By: Fern Sidman
Dr. Phyllis Chesler, internationally renowned pioneer feminist, professor, psychotherapist and prolific author and op-ed contributor to Arutz Sheva has a feverish schedule these days. On October 1, her latest book entitled, “An American Bride in Kabul” is scheduled to be released and there is no question that the pre-publication copies have caught the attention of the media. As she juggles interviews with major outlets and plans an international speaking tour, Dr. Chesler graciously took time out to discuss her compelling memoir; a tome that is both an epochal personal narrative and scholarly monograph at the same time. There is no doubt that this is a book whose time has come.
Q Dr. Chesler, there is no secret that your life has taken many twists and turns and you have written about your experiences as a young woman held captive in Afghanistan previously. Why did you choose this particular juncture in time to write your account in full length book form?
A With the increasing persecution of Muslim women and with the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, I had no choice. The time was right to expose my mystical but misguided romance with Ishmael and with the Muslim world. We are at a moment in history when gaining an understanding of Islamic gender and religious apartheid is imperative for our survival as a modern civilization. In addition, Heroic Muslim resisters—those who are anti-Islamists– need recognition and support from the Western world in their battle to stem the avalanche of Islamic fundamentalism.
The material is also so rich, so irresistible. The 9/11 plot was hatched in a country that I once lived in – how surreal, how destined is that! How could I remain silent? Wasn’t I obligated to share what I had seen and now know? The Afghan burqa seems to have followed me to America and into the future. I needed to provide an accounting of what I experienced, witnessed, and the lessons learned.
I could never forget the kindness of some Afghan women towards me. Their fate haunted me, our lives had touched, viewing their kind of powerlessness taught me that in many cultures and countries women did not really have power, freedom, education, any individual rights.
I learned that Muslim-on-Muslim violence, fratricide is pandemic and indigenous. Like stoning and honor killing, it has not been caused by the West. I also learned that so many Muslim are also kind, humble, funny, philosophical, principled and life-loving.
Q As much as your experience in Afghanistan was frightening, you also write so passionately of the people of the Eastern world. Did you always have an interest in that part of the world?
A I have always possessed an abiding love for Eastern culture; a powerful attraction to its people; its architecture, food, geography; to its rich and tapestried history and I weave that all into my book. Something had called to me. In the Bible, we know that Abraham was from Ur Kasdim (perhaps in Iraq near Turkey) and I saw biblical scenes in Afghanistan; camel caravans, veiled women, turbanned men, shepherds, and nomads. There was something about Eastern customs and traditional people that I found exotic and at the same time it was something familiar to me.
Q Can you tell us about the genesis of your relationship with your ex-husband? What kind of dynamic prevailed between the both of you?
A: I married a man from the East but in the West where I had met him. He was Muslim and I am a Jewish woman. We both felt a bit marginalized in America. We dated for two and half years and he said that if I want to visit his homeland, we must get married or we could not travel together in the Islamic world.. At the time, neither of us was religious, but the vision of Isaac and Ishmael living in harmony was a powerful, mystical dream. The half-brothers do make peace, They bury their father Abraham together. I was so young and naive.
Q As you have written, your feminism was forged in Afghanistan. Your book deftly but painfully offers graphic descriptions of the horrific treatment that women endured and still do in that region of the world. Do you think that contemporary Western society acknowledges the dangers that this represents to our freedoms?
A I fled Afghanistan at the very end of 1961, but I see the explosion of burqa clad women on the streets of New York City. This is an important point because it represents the nullification of women. Burqas are nothing more than sensory deprivation isolation chambers and have little to do with Islamic religious law. I am not talking about head covering, which are fine since they do not obscure identity and one can see, hear, taste, smell, talk, and be part of the public world. When a woman wear niqab, (a face mask) she exits the social conversation; she is totally isolated in her body bag. I am offended, frightened, when I see women wearing dark, black, heavy burqas. Why would we, in the West, welcome that or want to support such intolerance in the name of “tolerance”?
