the university.

NAFISI: Yeah. Yeah. It is part of the reason, because by-and-by, those private spaces which I was trying to create for myself within the public sphere became narrower and narrower. And it was very difficult for me to teach with this constant intrusion, you know, upon my physical body, you know; upon my mind; upon my gestures, because a lot of times the way I gestured, the way I talked to the students, were questioned.

Of course, I always had...

GROSS: Questioned by who?

NAFISI: Well, first of all...

GROSS: Would the students report you?

NAFISI: ... I always had the problem of the veil. What I believed was that I'm not a political person, but what is important for me is to keep my identity as a woman and as a teacher and a scholar, and as a human being. Now, the first contradiction I came into was in fact in relationship to being a woman when I was teaching at the University of Teheran.

And then the law on the veil came, and I and two of my colleagues protested this law. And I protested it not because I thought that my protest would change the law, but because I wanted to make a statement to my students, letting them know that from tomorrow if I wear this veil, it won't be because I want to stay on and carry on at the university, you see. That there is some principle involved and this wearing of the veil is under protest.

GROSS: What were the consequences for you at the university for challenging things like the law governing dress?

NAFISI: Well, from the University of Teheran, of course, I was expelled anyway after a lot of skirmishes. At the last place where I was teaching, well, I was denied tenure. And there were things which I constantly had to protest against which, again, were not political. They were academic, like the level of the university -- the levels the universities were sinking; and there were more and more the students and the professors were judged and admitted based upon the ideology.

One of my students was a very bright student. She was -- she passed the academic test, and then she was denied entrance to the university because, you see, after the academic test, the students are supposed to pass this morality test, where they ask them ideological questions about, you know, the Islamic matters. And also they go into their family backgrounds, into their personal relationships.

And one of the charges, which might sound very funny to you, and you might not even believe it, against her was that her face was very distinctive. It was very attractive. And the person who was interrogating her, and he finally failed her, told her that her green eyes attracted a great deal of attention.

Which sounds very, you know, strange when you say it out of context, but my students were penalized for laughing loudly in the halls. One student was penalized and in her file it says "she is being punished for laughing of the giggling kind."

Another student was penalized because she was late for class and she was running up the stairs, and she was forced to write and retract and say that "I promise I would never run up the stairs even if I'm late for classes."

So you see, the situation would become very absurd. And it was like a hit-and-run situation where the spaces would open for a while; there would be people within the university, within the government who would look for these open spaces and you would get certain chances of opening up. And then, they would close again. And it became very exhausting after a while.

GROSS: Well let me ask you, when you were teaching at the university in Teheran, did the female students who were the subject of all these very stringent codes and laws -- did they object to it? Did they try to protest it? Did they rationalize it?

NAFISI: Well, of course, I think more than the students, there were us, their professors, who tried to rationalize. Intellectuals have an amazing capacity for rationalizing anything, as you can tell from the history of USSR and Eastern Europe.

But the students, like the ordinary women in the streets, on one hand had to submit to it and to rationalize it. On the other hand, they would show their protests against through signs, which might sound very absurd when you say it out of context; for example, by wearing colorful scarves -- of course, you couldn't wear colorful scarves in the university -- but outside the university; or letting a bit of their hair show. In fact, letting a bit of the hair show became a sign of protest. It showed that, you know, you were objecting to your situation.

GROSS: My guest is Azar Nafisi. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Azar Nafisi, a former professor of Literature in Teheran who taught women there about human rights. She used a manual on educating women about their rights. The manual was written by Mahnaz Afkhami, who is also joining us.

She's an Iranian exile and the founder of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute. She's the former Minister of State for Women's Affairs in Iran. She says that the laws regulating women's lives in Iran have created many absurdities there, and many of the women were raised before the Islamic Revolution, when Iran was a more modern country.

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SISTERHOOD IS GLOBAL INSTITUTE: You have all sorts of absurdities in the sense that you have segregated buses, but then on the other hand, people pile up on top of each other, men and women, in the taxicabs which are not segregated. You have on the one hand, a dress code which is so particularly severe, yet people are watching the latest films on video, Western films, and they're, you know, in contact with all sorts of modern concepts and ideas.

GROSS: There's a new president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, and he's seen as a reformer. In fact, women and young people were seen as the forces that really put him into office. Now, he has appointed a woman vice president and he has also appointed a woman to Iran's culture ministry.

AFKHAMI: Deputy Minister of Culture, that's right.

GROSS: Yes. Now what -- how do you think that this president might change the course for women in Iran?

AFKHAMI: Well to begin with, if you notice that woman was elected as assistant or vice president to President Khatami, but she does not have a cabinet job, so she did not have to be ratified by the parliament. And as far as I know, Azar correct me if I'm wrong, she cannot participate in cabinet...

