Iva Roze Skochova is a Czech travel journalist writing for both Czech and American publications, including Global Post and Newsweek. After graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism with a specialization in magazine writing, she received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, which funded her current project--a book about weddings around the world. Skochova sees herself as a storyteller with a specific interest in women’s issues. She has visited over 80 countries, including the poorest and the most dangerous, to find light-hearted stories to share with her readers that show another face of countries in conflict. Lady Liberty sat down with Skochova to talk about her project.
Lady Liberty: What did you set out to find with this book?
Iva Roze Skochova: The book is about weddings and different ways people around the world go about marriage, [and] will cover 23 different countries. It’s part travel book, part memoir, and part anthropological study about marriage in different cultures. What it really comes down to is that I’m crashing weddings around the world.
I had a good idea about what countries I definitely wanted to cover. I knew for sure that I wanted to go to India, because I wanted to look at arranged marriages. I wanted to go to Kyrgyzstan, because I knew that they do the ritual called Ala kachuu that has to do with bride-kidnapping. And of course then I wanted to cover geographically the whole world.
Lady Liberty: Where does the Kyrgyz bride kidnapping practice come from?
Skochova: It used to be an old tradition in Kyrgyzstan back when the country was mostly nomadic, that sometimes men kidnapped their brides. It was not the same kind of kidnapping as we understand the word to day. For example, if a family did not approve of the wedding, [the bride] would get kidnapped. All these traditions were completely dismantled by the communists. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of people went back to their pre-Soviet traditions, but in a way that was barely recognizable to what those traditions actually were. The kidnapping now has morphed into a criminal act, as opposed to something that used to be a sign of love. The practice is no longer legal in Kyrgyzstan, but it still happens.
I didn't just focus on the kidnapping issue. For me, it was also interesting that people place flowers on the graves of the soldiers from WWII on their wedding day. That's one of the Soviet traditions that's prevailed.
Lady Liberty: You’ve also been to Afghanistan, Macedonia, and Russia. What was it like crashing weddings in these countries?
Skochova: What struck me about Afghan weddings was that they’re segregated by gender, so men and women cannot be in the same room celebrating the wedding. I was hanging out with the women, of course, and when the men were not in the room, the women did not have to be covered. There was a lot of dancing, and I think a lot of what goes on at these weddings is basically a way for young girls to present themselves to the older ladies who are looking to see who would make a suitable bride for their sons. The girls were dancing in front of the older women, and it was kind of like a weird fashion show where all the older women were gossiping about the younger ladies and who'd be good for their sons.
Of course there was no alcohol, which I expected, but my photographer, who was there with me, was an Iranian man who [celebrated] with the men. [Their] portion of the wedding seemed to have a lot more fun than the ladies’ part. They had dancers and the dancers were these young boys, which is another phenomenon in Afghanistan, where this rigid gender segregation creates a very unusual way that men entertain themselves, and most of that happens with young boys because there are just no young women to be had.
Lady Liberty: What took you to Macedonia?
Skochova: I wanted to go there, because I wanted to see a Roma wedding. In Macedonia, they have the biggest Roma colony in Europe, this place called Shutka, which was fantastic. I really enjoyed the wedding in Shutka because the whole wedding happened outside in the streets. There were hundreds of people--all really well-dressed--and I found all the people really hospitable and I just had a great time at the wedding.
IN PICTURES: Wedding traditions around the world.
Lady Liberty: And what about Russia?
Skochova: I went to a wedding in Russia of a very well-off couple. It happened at the Moscow Yacht Club. Until that day I didn't even know that Moscow had a yacht club. The theme of the wedding was 1920s Gangster Chicago Style, so we had to dress up. Sometimes these weddings are really poor, sometimes they are well-off, and I think that if there is one country where one can explore this kind of gap between the rich and the poor, Russia is a good place to do it.
Lady Liberty: Has your work ever been influenced by the fact that you’re a woman?
Skochova: I think it has been an advantage, because a woman is always less threatening than a man. For example, in Afghanistan, it was easier for me to go places because, as a woman, I can talk to women and I can also talk to men. For a male journalist it's hard, because they can hardly ever get to talk to women because the men would not allow their wives to talk to male journalists.
Lady Liberty: Did you plan for each trip beforehand or were you spontaneous?
Skochova: That depends. My very first country I went to was Tanzania and I didn't really know anybody there, so I just went there and found a wedding. Every country taught me something, so I'd say that how I went about it in India differed from Kyrgyzstan or Macedonia, just because I was a little bit more experienced. Then I know in some of these countries, like Kyrgyzstan, I didn't have much time so I hired an interpreter, a stringer, and she helped me find a lot of the things I needed.
Lady Liberty: You’ve taught a university course on reporting from conflict zones. Which conflict zones have you worked in?
Skochova: I went to Kyrgyzstan in 2010 when the country was on the brink of civil war. It was very challenging reporting from there because lots of the roads were closed, and of course people had different problems on their minds than talking to me about weddings. Although I didn’t go there to report about the conflict, I ended up doing that just because I was there. There are places like Afghanistan and Africa that are perpetual conflict zones. But there are also conflict zones in Mexico that I reported from. I went to enough conflict zones and learned how to report from them. Whether or not I was reporting on the conflict itself is sort of irrelevant, because you still have to keep yourself safe.
When you have the backing of an organization, that of course exposes you to some risks, but it also helps you out a lot. The way journalists work nowadays is very different. I think 20 years ago you'd be hard-pressed to go to places like Afghanistan and see a free-lance journalist there. It would be only people from news agencies. Nowadays, you go to places like Afghanistan and half of the journalists you meet there are freelancers who are not associated with any news-organization. This changes the media landscape tremendously. The freelancers must take really great risks in order to be published. I’ve always covered the lighter topics even in the conflict zones, so I think that's been my challenge--going to places like Afghanistan that have been in a state of perpetual war for decades, and finding light-hearted pieces to write about.
Lady Liberty: What do young journalists need to learn about reporting from conflict zones?
Skochova: It's very hard to teach a class on reporting from conflict zones while sitting in a comfortable classroom in Prague. I try to teach them some of the fundamentals of what to do and what to be careful about. Some are pretty obvious principles, some are not so obvious. We would talk about the challenges about a particular country, what you'd have to do as a journalist, what to worry about. For example, and this is especially true with freelance journalists, sometimes they go to places and they don't know enough about the country. You meet people who go to Afghanistan to report on an exciting story and they talk about Afghanistan as if it was an Arab country. People use the term Arab and Muslim interchangeably. And it's these kinds of things that give journalism a bad name. You always want to research something on the history and politics. I'd always recommend getting in touch with somebody on the ground, with a local journalist. They are typically very helpful.