I also understand that it is particularly difficult for Jews to vocalize their opposition to such garb, as they feel that if the government intervenes and imposes laws against wearing such articles, as has happened in France, then perhaps their own rights to wear religious head coverings and other garb might be infringed upon. There is a huge difference, however. No one is physically suffocated in religiously Jewish style of dress and that difference stands in stark contrast to the oppressive garments that Muslim women are increasingly compelled to wear. Many girls and women have been honor murdered by their families for refusing to wear hijab or niqab.
There is no place in the Koran where it states that women are commanded to wear burqas and niqab. As a matter of fact,in the 1950s, the King of Afghanistan strongly supported modern dress for women, so there is a perilous regression taking place. Once, the women of Turkey, Egypt, Iran and some countries in the Arab Middle East, and the Mahgreb won or were granted the right to be naked-faced.
What I witnessed so long ago in Afghanistan was both religious and gender apartheid: polygamy, a shut-in purdah existence for women; honor killings, forced marriages. And the same rings true today. It is far worse, far more medieval today; post the Soviet invasion. We see the rise of the Taliban, the civil wars of the warlords, the growth of opium as a cash crop. We really have to understand the depth of this misogyny. In Israel, you can fight to change religious laws, but in tribal countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan womens’ lives are highly circumscribed and endangered.
They are shot for trying to go to school or for wanting to marry someone of their choosing. This is true in Gaza and on the West Bank today, just as it is true in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
Q As a winsome Westernized young woman, you describe the women in your ex-husband’s family with a sense of compassion and outrage. Can you tell elaborate on that?
A In my book I speak of my cruel and probably mentally ill mother-in-law and the fact that her husband was a polygamist. He had two other wives and three sets of children—twenty one in all–living in the same compound. My mother-in-law tried to control me in every way imaginable, but I will never forget the kindness of my sister-in-laws who did everything they could to physically protect me against my mother-in-law and my husband. There are memories that are seared in my soul; as I recount the brutal manner in which my mother-in-law treated her female servants, and how I literally had to force a sweater on a young female servant who was pregnant and cold and how my mother-in-law cursed her and then fired her for accepting it.
Q Your book contains a great many stories from writers dating back centuries ago who traveled throughout the length and breadth of Afghanistan. What sort of historical backdrop does this afford the reader?
A I wanted readers to gain an appreciation of the political, geographic and cultural history of Afghanistan. Westerners who traveled to the East have left a grand record of their adventures. This includes women who visited harems, married Bedoiun sheiks, climbed awesome mountains and survived dangerous sandstorms.
Like me, they also came down with dystentery and hepatitis, and unlike me, with malaria, parasites or worse. Their courage is amazing. They also confirm the gender and religious apartheid that I witnessed as well as the slavery and Dhimmi status of Jews and other infidels. Once, Afghanistan was a flourishing center of Paganism, Zoroastrianism, Buddism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Islam did not fully conquer this part of Central Asia until the ninth century. I once slept in what was once the crossroads of the known world.
Q You write that you have maintained a friendship with your ex-husband, Abdul Kareem and his children from another wife. In lieu of your support for Israel, has your relationship changed over the years?
A I do not regret this act of compassion to a stranger at my gate. He arrived here just after the Soviets had invaded his country. Once, he had married a Jewish woman. Now, over time my ex-husband’s views on Israel seems to have changed. His family has a “politically correct” position on Israel as well. Their opinions are heavily informed and shaped by the left-oriented, secular media. They are probably disappointed in me because they once viewed me as a “heroic, anti-racist” and now they feel betrayed because I am passionately pro-Israel. And these people are not mosque going Muslims. Even some assimilated, westernized Muslims believe Israel is gassing people and this causes me great anguish. Many educated Muslims and non-Muslims, for that matter, believe all the Big Lies told about Israel, that it is an apartheid state because they are fed such disinformation on a routine basis. One Muslim feminist writer, as brave as she is, begins one of her books by saying that she is not a Zionist and repeats this mantra throughout her work.
Q The latter part of your book is dedicated to the history of the people of Afghanistan and you even include a chapter on the tortuous history of the Jews living there.