NAFISI: No, she can't sit in the cabinet...

AFKHAMI: ... sit in the cabinet. And I think this is a very good example of the kind of contradiction that the Iranian government -- Iranian society as a whole, but specifically the Iranian government is facing because, you know, we keep talking about this past. Now this past, you know, they try to eliminate it, but it's very much present.

So what the Iranian government, the Iranian -- has had to face was a sort of a competition with the past, you know. The Iranian government has to say that it is progressive; that it has women in the parliament; that it has women in public sphere; and it has a woman as not a member of cabinet, but as assistant to the president.

But that is as far as it can go, because the next step President Khatami takes, it would come into contradiction with the very law which has brought the Islamic Republic into power; with the very -- at the basis of this law is that women are by nature weak, and they do not have the power of judgment.

That is why within the Sharia law women -- two women are, if you want to use witnesses to a murder or to a crime, a woman is counted as only half a man. If you -- a woman is killed by a man, and the woman's family asks for punishment, they have to pay half the price of blood money, because he has only killed half a human being. OK?

So you see, the whole point -- the question of women being appointed to cabinet ministers come out of that contradiction, where the government has to prove to itself and to the world, and to the Iranian society, that it does have a modern view of things. But in practice, a lot of these women within -- with government jobs become ineffective, because they have to reiterate a lot of these laws and they have to reassert a lot of these laws.

So for example, President Rafsanjani's assistants in women's affairs -- Shahala Habibi (ph) -- would constantly have to reiterate that women's first duty is to her husband and family, and the most important task of women is educating their children and creating their children as, you know, useful members of society.

And I think this is a contradiction which President Khatami -- this was a ticket that led to the election victory of President Khatami, and it's a contradiction that he's going to face in the future.

GROSS: What are some of the laws that you'd most like to see changed in Iran? Laws affecting women?

AFKHAMI: You know, the problem is that the most important laws that have to do with the family, it's going to be impossible to change them within the present constitutional structure. So, there may be laws having to do with employment or with, you know, equal pay or with women being able to take part in educational fields that can be changed.

But the most important ones -- on polygamy, on divorce, on guardianship of children -- unfortunately...

NAFISI: Age of marriage.

AFKHAMI: Age of marriage -- such as nine...

NAFISI: Nine.

AFKHAMI: ... you see. These unfortunately cannot be changed because of the whole infrastructure, the constitutional infrastructure and the whole pre-suppositions on which this theocracy is based.

GROSS: So, the age of marriage for a woman now is nine?

AFKHAMI: Is nine. Yeah -- with the consent of the guardian, I think it can be under nine in fact.

GROSS: What are the laws about polygamy now in Iran?

AFKHAMI: Well, there is four wives, and unlimited temporary wives, up to 100.

GROSS: What is a temporary wife?

AFKHAMI: A temporary wife is a Shi'a -- you know, the Iranian sect -- the sect that is practicing in Iran, they have the temporary marriage concept which is that a man can contract a woman for a specific period of time in marriage upon the payment of -- or an agreement to pay a fee. And this could be from hours to years.

So this is what is called the "mot-em" (ph) marriage or a temporary marriage.

GROSS: Is that seen as a form of legalized prostitution?

AFKHAMI: Generally, that's how it's seen, yes. Yes.

GROSS: And does the woman have any say in that?

AFKHAMI: Yes, she has to consent to it. Yes, she has to consent and usually it -- the reasons that women consent to this, having in mind that virginity is so important, and once you've been a temporary wife, it's very unlikely that you can become a permanent wife and so forth, the reason that they agree is economic reasons, because this is one way that a man can, you know, support a woman financially even if it is for a limited period of time.

GROSS: We're going to take a short break then talk more about women's human rights.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guests are Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian exile who now heads the Sisterhood Is Global Institute; and Azar Nafisi, a former professor of literature in Teheran who held classes in Iran on women's human rights.

Azar, you're teaching now at Johns Hopkins University as a fellow.

NAFISI: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you consider yourself an exile? Or are you going back to Iran?

NAFISI: Well, I would like to go back to Iran. I see it as my right, in the same sense that when I was in Iran I saw it as my right to be who I am. And to tell you the truth, a lot of times in Iran, I felt like an exile. So I -- that is the clearest I can give you in terms of an answer.

GROSS: Do you plan on going back?

NAFISI: I do. Yeah.

GROSS: OK.

NAFISI: Yeah.

GROSS: And Mahnaz Afkhami, you do consider yourself an exile.

AFKHAMI: Oh yes, unfortunately I can't go back. I'm on the wanted list. I'm considered the corrupt of the Earth and a warrior with God, so unfortunately I can't go back unless there is a change in the political situation.

