Interview with Phyllis Chesler about her Afghan experience

Alone in Afghanistan

‘We never even discussed what my life would be like,” writes feminist and scholar Phyllis Chesler. “I had ignored every warning sign.”

Yet, as detailed in An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir, she was in Afghanistan – a young American wed to a native man, who had seemed so open-minded and liberal in the US. Now back in Afghanistan, he left her in the family compound with his extended family, including her new father-in-law, his multiple wives and some 21 children. The women never seem to leave the compound. “This is how most Afghan women experience life – they don’t.”

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Chesler relates that she waited 50 years to publish this account of her sojourn at the age of 20, in an Afghanistan that was a contrast of conservative traditions and modern accouterments. “I thought it was time to share my lessons and to take stock [of what it means] when a Westerner yearns for the grand adventure of traveling east.”

After 9/11, Chesler realized she had once been held captive in Afghanistan, the country that was sheltering Osama bin Laden. She believes her story can help shed light on the patriarchal traditions still common in the Muslim world.

One of the main lessons of her journey from Afghan bride to leading feminist is that Chesler believes modern feminism has become too imbued with moral relativism.“It means we can’t take a stand against polygamy or Islamic gender apartheid; that would make us racist or lend us to accusations of racism. It doesn’t matter we are forgetting about the Muslim dissidents who are so brave and [embrace] universal human rights. It is the Western feminists who join the Islamists and say the burka is a religious right and we must be respectful.”

In Chesler’s view, it is time Westerners see the true face of how women are being treated in these countries, and her own experience can help shed light on the issue. It also helped sculpt her understanding of feminism. “As I looked at my diary [from 1961], I noticed I used the word ‘patriarchal.’ I notice now, looking back in retrospect, my understanding of what life is like for women in different cultures has informed the kind of American feminist I became. I understood how endangered women were.”

Even though she had witnessed the most extreme patriarchy in Afghanistan, with the well-known burkas and seclusion of women, often called “purdah” in southern Asia, it also shed light on less obvious forms of inequality in the US. “I lived gender apartheid and I can recognize less extreme versions of it. I remember the utter subjugations of women, the burka and purdah and sequestration of women. This was not something I thought about right away. As my feminism unfolded in America, I understood things that some feminists didn’t understand.

“It now explains why I may be one of the only Western feminists who are making alliances with Muslim dissidents… [Others] do not understand the foolishness of Western liberals and progressives who are faked out by Islamist politics.”

Chesler’s book is not just a story about her experience. She also weaves in the narratives of numerous Western women who have married Muslim men and ended up living in places like Afghanistan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In addition, the narratives of women travelers and explorers are brought to light. “Most of these travelers have essentially described Afghan men interacting with other men and with foreign travelers.”

She describes how “many of the female travelers were single women who had lovers, and they didn’t end up trapped in harems. The literature is fabulous. One of the anecdotes I have is a 19th-century British woman who goes to Egypt and the [Arab] women feel sorry for her with her corset, because they wear loose garments. The women in the harem felt sorry for the British woman, they felt no one protected her or cared about her.”

The author also seeks to dispel some myths. “A harem is not a brothel, as so many Westerners erroneously believe. It is merely the women’s living quarters. Male relatives can join them – but no male non-relatives may do so. It is hardly a den of eroticism,” she writes. The book also reveals the many machinations and intrigues experienced by the women she lived among in Afghanistan.

Despite her experience, she has forgiven the man who brought her to Afghanistan. When he came to America, having fled the destruction wrought by the Soviets and Afghan resistance, she met him again. “I asked, ‘Why did you take me there?’ He knew that I was a serious intellectual and he gave me a clue; he said, ‘I thought you would be ambitious. True, you have written a few books. How does that compare to having been my wife and stood by my side, and helped bring the country to the modern era?’”

Forgiving one man, however, has not dulled Chesler’s criticism of the treatment of women in the Muslim world. She speaks about women being increasingly endangered, “the pressure to get women veiled in the West bank and Gaza; the increase in honor killings, especially in Israel among Arabs; female human sacrifice is practiced by the families. I have done studies on honor killings, and I think, how could I be the only feminist doing this research?” She also supports banning the burka: “We balance religious rights against other rights. The burka keeps a woman out of social discourse and refusing to wear it creates honor killings. I understand the argument that if you ban it, than many women won’t go out at all. I understand we don’t want the state telling women what to wear. [But] for nearly 100 years, Muslim women have been unveiled.”

Chesler’s book is a penetrating blend of personal narrative and historiography of women travelers. She also delves into the fascinating issue of the Jewish experience in Afghanistan.

This book doesn’t fit neatly into any stereotype. It represents a very personal struggle by a woman who is at the same time a harsh critic of cultural norms in the East, and someone deeply interested in the lives of people, particularly women, in the Muslim world.

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