A Jews have had a very long history in Afghanistan.. On mountain rocks on the Silk Road between Herat and Kabul there are Hebrew inscriptions that date back to the year 750 CE. When Arabs conquered the land, they forced Islam on the people. In 2011-12, a great deal of Jewish written material from the 11th century was found in a cave in northern Afghanistan. In the 19th century, Jews who had fled to Meshed, Iran, long ago, fled after one of many terrible pogroms—to Herat, in Afghanistan. Safe for a while, they soon encountered tragedy, returned to Meshed, where it was worse, and then returned to Afghanistan where they stayed for one hundred years.
Once, the Jews and Hindus were the consummate traders and bankers of Afghanistan. They exchanged currencies and had trading posts going up to Russia, China, Thailand, down to India, and to Europe and the new worlds. Their outposts were along the old silk road. They dealt in textiles, furs, carpets, spices, jewels, currencies and much else. However, overnight, they were literally impoverished by royal edict in in the very early 1930s.. Afghanistan made alliances with Nazi Germany and after World War II, sheltered Nazis (physicians, engineers, scientists) whom they also exploited.
Q: There are a multitude of facts about 20th century refugees, heroic Muslim women, and Jews, you cover them thoroughly in your book. What kind of effect do you think this will have on opinion makers?
A. Well, let’s start with the hypocrisy of the United Nations. In 1980, the UN and the ‘international community” did not help the five million Afghan Muslim refugees in Pakistan. Compare this to the heavily orchestrated campaign which funded and focused upon the 1.6 million Palestinian refugees (These are the UN’s own figures). The UN is not interested in helping Muslim refugees — only in demonizing Israel. . As I said in my book, in 2013, an Afghan acquaintance of mine told me that at least one and a half million Afghan refugees are still festering in camps.
As for women in Afghanistan, many are quite heroic as they stand up to surreal misogynists. They are death threatened and targeted for assassination and they still continue their work in hospitals, schools, as police officers and in public office. Western women can learn quite a bit about courage from them. The humanitarian work being done in Afghanistan has only been possible only because of the Western military presence. As the West pulls out — as it must – this landlocked country which has little infrastructure will be plunged into permanent civil war, tyranny, and a very fierce misogyny. Doctors Without Borders had to pull out many years ago because their physicians were being seen as infidel proselytizers and murdered.
In the 1930s, there was a highly significant Nazi influence in Afghanistan. Jews always had to wear distinctive clothing in Afghanistan and in other Muslim majority countries and Jewish women did not go to school.
My ex-mother-in-law used to speak of a Jewish family that she was close with named the Sharbani and kept asking me if I knew them and was in a quandary as to why they left Afghanistan after 1948. I document the heinous slaughters, forced conversions and the expulsion of Jews in Muslim majority countries including Afghanistan throughout the centuries, so that might give you some idea of why Jews were not welcome there. Interestingly enough, my ex-husband, in his capacity as a government official in Afghanistan was very proud that he had restored a Jewish synagogue in Herat.
Jews from Afghanistan eventually migrated to Israel and to Queens, New York.
Q Because your book is so very topical; a real eye opener in every respect, what kind of impact do you expect it to have?
A I think this book will appeaI to a very wide audience on both sides of the aisle. Many Muslims, both religious and secular have praised the book as have conservatives and feminists. Perhaps it will be a cross-over book, perhaps I will be able to get people to think about Islam’s history of imperialism and apartheid in a new way. Hopefully, my work will serve as a beacon of hope for all oppressed peoples and will be an inspiration in the perennial battle against Islamic misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism.
Q Speaking of the book’s release date; how can readers purchase this book and what venues can they hear you speak at?
A Anyone can purchase my book online at Amazon or any other online book retailers. For those who will be in New York City on October 1st, I will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s upper east side and I will be speaking at the Barnes & Noble at Columbia University on October 9th at 6 pm, I hope to be posting my entire speaking schedule on my web site which is: www.phyllis-chesler.com and please visit me on my Facebook page where I supply regular updates.