THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Phyllis Chesler
“Always Speak Truth To Power. Always Have Courage.”
An American Bride In Kabul
Why did you wait until now to write about this part of your life in a full-length book?
This was about my captivity long ago in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1961, and how eerie it is that now we’re in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is in America and in the west because you see women in Burqas, women with their faces masked. You have issues of the subordination of women in the Muslim world. You have issues of honor killing and gender apartheid. So I experienced all that long ago. I escaped, I put it behind me, but I had a great adventure. This one doesn’t have such adventures cheaply; you risk death to be this kind of traveler.
But then what’s more important is the lessons learned. And I learned some very important lessons that I would like so much for the entire west to understand and on behalf of the Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissonance with whom I work.
Then there’s one other reason. Why now? Why now? 911 happened and bin Laden hatched this plot against America in the caves of Afghanistan, in the very place where I was once held captive. And now that brand of Jihadic terrorism is holding the entire civilian world hostage. And I felt I had to speak it out.
Do you think Western society understands the dangers faced by women in Afghanistan?
No, I think that feminists of goodwill in the west are more concerned with alleged racism than they are concerned with real sexism. And I think that to the extent to which we have not achieved equality in America or in the west as yet, we don’t seem to see the difference between fighting for an Equal Rights Amendment and fighting not to be killed by 23 members of your family or forced into a marriage to your first cousin, who’s going to beat you until he kills you and you cannot run away. And I think these differences are in the… They’re crucial. And the vision of sisterhood that we once had in the late ’60s envisioned one universal standard of human rights for all men and women. And even if we can’t rescue everyone or enlighten everyone, it is very important to remember what we stand for and what we believe in.
What has life been like for you as a scholar, a feminist, and a writer?
I have a very clear, keen sense of the danger that women face that is imminent, that is existential. Even though I’m lucky to live in Manhattan and lead a privileged, educated life, doing things that give meaning to my life. This is an enormous privilege and joy. I understand what it’s like to be trapped in a family or in a culture where you cannot see the light of day, where you cannot have sun on your face. You have to be veiled, where you cannot think independently, because if you do, you will be tortured and murdered.
And this is the case in totalitarian countries where censorship and the persecution of thinkers is very pandemic. And this includes the totalitarian Jihadic Islamist scenario that’s upon us today since I was there and understand that we’re up against tribalism.
And tribalism means that an honor and shame society will fight forever, will never quit. And they do not care how much blood is shed, that they’re in fact, after a blood revenge. And we’ve evolved away from tribalism and do not really comprehend it.
You also describe the history of the Jews in Afghanistan. How does this help readers to understand the book?
Well, most people think that Muslim countries have always been Muslim countries. That’s not true. Afghanistan was pagan, it was Buddhist for many many centuries. It was Zoroastrian, it was Hindu. It was also Jewish. That means before Islam conquered via the sword that place, and even after it did, there were still other religious minorities living there. And the story of the Jews of Islam is also one that’s not comprehended.
The truth is that Western academics and I am one, know a lot, or we think we know a lot about the evils of Western capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, were so bad. Without understanding that Islam has its own awful long history of imperialism, slavery, conversion by the sword, antiblack racism, sex slavery, and gender and religious apartheid.
So this fabulous country is also a landlocked region, and maybe that has both cursed it and blessed it because it won’t let outsiders in. And there’s no centralized government. It’s tribe against tribe, brother against brother, and no outsiders or outside infidel influences can prevail.
The other thing I want to say is that there are women in Muslim countries who historically for 100 years had relatively modern lives. They were educated, they had professions. They were not veiled. And this was in an era when feminists fought for such rights and won them and Kings and Shahs granted such rights.
And I’m thinking of Turkey, I’m thinking of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco. I’m thinking of Egypt. Egypt now the women are veiled again. So it’s very important to understand that in the past there was a more cosmopolitan possibility occurring. And that door is shut now for the time being.
And that makes me very sad and very obligated to work with and not to disempower the intellectuals and the dissidents who are in the Muslim world who are hoping that free Westerners will take up their cause and see their flight, as opposed to saying, “Well, we’re so guilty, we’re so ignorant, we’re such racist, we can’t do anything.” No boots on the ground.
And by the way, I’m not in favor of boots on the ground in Afghanistan, but I know that the day after we leave, every shelter for battered women, every school for girls, every hospital that admits women will be shut down with a vengeance. The agonizing question is, how much blood and treasure do we expend to hold back the baleful sky? Which is how I put it in the book.
And the heroism, by the way, of women not just in Afghanistan, but in every Muslim country, Saudi Arabia included. Definitely, Pakistan is extraordinary. They are so brave because when they dare to become police officers to feed their children, they get shot down by angry Taliban who don’t want women doing that. And then another woman takes the job. I don’t think that we in America or in Europe can comprehend that.
Let me try to answer the other part of the question which is when I was in Cabo, I didn’t meet a single Jew. And it was only many years later, although I was cursed as a yahood, as a Jew by my mother-in-law as she was struggling to convert me to Islam which is what married wives who are infidels are supposed to do if they’re good girls.
The Jews of Afghanistan, like the Hindus of Afghanistan, were there from the 9th century on have very ancient roots coming and going from many different countries, including Persia and India, and maybe Iraq.
But overnight, in late 1920s, the King impoverished them, took away all their commerce, import-export, banking businesses and gave it to Muslim men. For Muslims, only a modern banking system. And my then father-in-law was one of those men. And when I discovered this and researching this book, I really grew dizzy.
And I’m not saying that my father-in-law did this or that my Afghan husband did this. They’re innocent. The King Nadia Shah did this. He made alliances with Nazi leaders for 20 years in Afghanistan, sheltered Nazis after World War II. And this is typical of the Jews of Islam. The Jews who lived in Turkey, who lived in Egypt, who lived in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, they were all forced to flee. There’s a handful of Jews left in Iran being held hostage by the Khomeini thugs. But Jews can’t live. They’ve been exiled and mistreated as Christians are today in Muslim lands. So I stumbled in researching this book on the history of the Jews of that place and then felt doubly obligated to tell their story.