Want to know what it is like to live as a non-Muslim woman under Islamic gender apartheid? Dr. Phyllis Chesler, noted feminist author and defender of universal women’s rights, experienced sharia first hand during a brief marriage to an Afghan Muslim husband and troubled sojourn in Kabul, Afghanistan. During this time she was a virtual prisoner in purdah, the women’s enclosure, in a polygamous household of a wealthy prominent family. For Chesler this was a defining moment in her subsequent professional career which was largely motivated by her flight from the failed fantasies of a brief marriage to an Afghan college classmate, Abdul Kareem. Her virtual imprisonment, administered by her Afghan mother-in-law intent on either converting or killing her is described in chilling detail in her latest book, An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir.
This reviewer had first heard the elements of this memoir over a decade ago from the author. Like many others who had we urged her to record this fascinating encounter with Islamic gender apartheid that had endangered her life in Afghanistan. Chesler subsequently wrote limited treatments of the episode in a chapter her book, The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom and a Middle East Quarterly article in 2006, “How Afghan Captivity Shaped my Feminism.”
Five decades ago as a naïve young scholarship student at an elite northeastern college Chesler succumbed to bohemian fantasies and enticements of traveling the world when she married the “debonair, dapper” scion of a wealthy Afghan family, Abdul Kareem. There could not have been an odder misalliance. Chesler, raised in Brooklyn, came from an Orthodox Jewish background. Abdul Kareem was allegedly a non-practicing Muslim from the exotic Central Asian country of Afghanistan who had been sent abroad by his wealthy family for a decade of education in private schools and colleges in the West.
Afghanistan was and still is one of the poorest countries in Asia, despite having vast stores of undeveloped minerals and oil reserves. Under Islamic rule since the 14th Century Afghanistan’s women were largely uneducated and had virtually no rights under a patriarchal system. Only privileged sons of the wealthy were educated and sent abroad.
In the company of other Afghan companions in New York, Abdul Kareem plied Chesler with the piquant cuisine of his homeland and visions of world travel and grand adventures. After a civil marriage, the bridal couple took off bound east by ship, first to London and Paris, then flying from Munich to Tehran to Kabul for what Chesler thought would be a brief stop to visit her husband’s family compound. Kabul, the ancient capital of Afghanistan is nestled 6000 feet up in a valley surrounded by the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs.
Upon arrival at Kabul airport, Chesler’s passport was “smoothly” taken away from her by an Afghan immigration official as she was now an Afghan national. Greeted by an entourage of her extended Afghan in-laws at the airport and whisked off to enter a palatial complex. She immediately entered purdah the women’s enclosure occupied by her father-in-law’s three wives and 23 children under the control his first wife, Bebgul. Chesler’s husband, Abdul Kareem, succumbs to the patriarchy of his father and virtually disappears, disdaining her complaints about her sudden lack of freedom. Her bohemian fantasies had evaporated. She experiences the slave-like treatment of a household servant, denied of her personal liberties. Public male homosexuality was evident in the slavery of Afghan “dancing boys.” She was continually frustrated by US Embassy officials who offer no assistance in helping her to return to America, as she is considered an Afghan national. Instead a Marine detail accompanies her back to the family compound. Starving from lack of adequately prepared food, ill with hepatitis from contaminated water, pregnant with Abdul Kareem’s unborn child, Chesler, in desperation, confronts Ismail Mohammed, the family patriarch and Afghan bank magnate. He relents to her request delivering an Afghan exit passport and a ticket on an Aeroflot flight that, takes her home via, Tashkent, Moscow and Copenhagen. Upon arrival at Idlewild, now JFK airport, she calls her overjoyed parents who retrieve her. With the assistance of her parents and a battery of lawyers, Chesler eventually succeeds in obtaining an annulment of her marriage to Abdul Kareem and her US citizenship is renewed. He continuously entreats and badgers her with correspondence to come home. Because of her illness and lack of medical attention in Afghanistan Chesler loses their unborn child in a miscarriage. If that hadn’t occurred, then the child of that union would have been declared a Muslim under sharia and custody sought by Abdul Kareem. Three years following her return, an annulment is successfully granted in 1964. One phase of her life is ended. A decade of education and development of a psychoanalytical practice and specialization in women issues ensues.
American Bride also tells the story of another flight in the late 1970’s to freedom by her former Afghan husband and his family and the 25 year relation with his second wife, as new Americans living in New Jersey. He escapes to Pakistan from the draconian Soviet era occupation of Afghanistan as a former deputy cultural minister by masquerading as a peasant with the aid of smugglers. Chesler reports on dialogues and interviews with him. On those occasions he expresses denial of sharia restrictions on the freedom and rights of Muslim women. He disavows secularism in the Islamic world reflected in the lapsed Kemalism of Turkey. He criticizes the US for not having come to the aid of Afghanistan refugees but rejects continued US presence there. There is his unfortunate expression of anti-Semitism reflected in his “money grubbing Jews” comparison to charges of Ottoman Genocide of Armenians during WWI. That is also reflected in the Anti-Israelism expressed by the couple’s two children on the Palestinian questions. This is in contrast with the ironic bonding of Chesler with his second wife, Kamile, an accomplished professional who had escaped purdah in Afghanistan. In the company of Chesler, she met international Muslim and ex-Muslim women activists. In the quarter century of renewed relations between Chesler and her former husband and his second family they share frequent conversations, meals and are invited guests at Chesler’s son Ariel’s wedding.
