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Posted in: American Bride

Published on Oct 01, 2013 by Phyllis Chesler

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An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir

The dramatic, riveting, and timely tale of how one woman's harrowing ordeal in a harem in Afghanistan shaped her into a modern feminist leader and life-long defender of human rights.

Eighteen years old and in love, Phyllis Chesler, a Jewish-American girl from Brooklyn, embarked on a passionate love affair with a glamorous foreign student, which led Chesler to her destiny and nearly to her death in Kabul —and to a journey which has lasted for more than half a century. Upon arrival, Afghan authorities seized her American passport, and Chesler found herself trapped as the property of her husband's polygamous family, without an ally and without any rights. Despite her seclusion, her mother-in-law's campaign to convert her from Judaism to Islam, and her husband's wish to permanently tie her to the country through childbirth, she escaped. Yet these lovers, a Muslim and a Jew, have remained connected ever since.

Chesler draws upon personal diaries, correspondence, memories, and research in this vivid and eye-opening account of what she learned about central Asia and the nature of gender apartheid. Though she nearly died in Afghanistan, Phyllis nostalgically recreates this beautiful, ancient, and exotic culture and country, including its Buddhist and Jewish history. An American Bride in Kabul is the story of how a naïve American girl learned to see the world through eastern as well as western eyes. She re-creates a time gone by, a place that is no more, and shares the way in which Chesler turned adversity into a passion for freedom and women's rights.

This is a psychological adventure story and constitutes another kind of travel literature. What Chesler learned about Afghan and Islamic culture will help us understand many of the global challenges of the 21st century—including fundamentalist misogyny, religious intolerance, terrorism, the fate of progressives, and cultural misunderstandings.

Editorial Reviews

In 1961 renowned feminist, professor, and psychotherapist Chesler was as a young, intellectually curious Jewish woman intent on rebellion and freedom. She envisioned her marriage to a man she met in college, a Westernized Muslim from a wealthy Afghani family, as a romantic adventure filled with travel and intellectual pursuits; however, their visit to Afghanistan quickly turned into a living nightmare as Chesler became confined to the harem at his luxurious family compound. "My unexpected house arrest was not as shocking as was my husband's refusal to acknowledge it as such," Chesler writes. The author divides her engrossing memoir into two sections: her time as a young bride living with of one the wealthiest families in Afghanistan and struggling to return to the United States, and her husband's attempts to force her return to Afghanistan. Chesler candidly relates her continuing friendship with her former husband and his family over the last 50 years, detailing how life in Afghanistan forged her feminist perspective and how 9/11 altered the original focus of the memoir. Chesler adroitly blends her personal narrative with a riveting account of Afghanistan's troubled history, the ongoing Islamic/Islamist terrorism against Muslim civilians and the West, and the continuing struggle and courage of Afghan feminists. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel and Goderich. (Oct.) — Publishers Weekly

A renowned psychotherapist's richly compelling memoir about how her experiences as an Afghan man's wife shaped her as both a feminist and human rights activist. At 18, Chesler (Psychology and Women's Studies, Emeritus/City Univ. of New York; The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom, 2005, etc.) fell in love with the scion of a wealthy family from Afghanistan. She was Jewish, and her "prince," Abdul-Kareem, was Muslim. Their affair was as unexpected as it was unlikely and led to an even more improbable marriage. Dreaming that she and Abdul-Kareem would travel the world "like gypsies or abdicating aristocrats who have permanently taken to the road," they went to Abdul-Kareem's home in Kabul. A starry-eyed Chesler soon found herself stripped of her passport and a prisoner of her husband's family. Using diaries, letters, interviews, and research and other writings about Afghanistan and the Islamic world, the author offers an illuminating depiction not only of her time as a harem wife, but also of the "gender apartheid" under which Afghan women must live. Chesler could go nowhere and do nothing, including see a doctor, without her husband or other male relative's permission. She also found herself at the mercy of a maniacal mother-in-law who forced her to convert to Islam and a husband-turned-tyrant bent on keeping his wife in Afghanistan by any means necessary, including pregnancy. A life-threatening illness eventually moved her father-in-law to get her an exit visa to the United States. Chesler managed to get a divorce only after great difficulty. Yet her contentious relationship with the man whom she once saw as her spiritual "twin" endured. Intelligent, powerful and timely. — Kirkus Review

