HRS International

A Lesson Learned in Kabul

We hope that the American author and women’s rights activist Dr. Phyllis Chesler will be a regular contributor to this site. Here she introduces herself to our readers with a look back at her unforgettable experience as a young wife in Afghanistan – and reflections on what she learned from it.

Phyllis Chesler, an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York, is a co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology and of the National Women’s Health Network, and has written 13 books, including the pathbreaking Women and Madness and Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.

By Phyllis Chesler

Once, long ago, I was held captive in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Yes, I went there of my own free will, but I was only 20 years old and in love with my college sweetheart – a sophisticated, modern man with whom I discussed Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Sartre, Ibsen, de Sica, Truffaut, Fellini, and Simone Signoret. We were both theatre and movie buffs, and although my future husband had been born in Afghanistan, he had attended high school and college in America. When we landed in Kabul, my American passport was confiscated and I discovered, for the first time, that my father-in-law had three wives and twenty-one children. I had flown right into the Middle Ages. I soon learned that I was expected in live in purdah—a rather posh version of an all-female life at home, with trips to female relatives and to the tailor.

If one survives such a grand and dangerous adventure, one learns some important lessons.

Thus, even before I became a feminist in 1967, I had already learned that the (imperfect) West is still a far better place for a woman to live than is the most hospitable, beautiful, wealth-encrusted Muslim country. Friends thought I had married a Prince and gone to live in a fairytale. They did not want too much reality to intrude upon their fantasies.

Thus, at too young an age, I already understood that barbarism and hatred of the Other is indigenous to Islam; it is not caused by Western “evil.” Intra-tribal and religious-sect feuding is a permanent way of life in the wild, wild East.

I could never get anyone in the American civil rights, anti-war, feminist, or post-colonialist movements to understand this. They needed to blame the Big Bad West for the world’s problems. They also needed to identify the developing world as intrinsically innocent, pure, victimized.

I escaped from Kabul long before the arrival of the lotus-eating hippies, the Soviets, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the American Marines. At the time, I tried to tell my American college friends about some of the awful sights I had seen: women in ghost-like sheets (burqas) who were forced to sit at the back of the bus; servants who slept on dirt floors and were treated as slaves; the considerable downside to polygamy; the normalization of cruelty towards women and children (sons too) which, when challenged, was met with utter indifference or fury, not because of the cruelty but because it was shameful to discuss or expose it.

Nearly a decade before the gay rights movement, I also tried to tell people that I’d seen men with rifles slung over their shoulders wearing lipstick and holding hands on the streets of Kabul. One such man wore a flower behind his ear. Another gazed lovingly at his partner. When I mentioned this to my Afghan family, everyone told me that Afghan men are not homosexuals, that such practices are forbidden by Islam. I was expected not to believe my own eyes.

Now, it is almost 2010, and many Muslims (and their Western sympathizers) still continue to deny that Islam or Muslims are in any way responsible for the crimes against humanity which they commit—most often against other Muslims. They claim that Israel made them do it. Naked western women, especially those in battle uniform (in Kuwait) with naked faces made them do it. A Jewish and Western presence in Muslim holy lands, beamed in via satellite TV or through the internet, forced Bin Laden to defend the umma’s honor against perverted Western values.

My people: Western feminists, leftists, gay liberationists, progressives, absolutely refuse to stand up to Islam’s subordination and bestial persecution of women, dissidents, and homosexuals. The same activists who easily condemn Christianity and Judaism as “misogynists” are hushed about Islamic misogyny in practice.

Western capitalism, colonialism, and the Judeo-Christian heritage has never forced Muslim girls and women to wear burqas, marry against their will when they were ten years old, join polygamous households, or marry men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. Western laws have never decreed that thieves must have their hands chopped off or that prostitutes and alleged adulterers must be stoned to death. Although some Sikhs and Hindus do honor-murder their women, this is primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime. Islamic gender apartheid is caused and maintained by a treacherous intertwining of Muslim religious, tribal, and local laws and customs.

In retrospect, I have often wondered whether my western feminism was forged in Afghanistan and whether my passionate advocacy for the universal human rights of Muslim women and dissidents is an attempt to redress the tragic abuses I once saw, abuses which have only gotten worse over time.

Now I and a handful of others are trying to tell the truth about Islamic gender apartheid. Those of us who are raising the alarm are being demonized as “Islamophobes,” “racists,” and “fascists.” Yet, in my opinion, western civilization, beginning with Europe, will be won or lost on the issue of women’s rights.