As a young Orthodox Jewish woman in pre-Betty Friedan America, Phyllis Chesler ran away from home, family and Judaism to marry an exotic, Western-educated Afghan man she’d met in college, moving with him to Afghanistan. When the man she thought she knew turned into a violent abuser committed to his polygamous Muslim roots, she found the wherewithal to escape, return to New York, finish university and reestablish her independence and her career. Over the past 50 years, she has become a feminist scholar of religion and gender, has written a dozen books on women’s issues, and is now often cited as an expert on the status of women in Muslim societies.
In her memoir An American Bride in Kabul (Palgrave Macmillan, $27), Chesler sheds light on the inner life of a woman unknowingly entering an abusive marriage. She was isolated and trapped, forbidden from leaving the house except on rare occasion with a male chaperone, she was forced to wear Afghani clothing that was not hers and was far more covered than she was comfortable with, (and was severely punished when she was caught sunbathing outside her bedroom in a bikini), she was forced to eat food that she hated and was possibly spoiled, and her husband occasionally hit her. The seeming ease with which she fell into this frightening scenario is a striking reminder of how violence against women crosses all ethnic, religious and socioeconomic boundaries. There is often a charming, charismatic side to the abuser.
Yet this is in some ways a very culture-specific story. Chesler was trapped by a man who was being led by his societal surroundings. She writes that, in retrospect, she believes it was not her then-husband who abused her but rather the culture that had socialized him into this role. “At a young age I understood how little in life is personal. We may experience everything as if it is, but this is not necessarily true.” Chesler reflects towards the end of the book, “My husband’s [sic] betrayal was not personal. It was cultural. He merely treated me as an Afghan wife, not as an American college student with serious intellectual and artistic aspirations.” The book is in many respects a story about Afghan society. Chesler captures the tensions between radical Islam and encroaching modernity, tracing the ebb and flow of these forces over the past five decades. Despite everything she experienced, and everything she knows about Afghani misogyny, she says she still enjoys Afghani food, wears Afghani robes when she works, and quips that perhaps she was Afghani in a past life.
For me, the strangest part of Chesler’s entire story was her description of her relationship with her ex-husband. Despite having fled from him — for her life — she reconnected with him some 20 years later when he moved to the United States with his second wife and children. She built a close relationship with them, considers them family, and refers to the new wife as her “sister.” “After all, we shared the same husband,” she says enigmatically. I understand the value of reconciliation — perhaps even in abusive relationships — but her embrace of this family and the retention of an almost romantic admiration of the family seems to negate some basic feminist goals of female empowerment in the face of abuse, especially since her descriptions indicates her ex-husband to be even more misogynistic and anti-Western than he was when they were married. I found it difficult to understand her ambivalence about him — on the one hand condemning him and on the other hand trying to view him as sort-of Western, someone with whom she will always have a positive connection.
The book is divided into two parts, with the first section her personal account of abuse and escape, followed by a more historical and political analysis of gender as Islam has radicalized. Chesler’s analysis of Osama Bin Laden’s abuse of women provides some interesting insights into the relationship between misogyny and radicalism. Americans usually focus on his hatred for the West, but Bin Laden also hated women, and treated his many wives with frightening abuse, keeping them caged in isolation and poverty while he enjoyed his own status, wealth and power. Her recollections of Muslim feminists, some of whom have been killed for their work, offer a wrenching perspective on the real, life-threatening dangers in promoting gender equality in the Muslim world. Because the connection between the two parts is awkward, and the writing a little disjointed, I wondered whether she was using her own story to make a political point or whether she became who she is because of this past. Either way, this memoir is a reminder of how political our personal lives really are.
Elana Sztokman is the author of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools and The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.