When American soldiers marched into Iraq in 2003, 19-year-old Nunu welcomed them. Glad to see the last of Saddam, the Shia Muslim college student celebrated by watching hours of “Oprah,” where she saw American women expressing themselves with a freedom that amazed her. At the same time, the boundaries of her own life were constricting. Civil unrest made the streets of Baghdad unsafe. Soon Nunu’s older sister, who worked as a translator in the Green Zone, began receiving death threats.
Nunu and her family shared their apartment with Christina Asquith, an American who had come to report on the rebuilding of Iraq for the New York Times and other media outlets. In 2004, as Baghdad became increasingly dangerous for journalists, Asquith took refuge there, staying with Nunu and her sister Zia for several months. Now she tells their story in Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq, which was published by Random House in September.
“We felt like sisters at the end,” says 36-year-old Asquith, who now lives in Burlington. “They still call me their sister.”
Senator Patrick Leahy has a cameo in Sisters in War: His office intercedes at a crucial juncture for one of the book’s protagonists. But Asquith’s own Vermont connection came later. A New York native, she earned degrees from Boston University and the London School of Economics. She taught in an inner-city Philadephia school, wrote the award-winning memoir The Emergency Teacher and reported for five years from the Middle East. When she became pregnant in Afghanistan, Asquith and her husband, fellow journalist Jack Fairweather, decided it was time to settle elsewhere. “By pure serendipity,” Asquith says, they both got job offers at Solutions, a new journal launching next month under the editorship of University of Vermont professor Robert Costanza. Now entering her second year in Burlington, Asquith will teach a UVM course on women in Islam this spring.
Sisters in War reveals how difficult it is to generalize about those women. Zia and Nunu see the veil as oppression. But Manal Omar, a progressive, antiwar American Muslim who comes to Iraq to work for the NGO Women for Women, wears her hijab with pride.
The book tells these women’s stories in alternating chapters, along with that of a fourth protagonist: Lieutenant A. Heather Coyne, who comes to Baghdad with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade and stays to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Eager to help Iraqi women, she secures $1.4 million to build a women’s center and enlists the help of Omar. But Omar thinks it’s better to take things in smaller, more practical steps — such as saving a 16-year-old girl from an honor killing.
Asquith met all these women in the course of her reporting. Besides conveying the day-to-day lives of women in a war zone, she says, she wanted to tell the story of “the women on the ground who were in charge of implementing the policy and spending the millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars in fact, that we spent on women’s rights in Iraq.”
What did those dollars buy? With chaos in Iraq came a resurgence of radical Islam. Too often, Asquith suggests, Americans misread the state of affairs, as when Laura Bush gave a 2004 speech trumpeting public protests by Iraqi women as evidence of their newfound liberation. In the book, when Omar reads this speech, she’s shocked by the First Lady’s apparent ignorance that the women were “protesting the implementation of Islamic law — something they never had to worry about during Saddam’s time but which had become a real possibility on George Bush’s watch.”
One perspective that never directly appears in Sisters in War is that of the author herself. Seven Days sat down with Asquith to ask about her experiences in Iraq and after.
Seven Days: You, the reporter, never appear in the book. How did you decide to use this almost novelistic style?
Christina Asquith: The first reason is that there were so many books coming out about Iraq: military, political, focused on the economy. I was looking for a new way to tell the story of the war. The second is that, I think, the women’s stories that I tell in the book just lend themselves to this format … they’re emotional stories … At the end of the day, when you think about why war is horrible, and the real toll that’s being taken in Iraq, it’s an emotional toll.
SD: How did your reporting in Iraq change your view of the invasion and occupation?
CA: My feelings about the Iraq war changed hugely. When I left for Iraq, I can honestly say I didn’t know what to think about the war ... All I had in my head was a lot of questions. Mostly I wanted to know how women lived under Saddam and what their hopes were for the future ... When I got there, I saw the people were, for the most part, very welcoming to the U.S. ... And I saw, throughout 2004, that elation be crushed ... after about four or five years ... things maybe are emerging now into a more peaceful situation...
SD: How did it change your view of the role of women in the U.S., seeing our culture from the perspective of women like Zia and Nunu?
CA: Hanging around with young Iraqi women is like getting in a time capsule and going back 50 years in this country. They are very conservative. They are Rules girls, as we would say here. They certainly don’t believe in sex before marriage … They flirt with men with their eyes, but they certainly don’t have any sort of interaction with them.
When I came back to the U.S., I was shocked by what I saw ... It was jarring for me to see women wearing very little clothing when they go out ... and to see with fresh eyes how much freedom and equality in their personal lives women have in this country…
SD: You talk about the Western media’s scanty coverage of the Mustansiriya University bombings in Baghdad in 2007. [In the book, this event terrifies Nunu, who hears that “Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility. The reason given was that university officials had refused to ban women from enrolling.”] Is this evidence of media bias? Or fatigue with all things Iraq?
CA: A U.S. soldier shoots and kills one Iraqi or 10 Iraqis unjustly, and — rightfully so — it will be reported by all the press. And it is a horrible thing. However, if we’re going to report that, we should also report the fact that these terrorists put a bomb in front of a university and killed 200 students. Why isn’t that reported with the same amount of horror? Probably just because it doesn’t involve an American, so it’s not a story people can relate to. Readers are naturally interested in themselves and in other people like them...
I think lost in the coverage at a certain point was how much death and destruction was being caused by Arabs who were not Iraqis who came into the country — Al Qaeda or Saudis, Jordanians — really radical Islamists. Many of them killed women’s rights activists just because they were speaking out on behalf of women or were trying to get an education or go to school or were wearing makeup or their hair unveiled. And the U.S. kind of turned a blind eye toward the atrocities that these fundamentalists committed, maybe because it’s a complicated story. But for the Iraqi women that I write about, this is what they were facing on a day-to-day basis. They never worried they were going to be shot by an American…
SD: Have you kept in touch with the women in the book?
CA: I email them weekly. We’ve been through a lot together. I had my life threatened on several occasions. We’ve all gone through highs and lows and shared a lot of tears and a lot of laughter together.
SD: How can the U.S. help women in Iraq now?
CA: What really matters are the elections that are coming up in January...
Imagine this country in the late 1700s when our constitution was being written. There were no women at the table back then … Iraqis right now are finished writing their constitution, and they’re electing their first government. It is so critical to have strong women’s voices at the table now, when the decisions are being set in stone, because otherwise, women are going to find themselves fighting for who knows how many more years just to get basic rights enshrined into law.
Those who’ve spoken out have been quite literally killed. They’ve faced terrorism for speaking out for their rights. I would like to see them supported by our country through funding and through training.
SD: From that perspective, where do you stand on the current issue of sending more troops to Afghanistan?
CA: Based on what I saw in Iraq, I don’t think we should go into Afghanistan to help Afghans, because, although I would like to help Afghans, I don’t think a military invasion is the path to helping any country. A military invasion is almost always unequivocally bad for women. It creates so much civil unrest, so much insecurity, that women always end up being punished. They end up being caught in the middle.
Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq by Christina Asquith. Random House, 335 pages. $26.
Christina Asquith reads at Barnes & Noble in South Burlington on Wednesday, December 16, at 7 p.m.