Despite barely escaping with her life from a Kabul harem, Phyllis Chesler never considered herself a victim.
More than half a century ago, a naïve Chesler and her Afghan bridegroom moved from Brooklyn to Kabul. Without warning from her supposedly Westernized husband, Chesler’s American passport was confiscated upon arrival in Afghanistan, and she quickly became the property of her husband’s family.
For five months, the 20-year old Chesler was trapped in her husband’s polygamous family’s harem. Enduring physical and psychological abuse, Chesler was coerced into converting from Judaism to Islam. Her wealthy husband’s dreams of reforming Afghanistan somehow disappeared, and he attempted to permanently tie Chesler to the country through childbirth.
“In no way do I see myself as a victim,” Chesler told the Times of Israel during a recent interview. “I am very much a survivor. It took me this long to go back and face what happened.”
The author’s harrowing experience in a Kabul harem – including Chesler’s hard-fought escape – is recounted in her new book, “An American Bride in Kabul.”
Using her 1961 ordeal as a springboard, Chesler explores the plight of women living under gender apartheid around the world, and traces the journeys of Western women who – like herself – inadvertently became ensnared by Islamic law.
For Chesler, “An American Bride in Kabul” is a foundational memoir of sorts, blending her personal story with an overview of the progress – and set-backs – of the global movement for women’s rights.
“Most Westerners utterly fail to understand the importance of woman’s subordination in terms of Islamist male psychology,” Chesler wrote in a chapter named “9/11.”
‘I am very much a survivor. It took me this long to go back and face what happened’
After returning to New York from Kabul, Chesler received the first of many letters from her abandoned husband, demanding that she return to Afghanistan. Chesler marveled at his continued lack of understanding – much less sympathy – for her life-threatening ordeal in his family’s Kabul harem.
Responding to the letter, Chesler did not mince words about her newly formed worldview.
“You really are a man of your country,” she wrote, “because you obviously expect that I sacrifice myself – no, annihilate myself – just because I am a woman.”
In recent years, Chesler published academic studies about honor killings and the Islamic burqa. She’s also testified for Muslim and ex-Muslim women seeking asylum from honor killing. Though her fourteen books have run the gamut from mental illness to child custody and anti-Semitism, gender usually figures prominently.
A trained psychotherapist and professor emerita of women’s studies at CUNY, Chesler has long drawn criticism for lambasting what critics say are really “Muslim-only religious choices” – choices that Chesler calls barbaric.
“When you raise the issue of forced child marriage or the downsides of polygamy or honor killings, they very quickly say that’s racist as a way of silencing the criticism,” Chesler said. “If you talk about the Islamic veil, they will say who are we to judge – it is a religious right to walk around in ambulatory body bags that force sensory deprivation.”
Sometimes labeled a “Western hegemonic feminist,” Chesler said her struggle is about basic human rights.
“Muslim-on-Muslim violence concerns me deeply,” Chesler said. “This is an unending holy religious war that has nothing to do with imperialism or colonialism on the part of the West.”
Chesler’s book lauds – and, in too many cases, eulogizes – Afghan Muslim women who have stood up to oppression and attempted to promote change. These brief glimpses of heroism usually end in the woman’s assassination, sometimes by a family member.
“I’d like the West to know that these are the people we should grant asylum to, not their persecutors,” Chesler said. “We should stand with them, and rely upon them for guidance, as opposed to having governments in the West go for Islamist men who pretend to be moderates.”
For more than three decades, Chesler has also sounded warning bells about efforts to delegitimize Israel, including at universities and among so-called liberal elites. Her 2003 book, “The New Anti-Semitism,” was an early wake-up call for Israel supporters, and implored them to expose anti-Semitism disguised as assaults against the Jewish state’s legitimacy.
Over the past 30 years, Chesler has bemoaned the “New Left’s” hypocrisy in demonizing Israel, a tiny democracy surrounded by regimes with questionable human rights records. For her candor, Chesler’s public talks about Israel sometimes require police protection.
Following the terror attacks of 9/11, more people began to share Chesler’s long-time fear, she said: that Islamic extremism is not just a threat to Israel, but to women, minorities and pluralistic societies everywhere.
“Islamic gender and religious apartheid has most recently led to the genocidal extermination of Christians in the Middle East, just as it once led to the complete exile of Jews from the Muslim world,” Chesler said. “We need to pay attention to what’s coming our way and decide where the danger lies.”
‘Islamic gender and religious apartheid has most recently led to the genocidal extermination of Christians in the Middle East’
At least one Arabic-language media outlet took issue with Chesler’s book’s description of honor killings and human sacrifice as “barbaric.” Following an interview, she was asked for additional quotes about atrocities perpetrated by Jews and Christians, to “balance out” her book’s focus on Islamist misogyny.
“They are sensitive about their culture, people and religion being described as barbaric,” Chesler said of the exchange. “These things about the bad people are true, and the good people don’t want to be lumped in.”
In one of her book’s most poignant chapters, Chesler describes being coerced to convert to Islam. More than starvation or physical abuse, the experience haunted Chesler for decades.
At the time of her move to Kabul, Chesler did not know much about the persecution and elimination of Jews from Afghanistan. This recent Nazi-era exodus – and the fact that Chesler would have to renounce Judaism –were two details her Afghan bridegroom forgot to mention.
“I am a Jew who quietly and privately converted to Islam while I was in captivity,” Chesler wrote. “I did so not at the edge of a sword but merely in the hope that doing so might make my miserable life more bearable in purdah.”
Chesler did not mention the conversion to her parents, and tried to forget about it for years.
Chesler did not mention the conversion to her parents, and tried to forget about it
Despite the nightmare of living under Islamic law in Afghanistan, the author did not run away from religion. Having grown up in a religious household, Chesler still engages in chevruta partner learning with Jewish texts, and has published commentaries on the Torah.
More publicly, Chesler founded the international committee for the now-famous Women of the Wall, and helped develop the first feminist Passover seder in New York City.
Remarkably, Chesler has maintained a cordial relationship with her ex-husband and his family until today. Years after his young American-Jewish wife fled Afghanistan, Abdul-Kareem – as he is called in the book – returned to the US for business and to escape a crumbling homeland. Periodically, the two have met for coffee or a family gathering.
“A young Jewish American woman once loved a Muslim Afghan man, and although it could never work out, they continued talking to each other down through the decades of their lives,” Chesler wrote in her book’s final chapter, “Hard Lessons.”
During their encounters, Chesler and Abdul-Kareem argue about reform in Afghanistan, women’s rights, and other hot-button issues. He has consistently downplayed Chesler’s efficacy as an agent of change, and usually directs conversation toward his eternal, far-fetched fantasy of reforming Afghanistan from within.
“Each time I see him I vow to never so do again,” Chesler writes. “Then, whenever he calls, we make a plan to meet.”