I have been an admirer of Phyllis Chesler for a long time. An icon of Second Wave Feminism, I first noticed Chesler when she wrote a book called Women and Madness, which presented credible evidence for a grossly unjust double standard when it comes to assessments of women’s mental health in comparison to that of men. Basically, Chesler convincingly shows that when women don’t behave as men expect — as our assigned gender roles dictate — men decide that we’re crazy and lock us up in mental hospitals. Certainly, things have improved since Chesler wrote the original book 30 years ago, but this sort of oppression is still a problem and it was completely unrecognized before Chesler’s pioneering work.
But that’s another story. In this book, Chesler reveals something surprising about herself. She, foolishly it turned out, married an Afghan national when she was a young college woman, and went with him to his native Afghanistan. Once there, her husband turned into another person altogether, expecting Chesler to convert to Islam and become a compliant, burka-wearing wife. While she developed a deep regard for the landscape and its historical importance, she also developed a deep mistrust of her husband and his family. She was essentially a prisoner in “purdah,” a term that refers to the drastic separation of women from the world. She lived cut off from everyone except the other women in her family, including the three wives of her polygamous father-in-law, who ruled the roost with an iron hand. She nearly starved, then contracted hepatitis, was forcibly impregnated by her husband and denied medical care. It’s amazing she survived. Chesler’s descriptions of that time and place in her life are at once oddly lyrical and chilling.
She seems to have a highly ambivalent attitude toward Afghanistan, and thus with Islam and its culture. She remains in touch with her husband, from whom she escaped with the aid of — get this — the father-in-law, who apparently just wanted to rid himself of the American embarrassment his son had dragged home. The son/husband, however, was adamant that she return to him, as he believed his social status would be diminished if it was known he “couldn’t control” his wife. The whole tale is just appalling and brings to mind several similar works, most prominently for me the film, “Not Without My Daughter,” about an American woman named Betty Mahmoody who was held captive by her husband in Iran.
Chesler’s story would be quite enough to make a good read, but there is more to this book than just a story. In fact, she seems to be telling us her tale in order to demonstrate her qualifications for making a judgment that is the book’s main message. That is — radical Islam is not benign and people who are suspicious of claims made by Islamists are not “Islamophobic,” merely realistic. Chesler’s book is a warning to naive Americans that the culture gap between the US and Islamic nations is real, and we will fall into it if we make assumptions that good will is all that’s required to resolve our differences.
Chesler has read a great deal about Afghanistan and lists many good sources, both old and new, in the book’s bibliography. Her book is well researched and her story put in the context of history and current events. Remember Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheik” who master minded the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993? Chesler cites him as an example of an Islamist who was not taken seriously enough on several occasions, and whose freedom is still sought after by many in the Muslim world who would take US hostages in an attempt to exchange them for the sheik, who is serving a life sentence in a US prison. In other words, there is a lot more than meets the eye when we are dealing with a culture that most of us don’t understand and often fail to fully respect.
And that word ‘respect’ figures prominently in Chesler’s book. She has managed to come to terms with her past and her Afghan relatives. She reiterates that she honors their spirit and their role in history while at the same time honoring her own culture as the child of Orthodox Jewish (yes!) parents, who must have been thrilled when their daughter quit an elite college to marry a Muslim and go off with him to Afghanistan. In fact, her parents helped her repatriate, which was no small accomplishment in the 1960s, when wives were considered foreigners and, basically, the property of their husbands, even by the American embassy in Kabul.
I could go on, but I believe by this point I have made it clear that Chesler is not an Islamophobe or a hate monger. She is a fine writer who is telling her story as a cautionary tale and, I suspect, to accomplish some sort of personal goal for herself, a coming-to-terms evaluation that she needs to do now that she is in her 70s with more years behind her than ahead.
I hope that I have done Chesler and her book justice in this review. It’s the kind of book that I know will stay with me for awhile, and that I will come to understand better after its content kicks around in my head for a bit. The bottom line is this: If someone with Chesler’s progressive credentials is sending a warning, we should take heed. This is a ‘must read’ book for everyone.
[This book is due for release in October 2013. Click to pre-order it on Amazon.]