Chesler's personal story is fascinating and her insights on women's lives in Afghanistan [are] certainly worth reading.. — Booklist

"…this is a harrowing personal history that reads like a novel…Her fluid, evocative style and use of the present tense make you feel like you are the young bride herself, taking in the city's sights, sounds, and smells. This is a study of women's rights and the psychology of Afghan culture." -- The Lady (UK)

"No human culture compromises the rights of women more than Islam. Today over 700 million women are directly or indirectly affected by the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Phyllis Chesler is by far the bravest and most outspoken American feminist to address the plight of Muslim women. In this book she shares with the reader her first encounter with Islam in Afghanistan. It is a moving account of the harrowing experience of one woman who almost meets her death in a culture that could not be more alien to her American upbringing. Yet every page is laden with compassion and love for the ex-husband and his family she unwittingly joined. I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school." — Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad

"Boom. Suddenly Phyllis Chesler is a prisoner in Afghanistan. Without a passport. As a wife without rights of any kind. Her bridegroom, once her equal when they met in New York, now in his own land, is a stranger…she is in an utterly male society where women and children are a man's property—"his to protect or abuse. They are his to kill. It is the way things are." This is disconcerting to say the least…She escapes. This is how it all started. This is a bold book; intimate and rich in detail; as revealing a story about class, gender and religious differences as one will find. Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She had the right training. She will never stop." — Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and Going to Iran

"This is a wondrous, invaluable memoir and meditation on women, culture, history, and the meaning of freedom. Phyllis Chesler tells a moving story in a direct, unaffected style and is able to draw conclusions of a wider import: reflections on the complex interplay of culture, more complex than the cliché of "a clash of cultures." Chesler is remarkably generous to her husband. In trying to understand him, she is able to tease out valuable historical and cultural lessons. After fifty years of reflection, Chesler is able to distil mature and wise judgments from her dramatic experience, on the persecution and suffering of Muslim women. Chesler's own feminism really began with these experiences in Afghanistan. One of the other merits of the book is her introduction to the reader of a whole host of writers, travelers, and diplomats who have written perceptively about Islamic countries in general but on Afghanistan in particular, especially the treatment of women and slaves." — Ibn Warraq, author of Why I am Not Muslim and Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism

"With a deft pen and a half-century of experience, Chesler revisits her brief, unpleasant, but life-changing and ultimately precious time in an Afghan harem. Although hardly the only feisty Western woman to despair at finding, on their visiting his home country, her debonair Muslim husband turned into an unrecognizably primitive tyrant, she drew unique benefits from the experience. These included finding her career focus (feminism), her field of study (psychology), her world outlook (principled liberalism) –and this marvelous book."Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum, author of In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power.

"In her fascinating new memoir, Phyllis Chesler offers a vivid account of landing in Afghanistan in 1961 as a young bride – and finding herself a victim and virtual prisoner of that country's cruel anti-women customs and habits. Ms. Chesler was only 20, the product of a sheltered Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn, when she married a fellow student, a Muslim who came from a prominent Kabul family. Her companion was seductive, exotic, alluring, and seemed to promise her the world. But Ms. Chesler, who would go on to become a famous feminist leader and the author of the classic Women and Madness, attributes some of her later accomplishments, including her passionate stance on behalf of women, to insights she gained in that period. She finds herself trapped in a household replete with madness, including a mother-in-law who is sadistic and punitive and a husband who emerges as mean and uncaring. Despite her in-laws' wealth, she is often hungry, denied the foods that she can eat, and she can't even go out on her own to see a country she had longed to explore. Stripped of her U.S. passport when she landed, she finds her movements severely restricted. Many of the book's insights about 1961 Kabul seem oddly relevant to Kabul in 2013 – a culture that, if possible, has become even more heinous to women with the advent of the Taliban. This is an eye-opening work." — Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years

