By Anna Louie Sussman
Eliza Griswold's "The Tenth Parallel" began as a probe of religious fundamentalism's link to violence. After traveling through Africa and Southeast Asia, she just wanted to tell the stories she found along the way.
Eliza Griswold's reporting has taken her through Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, through militarized societies where men wield guns, women are often encouraged to keep quiet in public and where being a female reporter might seem like a stark disadvantage.
But she doesn't see it that way.
"Sometimes I think it's safer to do this work as a woman," she said in a recent phone interview. "Because most violence against strangers is random and as a woman, you get a 15-second grace period. It's also much more difficult to kidnap a woman, especially if you're a religious person. You need a separate space to keep her, a woman to look after her and interact with her. There are a lot of logistics involved."
Griswold, 37, has spent the past seven years chronicling the lived experiences and consequences of religious faith along the 10th parallel, "a horizontal band that rings the Earth 700 miles north of the equator," she says. The effort has culminated in "The Tenth Parallel," which was published in August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the book--her second, following the 2007 release of the poetry collection "Wideawake Field"--she journeys across Africa and Southeast Asia, including stops in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
She started out in search of answers to the question of whether religious fundamentalism in some of these populous Christian and Muslim communities necessarily leads to violence. But then she gave up, in the face of too many intangibles.
Letting Readers Draw Conclusions
"Every time I tried to assess someone's relationship with their religion, I realized very quickly that I'm on shaky ground," she said. "Trying to guess what's motivating them in each moment is dangerous supposition. I prefer to lay out the stories and leave the readers to draw their own conclusions."
In each country, she describes women interacting with the forces of fundamentalism in surprising ways.
In Somalia, for instance, Griswold meets with a mother-daughter team of doctors--Dr. Hawa Abdi and Dr. Deqo Waqaf--who run an 80,000-person refugee camp on their family's farmland.
An ongoing civil war between the government and Islamists has widely curtailed Somali women's freedom of movement and expression, Griswold notes. Yet for her, these two women are "the strongest characters in the book." They plough on with little help from the international aid community, she says, attempting to do their work alongside Islamic charities whose doctors often won't reveal a patient's HIV status because of the stigma involved.
Another powerful female character in the book is Nur Amina, a petite Muslim Indonesian policewoman. She works as an enforcer of vice and virtue imposed by the Islamic revival that swept Aceh after the 2004 tsunami.
Nur Amina harangues unveiled housewives pumping water from an outdoor well and writes up young lovers for watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean.
"Do I see women using cultural constructs to beat on each other?" asks Griswold. "Absolutely. But is Nur Amina like that because she's 4 ½-feet tall? Or because she's one of those people who belongs to a massive reawakening movement, an Islamic revival? Or because she's having a bad day? There are too many factors going into what makes Nur Amina, Nur Amina."
No Stranger to Religion
Griswold, the daughter of Frank Griswold III, the Episcopal bishop of Chicago, is herself no stranger to the bonds of religion.
She grew up grappling with questions of faith, intellect and social justice, which she touches on briefly in the book.
She graduated with an English degree from Princeton in 1995 and wrote her creative thesis in poetry, an alternate form of expression that continues to inform and complement her journalistic work.
After working at The Paris Review and Vanity Fair, she landed her first major journalistic assignment in 2000, when she was inspired by a Human Rights Watch report to investigate "honor" killings, in which a woman is killed, usually by a male relative, to "cleanse" her family's honor following a perceived transgression.
The story found its home at The New Republic and took her to the West Bank and Jordan.
When she returned from the Middle East, she re-sold the story to the Sunday Times of London. Six months later, after the events of September 11, 2001, she called them again. Did they need a stringer? They did. She was off to Pakistan.