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Posted in: American Bride

Published on Sep 27, 2013 by Lauren Dolman

Published by The Jewish Chronicle

Book of the Week

An American Bride in Kabul

In 1961, before Phyllis Chesler was one of the leading voices of the American "second wave" of feminism, she was a 21-year-old Jewish girl, newly married to a handsome and exotic Afghan man, and on a ship to meet his family in Kabul for what she thought would be an extended visit.

In her new memoir, a departure from her previous political texts, she records this experience for the first time in a raw and confidential fashion.

Chesler met her husband-to-be at an American University, where he had been sent by his wealthy family to get a Western education. Even at a young age, Chesler was a thoroughly modern woman, uninterested in traditional religious values and believing her potential for adventure limitless. And so, in the same whirlwind in which the reader finds themself as the book opens, Chesler becomes suddenly trapped in a Kabul harem with only her mother(s)-in-law for company.

Once he was back amongst his family and people, Chesler writes how her husband changed, became inconsiderate and detached, and trapped her in a purdah (female seclusion from public life) as he strove to become an important man in a society which would not accept a role for an independent woman.

Chesler litters her account with provocative terms - purdah, harem, gender apartheid - terms we are used to in the context of terrorism and veiled women, not the reminiscences of an educated Jew from Brooklyn. Indeed, much of her story does live up to the trauma the words induce: she was treated cruelly by a man she thought she knew, and makes reference to his attacks on her. Her mother-in-law, we learn, refused to let her have any food she could stomach, forced her conversion to Islam and tried to remove her IV line when she was deathly ill with hepatitis.

However, the story is built up to something of an anticlimax, and far from a heroic escape, she manages to leave Afghanistan alone, after only a matter on months and with the approval of her new family.

But like all good feminists, for Chesler, the personal is political. "My fiery American feminism was really forged in Afghanistan", she writes, and as in life, she uses her personal experiences in the book as a springboard for a discussion of the universal rights of women, and the 21st century's hottest topic: terrorism.

Chesler is a fierce activist against honour-related violence and gender-apartheid, which "cannot be justified in the name of cultural relativism, tolerance, anti-racism, diversity, religious custom or political correctness".

The majority of the second half of the book is taken up by these topics, and her views are all the more persuasive for having understood how she came to hold them. She also includes an interesting chapter on the history of the Jews in Afghanistan, but tacked on to the end of the memoir feels more like a footnote, worthy of a book of its own.

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