"With An American Bride in Kabul, Phyllis Chesler, brilliantly brings to life the plight of so many Muslim women helplessly trapped in the prison which is Islamist misogyny. Through the eyes of her innocent and insightful Brooklyn girl, Chesler provides humanity a service—a window into the internal workings of the male-dominated Islamist familial conspiracy against women. Her story is believable because it is sadly repeated millions of times around the globe. A must read, An American Bride will leave readers finally able to feel the powerlessness which overwhelms Muslim women who are victims of honor abuse and violence. Readers will leave understanding like so many Muslim reformers already do that Islamist misogyny is a Muslim problem that needs Muslim solutions." — M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD, President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy, author of The Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith.

"I love this book and could not put it down. It is the romantic and riveting story of a young woman from the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, who rebelled against a sheltered life in which women were religiously dominated by men and who then traveled to Afghanistan where she saw women who were far more oppressed and who lived under conditions of polygamy, purdah, poverty, and the burqa. This journey sowed the seeds of a very American feminism. We learn about other westerners, especially women, who travelled this route and we learn about the ancient history of the Afghan Jewish community. This book has the power to inspire a new kind of interfaith dialogue. Book club members will discuss this work for a good long time." --Rivka Haut, Author and Orthodox agunah activist, Co-Editor of Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, Co-Editor of Women of the Wall, and Co-Editor of Shaarei Simcha Gates of Joy

"I loved every second of reading Chesler's amazing book. Kudos to her for standing in her truth. An American Bride in Kabul is a very courageous piece of work and I am in awe of Phyllis Chesler's determination to tell the truth of her experience, a truth which confirms the stories of so many Muslim women. I couldn't stop reading this book and felt Phyllis's powerful words grabbing my heart and opening up the deep emotions. A must read!" — Soraya Miré, Author of The Girl With Three Legs

"Phyllis Chesler's 'An American Bride in Kabu'" is the most compelling autobiography I have read in a long time. It not only vividly tells us about women's lives in Afghanistan from the perspective of an American woman, but more importantly how and why American women fall into the trap of an Islamic marriage." — Nonie Darwish, Author of The Devil We Don't Know: The Dark Side of Revolutions in the Middle East

"Phyllis Chesler's brilliant and courageous memoir will resound in your heart and mind long after you turn the final page. Dr. Chesler, an American Jewish woman, escaped from starvation and isolation in Afghanistan--and came close to death in the process. Perhaps most inspiring is Dr. Chesler's voyage in using those unimaginable experiences as a springboard to become a leader of women's rights around the globe. Her decades of academic and professional work advocating for women who cannot cry out for themselves is a tremendous legacy: the seeds of this deep calling were sown in Afghanistan and are now recounted here in this moving and marvelous book." — Sara Aharon, author of From Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States

Chesler pens a cautionary tale of the perils of far-flung passion and the hazards of romantic exoticism. In precise, pungent and, at times, granular detail, she summons a world festooned by fanatsy and myth. In "An American Bride in Kabul," she gives full-throated voice to the beguilements of the East, etching a portrait-in-the-round, at once grand and engrossing. — Michael Skakun, author of On Burning Ground. A Son's Memoir

Phyllis Chesler's newest book is rich and operatic, taking us into a world few of us have known about, telling us in descriptive, historical, political, religious, and deeply personal detail things that can transform our ways of thinking and feeling about everything from interpersonal dynamics to global politics. And this book illuminates one major reason she has for decades been the insightful, ardent, tireless feminist educator and activist she became. — Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., Harvard University psychologist and author of, among others, The Myth of Women's Masochism and Don't Blame Mother

Prisoner of Love

An American girl grows up quickly in Afghanistan.