Chesler’s research for her memoir uncovers the history of Afghan royalty and the constant internecine murders over several hundred years producing violent changes in succession. She cites the example of an Afghan king, Amanullah who l survived only to be exiled to live out his days in Rome. In 1928, he urged Afghan women to remove their veils, “condoned shooting of interfering husbands” and was reported to have spotted and torn off a burqa and burned it. He went further and advocated co-education. That reform episode didn’t last long. Afghan tribes rebelled and forced Amanullah into exile in Rome in January 1929. Chesler notes in her book her encounter with a number of Germans in Kabul. In the 20th century, German advisers and companies entered Afghanistan to engage in development of the country’s rail system. In the 1930’s with the onset of the Hitler era, Nazi influences were encouraged under Royal auspices. This paralled with Chesler own research into the 2000 year history and archeology of Afghan Jewry stemming from encounters with the émigré Afghan Jewish community in New York City. Through those encounters Chesler makes the startling discovery that Nazi influence on Afghan royalty in the 1930’s and 1940’s may have led to her Afghan father-in-law’s banking fortune from a forced takeover of an Afghan Jewish bank headquartered in Herat. Chesler also reveals for the first time that as a result of her Afghan mother-in-law’s ruthless intentions in purdah that she may have committed the Muslim shahada, profession of faith and become an inadvertent convert to Islam.
Threading through her memoir are references to similar experiences of foreign wives of Afghans and Middle East Muslims some of whom who have lost custody of children, while others have, like her, successfully escaped. Perhaps the worst instances have been American wives of Saudi husbands who have kidnapped offspring of these marriages forcing the daughters into purdah in the Saudi kingdom, subject to arranged marriages to clan cousins. View this Power Point presentation on “America’s Stolen Children,” here. Chesler suggests the Afghan experience described in her memoir triggered her career as a feminist and psychoanalyst. It is also evident in her recent activism as an expert witness in custody battles and honor shame episodes under sharia in US court proceedings involving Muslim women plaintiffs. She also believes that the Afghan episode as a young woman enabled her to understand the patriarchal clan structure that deprived Muslim women of basic freedoms and civil rights placing them in thralldom behind what she calls the “isolation and sensory deprivation chamber and mobile body bag environment” of the burqa. She now advocates the burqa should be banned.
On the afternoon of 9/11 Chesler remarked to German correspondent for Der Spiegel, who was a neighbor in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, “now we are all Israelis.” That was reference that Americans, like Israelis, were no longer safe in their own countries. Those Israel civilians had suffered egregious casualties from suicide bombings and Intifadas, and more recently rocket attacks by Islamic terrorists surrounding the Jewish nation. In this 9/11 discussion she expressed the irony that Islamic terrorism on 9/11 was perpetrated by 19 young and well educated Egyptian, Saudi and Yemeni men. They were indoctrinated as jihadis by the reclusive late Osama bin Laden from his base in Afghanistan living under the protection of Taliban leader Omar Mohammed. The Taliban who had viciously and violently deprived Afghan women and children of basic human rights even resorting to disfigurement, execution, rape and death. She notes:
These jihadists viewed the West and Western values as repulsive and dangerous. They despised the idea of human and individual rights, free speech, religious freedom, separation of state and religion, women’s rights, gay rights and a host of other rights and privileges.
Chesler noting one American intellectual saying the 19 jihadis were blameless for perpetrating the holocaust on 9/11 in lower Manhattan writing:
She was among those who swiftly demonized anyone who dared say that Muslim Islamists had launched a war. Anyone who criticized Islamist terrorism was a “racist conservative” and an Islamophobe…a label applied to ex-Muslim dissidents like Somali–born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Egyptian-born Nonie Darwish and the Syrian Americans Dr. Wafa Sultan and Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser.
At the conclusion of a chapter on American concerns for the plight of Afghan women and discussion of honor killings, she poses two rhetorical questions about the hard lessons drawn from her memoir:
Is my unexpected captivity in Kabul something of a cautionary tale about what can happen to any Westerner who believes she can enjoy a Western or modern life in a Muslim country?
In terms of Afghanistan: Can a tribal, religious, impoverished, corrupt people, beaten down by war and without an industrial infrastructure; a county with a strong warrior and anti-infidel tradition; a country theologically and geographically vulnerable to al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups become modern and Western?
A partial answer comes in her final chapter, Hard Lessons, when she says:
We cannot rescue every woman in Afghanistan or stem the tide of Islamist violence against civilians everywhere, not only in Afghanistan, without defeating the Islamists, ideologically, economically and militarily.
Honor–related violence and gender apartheid are human rights violations and cannot be justified in the name of cultural relativism, tolerance, antiracism, diversity, religious custom or political correctness. The battle for women’s rights is central to the battle for a Judeo-Christian, post-Enlightenment civilization.
At the conclusion of Mozart’s opera The Abduction from a Seraglio, about the rescue of another damsel in distress, the Turkish Pasha Selim instead of sentencing the captives to death forgives and frees them to live.
We submit that Chesler’s brief sojourn and flight from an Afghan seraglio facilitated by her pasha, her father-in-law, resulted in her freedom and a life of commitment to the universal and natural rights of all women.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.