Phyllis Chesler's new memoir tells the harrowing tale of how her search for rebellion ended in Islamic captivity.
"This is the story of a young and naive Jewish American woman who meant to rebel against tradition—but who found herself trapped in the past, stuck in the Middle Ages, without a passport back," declared the redoubtable Dr. Phyllis Chesler to the mesmerized audience before her at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday evening, October 1. The occasion was the debut of Dr. Chesler's 15th book entitled, "An American Bride in Afghanistan" (Palgrave MacMillan).
As part of the vanguard of the second wave feminist movement, Dr. Chesler is an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at CUNY, psychotherapist and most notably an internationally renowned author and lecturer. Among her best selling books are "Women and Madness" (1972), "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" (2001), "The New Anti-Semitism" (2003) and "The Death of Feminism" (2005).
On this evening, however, Dr. Chesler not only celebrated her 73rd birthday, but she honored the often tortuous trajectory of a dark chapter in her life in her new and enthralling memoir. Over the years she had written intermittently about her horrific experiences as a winsome Jewish woman held in marital captivity in Afghanistan in 1961, but it was only recently that she made the decision to detail these harrowing memories in full-length book form.
In a voice reverberating with a profound passion, Dr. Chesler said in a private interview that the reason that her book was published now is because "[t]he material is 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? " Momentarily rueful, she added, "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."
Joining Dr. Chesler on stage before a capacity crowd at the Buttenwieser Hall at the storied Y was Mr. Ibn Warraq, celebrated writer and founder of the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society and a senior research fellow at the Westminster Institute, focusing on Koranic criticism. Amongst his scholarly exegeses are: "Why I am Not a Muslim," "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out" and most recently, "Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism."
Also standing beside Dr. Chesler was Ms. Raquel Evita Saraswati, a religious Muslim feminist human rights activist who has worked prodigiously with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).
Introducing Dr. Chesler and the other speakers was the organizer of the evening's event, Rabbi Paulette Posner, Acting Director of the Center of Jewish Diversity. The panel was deftly moderated by Rabbi David Kalb.
Commencing with a reading of an excerpt of "An American Bride in Kabul," Dr. Chesler held her book, and with a palpable intensity, read the words that she penned with the help of the indelible memories etched in her mind and her copious diary entries:
"I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan. I am eighteen and I have just met my prince. He is a dark, handsome, charming, sophisticated, and wealthy foreign student. We are in college in America. True, he is a Muslim and I am a Jew. I am very Jewish. But he is the Agha Khan, and I am Rita Hayworth. He is Yul Brynner, and I am Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I.
When we land in Kabul officials smoothly remove my American passport which I never see again. Suddenly, I am the citizen of no country, and have no rights. I have become the property of a polygamous Afghan family and am expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives, wear hijab, and live in purdah. That means that I cannot go out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones. I am also expected to convert to Islam. I am living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid is the norm and where my reactions to it are considered abnormal,
Why am I writing this book?
I believe that my American feminism began in Afghanistan. It is a feminism that many Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents, both religious and secular, welcome and support. We are all anti-Islamists: We oppose totalitarianism, terrorism, and gender and religious apartheid and support individual, human, gay, and women’s rights.
This is an accounting of sorts. A young Jewish American woman once came to this wondrous, Asiatic country and fled harem life. She finally uncovered the history of what happened to the Jews of Afghanistan, and she has told their story in order to redeem her soul."
At the conclusion of her reading a hush fell over the room. It was then that Dr. Chesler and her co-panelists began fielding a veritable potpourri of questions from audience members. She explained why she married in the first place:
"Ah—I was young and I fell in love. My Afghan bridegroom was a Westernized man I had known for nearly three years at college in America. He cooked for me, he was tender and attentive—he just never mentioned that his father had three wives and twenty-one children or that I would be expected to live under a polite form of posh house arrest--or that I would be expected to convert to Islam."
She added that, "I lived as a member of an Afghan family and as such learned about the Afghan people in a way that the great Western travelers could not. Afterward I was often able to see the West with Eastern eyes."
When queried as to whether Islam can ever be reformed, Ibn Warraq, an expert in Muslim ideology and the intricacies of the Koran, said that it could not due to the present day extreme influences that guide it.
Eloquently and with great erudition, Raquel Evita Saraswati addressed the paramount issues that swirl around various honor cultures and women’s rights therein. Considered the foremost scholar on the endemic scourge of both Islamic and Hindu honor killings of women, Dr. Chesler also spoke on the same theme, utilizing the plethora of facts she gathered for her articles in The Middle East Quarterly, an academic journal under the aegis of Dr. Daniel Pipes.
Because "An American Bride in Kabul" also provides an in-depth look into the history of Jews in Afghanistan and mentions the present day state of affairs in Israel, an audience member asked Dr. Chesler about the “violations of Palestinians” that purportedly take place there. Her response drew enthusiastic applause as she swiftly and passionately spoke truth to power to what she calls, "The Big Lies," better known as blatant propaganda aimed at Israel.
Receiving a standing ovation and a rousing round of applause at the evening's conclusion, Dr. Chesler graciously appeared in the hall's lobby where she autographed her book for the dozens of people lined up to purchase it.
"I really didn't know what to expect when I came here tonight," said audience member Audrey Levinson, 62, of Gramercy Park, as she waited on line to get her copy of the book autographed. "I certainly knew of Phyllis Chesler and had read 'Women and Madness' when I was in college, but I must say that my curiosity was piqued when I had read some pre-publication reviews of 'An American Bride in Afghanistan.'"
She added that, "Hearing Dr. Chesler's words here this evening really sent a lightning jolt throughout my entire being. To say that it was enlightening and exceptionally informative was an understatement. I know what I'll be reading in bed tonight."
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