GROSS: And you're considered a warrior with God because of your women's rights work.

AFKHAMI: That's what's -- yeah, actually, that's what my entire career and life has been -- working with women's groups. So I guess this is what has caused my -- and you know, my predecessor, the only other woman who was in the cabinet as Minister of Education prior to the revolution, was executed for also prostitution and warring with God.

GROSS: What are some of the reforms you tried to do in that position?

AFKHAMI: Well, we tried to -- it's not easy, you know. I mean, I don't want to put all of this problem to this particular government. There is also -- there's the social customs, you know, the traditions and so forth. So within that context, what was done by the women during that period was that the family laws were changed.

The rights for divorce were on equal footing. Not full guardianship for children, but responsibility for certain aspects of children's lives were taken by the mother. The right to work without anybody's consent was gained by women. They had the right to work part-time, with full-time benefits when they had a child, for a certain period of time. They had long maternity leave. Abortion was free. So -- education in all fields was open to women.

GROSS: When you worked in the Iranian government, it was during the Shah's...

AFKHAMI: Yeah.

GROSS: ... rule, and he hardly had a perfect human rights record.

AFKHAMI: Certainly.

GROSS: What were some of the problems you were up against in the area of human rights and women's rights under the Shah?

AFKHAMI: Actually, you know, the problem during the previous regime was that people, although they had, you know, the restrictions on cultural and economic and social life were minimal, there was, of course, huge restrictions on political expression.

But one good thing about that period was that although the Shah himself, I think his rule was the personification of patriarchy, and the other leaders were not necessarily in any way you can call feminists, but one thing that was there was that Iran wanted to be modern; wanted to be progressive; and wanted to be developed. And this was a stated purpose of the country.

And one could very easily connect the role of women in all the areas of development -- in education, in economics, in society and so forth -- with the idea of progressiveness and modernity.

Also, in the area of rights, all the rights were limited in politics. You could always use this, as the international public opinion, as a weapon. When we have a country where they deny the importance of rights altogether, or that they say that universal human rights are not relevant at all, such as the present situation, it leaves very little room for maneuver.

But when at least in principle, the country wants to be modern, wants to fit in, you can at least use that pressure of the international public opinion and also use the goals of modernity and development on behalf of women.

GROSS: What do you find most liberating about living away from Iran? Away from the restrictive women's laws?

NAFISI: Mahnaz? It's you most probably...

AFKHAMI: Well, actually what's liberating is that, of course, you know, one has this access to all sorts of ideas; access to all sorts of activism; access to freedom of expression and just that I can be talking to you like I am doing right now -- these are privileges and wonderful, positive things that one can do. And this is one aspect of it.

The other is also the fact of being in exile, where you don't have some of the old rules that held you back, and some of the new rules somehow doesn't apply either because this culture also has its limitations and, you know, its own limitations on women. But somehow in the -- as an exile, one has a certain leeway that allows one to express oneself in a bicultural way that gets, even, I think added possibilities.

NAFISI: For me, the basic thing has been to recover the control over my body, and I can read you something from what one of my students said to illustrate my point.

She said: "why" -- she says -- "why should we cover ourselves? Why are we not allowed to feel the softness of the wind in our hair, the ray of the sun on our skin, the rain, the freedom, the pleasure? Why these beautiful sensations are denied us?"

"Sometimes things become a habit for us and we do them without asking about their right of not -- right or wrong. I think the same thing has happened here. We have grown so much accustomed to wearing the veil that we have stopped thinking about it and questioning its right or wrong. We have stopped thinking about the feel of the wind, the touch of the sand, and the sense of water on our naked skin. We have stopped asking why."

So, you know, this is the first basic feeling that I have felt every time I've left Iran, in addition to all the things that Mahnaz has told you previously.

GROSS: Azar Nafisi is a former professor of Literature in Teheran, and is now a Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Mahnaz Afkhami is convening an international conference on women's human rights education tomorrow at American University in Washington, DC. She's the founder of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute in Bethesda.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mahnaz Afkhami; Azar Nafisi
High: Mahnaz Afkhami, executive director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute, and Azar Nafisi, professor of English Literature at Tehran's Tabatabai University discuss the weekend's Sisterhood is Global conference in Washington DC, a symposium addressing issues such as cross-cultural education and women's rights on a global scale. Afkhami has written a substantial manual for women's rights education in Muslim countries. Nafisi has conducted ongoing workshops in Iran, one of six SIGI world workshop sites, on women, their identities, and their rights.
Spec: World Affairs; Women; SIGI; Middle East; Iran; Cities; Tehran
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Muslim Women
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.

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