Bruce Bawer

September 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01

Phyllis Chesler has had a curious career. Back in the 1970s, along with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and company, she was a leading "second-wave" feminist, whose 1972 book Women and Madness sold 2.5 million copies. Yet, in some respects, she always differed from her activist sisters. For one thing, she didn't idealize non-Western cultures, or seem deluded into thinking that she and her fellow middle- and upper-class American women were the most oppressed creatures on earth. For another, she didn't hate men. On the contrary, far from buying into the notion that women are morally superior to men and that they get along with one another in deep, rich, and wonderful ways that men cannot, she wrote a whole book, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (2009), about the manifold ways in which women hurt, exclude, judge, and abuse one another.

There was always some distance, then, between Chesler and the feminist establishment, and, over the decades, it has only widened. While the women's movement of the 1970s at least boasted some tough, smart leaders who stood up for their less privileged sisters around the world, today's feminism is first and foremost an academic phenomenon—rife with caution, careerism, and conformity, drenched in political correctness, steeped in rhetoric about capitalism and American hegemony, and at least as focused on race and class as on gender.

The professors who dominate it still rant on about the patriarchy, but they're careful to target only white Western men, having learned from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a "theorist" of "postcolonialism" based at Columbia, that it's racist, neo-imperialist, and (yes) postcolonialist for white Western women to try to "save the brown woman from the brown man." Hence they tiptoe around, relativize, or even overtly defend the planet's most patriarchal societies while savaging white American men.

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Readers' Prize Picks: October 2013

Phyllis Chesler's memoir takes us on a hypnotic journey through Afghanistan's bloody past, present, and tentative future. Using her journal, written while she was a young bride in Kabul, and later conversations with her ex-husband, Chesler weaves the tale of a naïve Jewish-American college student who falls in love with an Afghan Muslim only to flee from him when she becomes a prisoner in their new home. The reader is swept away by Chesler's passion and urgency. Her memoir is a call to action for women's rights everywhere. — Ashley Cambers, Perrysburg, OH

There is something naïve and intriguing about an American woman who marries a Middle Eastern man and returns home with him, only to discover she's not living in a palace decorated with jewels or being served exotic meals. In some respects this book reads like an academic piece, the author's experiences cross-referenced with historical and political events and other authors' works. The title of the book does not do it justice; it is a work of art that spans more than five decades and shares the intimate story of an enduring friendship. —Kathryn Kandas, Princeton, WV

Through Phyllis Chesler's vivid, chilling imagery, her readers are transported across the world and into 1960s Afghanistan. Chesler's memoir of her life as a bride held captive in a foreign land is in many ways a nightmare, yet her perseverance and detailed descriptions of her exotic prison place the audience right with her, from the spice market to her groom's household. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the life-long impact left by her travels—including her undying efforts to achieve women's rights. — Maggie Malach, New York City

Even if you think you know how bad the situation is for Afghan woman, this book is a real eye-opener, chock full of details that are almost unbelievable. — Gena Hymowech, Brooklyn, NY

Chesler's writing is vibrant and brings the diversity of the Afghanistan landscape and people to life on the page. This book is a testament to things we will do for love, and an example of the human will to survive in situations that seem to have no way out. — Rachel Stottlemyer, Waynesboro, PA

This story begged to be told. Like a train wreck seen through a crystal ball, the reader foresees the tears and trauma of such an epic betrayal. Thoroughly gripping. — Jessica Shaver, Sandy, Oregon

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York, best-selling author, legendary feminist leader, and psychotherapist. She is co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, the National Women's Health Network, and the International Committee for Women of the Wall. Dr. Chesler has lectured and organized women's rights and human rights campaigns all over the world and has also appeared on outlets such as CNN, Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, The Today Show, Oprah, and multiple NPR programs, including a three year tenure as a regular contributor to NPR's At the Opera. Her writings have been featured in The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Times of London, The Weekly Standard, National Review, Israel National News, The New York Times, Salon, The Globe and Mail, The London Guardian, and the Jewish and Israeli media. Her archives are at Duke University. She lives in New York City.

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