What does a 21-year-old American bride of the Jewish faith do in a country like Afghanistan? She probably regrets being there. After all, she is confined to the home, robbed of her American passport, badgered by her husband's extended family and perpetually harangued for her American "moral laxity." The fact that she is Jewish certainly makes matters worse in a country where anti-Semitism is part of the professed faith.
Phyllis Chesler, the well-known academic, author and feminist, tells the story of her life of drudgery and seclusion in Afghanistan and her improbable escape from her oppressors in her latest book An American bride in Kabul.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the book is a riveting tale of innocence, naivety, betrayal, torture, patriarchy, violence, misogyny and eventual triumph. Chesler admits that her experience in Afghanistan shaped her feminism, but it also inspired in her great sympathy for the downtrodden women of Afghanistan and other Muslim nations.
This was the '60s, and Westerners knew little about Islamic culture. It was easy for a young American girl to be sweet-talked into marriage by a suave and dashing Afghan fellow student from an opulent Afghan family. Not only that, he also convinced her to move with him to Kabul, where Chesler's movements would be constantly "planned and monitored."
The same charming man would later tolerate his family's demands that Chesler convert to Islam. At 21 and straight out of Brooklyn, she hardly expected this from the man she adored, the same man who claimed to adore her. Nor did she expect to encounter the sleazy harem that her father-in-law ran. Chesler notes that his two retired wives led a celibate life while he remained sexually active with his third.
The post 9/11 era has, of course, made us all wiser. Few American women would agree to marry an Afghan man and move to a country like Afghanistan. While this may be true, the issues are still very real for the women who can never hope to escape the oppression in these sharia-benighted countries. After all, women in Afghanistan are veiled and segregated. Chesler states that "The standards for women are different here; the line a woman must walk is razor thin."
Most women there are ground down by daily rebuke, oppression, and domestic abuse. They are often forced to tolerate their husband's polygamous relationships or even to live in a harem.
The book is an engaging read from the start. It is well-written, sensitive and incisive. The purpose of the book is not to complain, but as Chesler herself says, to "bring Americans closer to the suffering of Muslim women -- and Muslim women closer to an American feminism that was forged in purdah in Afghanistan." Perhaps that is why Chesler vehemently opposes the burqa. The wearer is "hobbled, hidden, invisible, unable or forbidden to join the social conversation."
"This is how most Afghan women experience life -- they don't," Chesler continues. She also admits with much anguish that no one raises an eyebrow at this. Even her husband, Abdul Kareem, would regard Chesler's own captivity as normal. The cultural divide between East and West is so great that what appears oppressive to Westerners is considered acceptable -- even desirable -- by the Muslim peoples of the East.
Propaganda makes all this possible. Muslim women are taught to shun the freedoms Western women enjoy. They are repeatedly told that their own circumstances actually afford them the protection, love and support of their husbands. Western women are in fact left vulnerable because they have ventured alone into a man's world. Muslim women continue to believe these falsehoods even while they are being abused and beaten. The Taliban has even magnified the barbarity. The oppression never ends for women, as according to Chesler "the international hands-off policy always dooms the women and the progressives."
Chesler discovered the worst type of misogyny in Kabul. Women are usually sent to jail when they run away from ghastly mistreatment by their in-laws, husbands and parents. Chesler found within herself the determination to escape the most unfortunate circumstances one woman can face. It is an example for other oppressed women of the world to follow.
Chesler almost died in Afghanistan, but her courage took her through the horror. Not only did she merely survive; she eventually became Emerita Professor of Psychology. Her poignant and fascinating account has many lessons for women -- and men -- of all cultures.