In her memoir, An American Bride in Kabul*, Phyllis Chesler writes about one of the most improbable stories of love, marriage, journey, discovery, survival, and escape. In recalling events from her youth that brought a young Jewish girl from New York as an American bride to Kabul, she opens a window into the culture of a land and its people that no one foresaw drawn into a war with America. Chesler’s story reads as if Desdemona had survived Othello’s effort to smother her in bed; and then in escaping the Moor’s jealous rage Desdemona found her way back home in Venice where at some distance from the stormy days with her warrior-husband she wrote of her experience, and in telling her story shed light into the mind and culture of the man who had beguiled her with tenderness and tales of his adventures.
Chesler is the bestselling author of Women and Madness, and of some dozen other titles that together disclose an illustrious career of a woman devoted to the cause of feminism, individual freedom, struggle against the old and new variants of anti-Semitism, and defending women against all forms of sexual violence. She lives in New York City, having resided previously in Kabul and Jerusalem, and has taught at the City University of New York where she is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women Studies. Her reputation as one of the leading feminist thinkers was established in the company of prominent feminists such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, who together were the bright lights of the “second wave” feminism of the early 1970s.
But unlike many of her generation of feminists, and those who came later, Chesler stands apart from the sort of feminism that took hold of Women Studies in North American universities during the past thirty years. The focus in the post-“second wave” academic feminism shifted from gender to race, from issues of freedom and democracy to anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism under the influence of Marxist ideology. This brought about the uncritical embrace of non-Western cultures as equal, if not better, for being uncontaminated by racism and imperialism that, according to Marxists and their fellow travellers in “postcolonial studies”, characterize Western culture. The idea that all cultures are equal is the main tenet of multiculturalism, and while this idea is blatantly untrue it has unfailingly worked to corrode the values of liberal democracy based on individual rights and freedoms in the West.
It was in 1961 that Chesler married Abdul-Kareem, son of Ismail Mohammed, a wealthy Afghan businessman, and accompanied her newly wed husband to Kabul. A few years earlier she had met Abdul-Kareem in a private American college where both of them were enrolled as students. She fell in love, her imagination took flight, the romance of the East beckoned her, and Abdul-Kareem appeared to her as a mix of Omar Sharif, Yul Brynner, and Marcello Mastroianni.
What followed was her rude awakening in Kabul, and a desperate need to escape. She had woken up in a harem – the separate arrangement for women in a Muslim culture with entry in there forbidden for all males except family members – and discovered the man she wedded in New York no longer seemed the same person in Kabul. She was confined in a gender segregated society; her freedom was clipped; and she was bewildered by the byzantine family rules in a polygamous culture where wives and their children, especially sons, vied for the affection of the husband and father, the patriarch of the family, who ruled with absolute authority.
Much has been written to shed light on Islam and Muslim culture since 9/11; and yet confusion persists about a people and culture that stand at odds with individual freedom, gender equality, and secular democracy representing the values of the modern world. And then there is multiculturalism that frowns upon passing judgment based on Western values about non-Western cultures due to the West’s record of exploiting and oppressing people of dark color.
But Chesler set aside the strictures of multiculturalism to analyze why Muslim culture is so severely and violently at odds with the West. Her views are not some synthetic academic feminist opinion, or some packaged discourse from Women Studies seminars about inequities against women in a white-male dominated society. Her description of the Muslim world sharply contrasts with the contrived, jargon-filled, dense and mostly incomprehensible language of academic feminists. Chesler has recorded the voices of battered Muslim women among whom she lived, and she has felt the sting of the culture that treats women as disposable property of men. She cannot be silenced for allegedly misrepresenting reality she knows full well at first hand. And so, instead, the sisterhood that once celebrated Chesler as a leading feminist thinker moved to marginalize her.
The remarkable aspect of Chesler’s story is how her Afghan experience affected her. It would have been easy to understand, and excuse, if Chesler had turned bitter against everything Muslim, or Islam. Instead she drew close to some immensely brave Muslim and ex-Muslim women, such as Fatima Mernissi, Azar Nafisi, Taslima Nasrin, who have documented the situation of women inside the Muslim world. Moreover, Chesler also recognized how gender segregated culture can make the lives of men emotionally stunted, sexually impoverished, and perverse given the prevalence of pederasty as found among Afghan men, and that they too need support.
It is this inclusive nature of Chesler’s feminism that gives insight into her thinking. It also explains her renewed relationship with Abdul-Kareem that otherwise appears bizarre. In 1979 Abdul-Kareem with family escaped from Afghanistan ahead of the Soviet occupation of his country, and arrived in America. He connected with Chesler, and she received him with courtesy. “It is a privilege to know someone this long,” she writes, “a man who comes from a far-distant country and culture, someone who still regularly calls me to see how I am and to tell me his family news.”
Yet it seems there is something more in this relationship of Chesler with Abdul-Kareem; something karmic or fatefully consequential about which she eventually became aware. She explains “perhaps the most important reason I went to Afghanistan was so that, post-9/11, I might be able to tell other westerners something important about what it’s like for a woman and an infidel to live under Islam.” Chesler, I believe, has this right, and her memoir should be read widely, even urgently, for the empathy with which she unravels the dark side of Muslim culture in clash with the West.
** page 2 image via NPR