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Posted in: Feminism, Afghanistan

Published on Nov 05, 2015 by Tanya Foster

Published by CBS21

Captive in Kabul: A woman's battle for freedom and her teachings

NEW YORK CITY -- Imagine being held captive in a foreign country, with no hope of escape. For one woman, that was her reality.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler shared her ordeal with CBS 21 anchor Tanya Foster, which was a dramatic tale of captivity and eventual escape.

It was her experience that fueled her life's mission, to help women everywhere.

Chesler says her work, as an author, feminist, activist and psychologist, is her passion.

Living in New York City, she spends her time writing her own stories.

The stories are from long ago that began a world away from the United States. Her story of tragedy is also one of survival.

"I was only in captivity five months, but every day felt like a year," Chesler said.

She was being held captive in Afghanistan. She was not abducted, but said she followed her own heart and went on her free will.

That was in 1961, when she fell in love with her prince, say says.

She was an 18-year-old Jewish girl from the East Coast, and he was a young Muslim man from a wealthy Afghan family. They were friends, both had big dreams of traveling and changing the world.

Once married, the plan was to go to Afghanistan to meet her husband's family, then travel to Paris and back to New York to finish school.

It was after boarding the airplane to Kabul where her story took a drastic turn.

"When we landed an official removed my American passport," she said. "I said, 'That's my passport!' And the official said, 'Oh Madame, it's nothing. It's a formality. We'll send it to your home.' He lied."

Suddenly, she was an Afghan wife with no rights.

"The man I knew was gone and this stranger was there replacing him," Chesler said.

She found herself as a virtual prisoner in her mother-in-law's home.

"He never mentioned that his father had three wives and 21 children and that I'd have to live with my mother-in-law," Chesler said.

In the month that followed, it was quickly revealed the true meaning of her fate as an Afghan bride. She was never alone and never allowed to leave the family compound.

She said she was always hungry and terrified of the treatment she received, and of the women around her.

"I was horrified, but I was horrified by almost everything," Chesler said. "The female servants who are beaten, who are cursed, who sleep on the floors, who work 24-7, their biggest fear is being fired."

Chesler said he begged her husband for help.

"My husband, who was my best friend in college, didn't notice how grieved I was, how troubled I was, how frightened I was," Chesler said.

She came to realize she was being held captive.

"When he clearly was not going to let me go, I had no way out. So I began conjuring up possible escape routes," Chesler said.

When she managed to leave the compound alone, her escape gave her the first shot at freedom.

"I ran to the American Embassy and they said, 'Where's your American passport,' and I said, 'Well, you know they've taken it from me,' and they said 'Well, we can't help you then,'" Chesler said. "It was terrifying. It meant that I didn't know how to get out."

After several more failed attempts, Mother Nature stepped in, Chesler said. She was infected with dysentery and hepatitis.

"My mother-in-law no longer allowed the servants to boil my water and wash my fruit, which is deadly," Chesler said. "I feared I would die there."

A rescue then came from an unlikely source, it was her father-in-law. He secured a six month visa and a one-way ticket to America.

"If he didn't come to my aid, I would have died. Maybe he didn't want a dead American kid on his hands. It wouldn't look good for the family," Chesler said.

She was only 95 pounds, jaundice and with $10 in her pocket. She landed in New York City and said she literally kissed the ground.

"Freedom singing in my heart, alive! Alive! Out," Chesler said.

Fifty years later, she still lives out the impact of those months in captivity.

"I could never forget the plight of the women," Chesler said.

But the road to never having to go back to Afghanistan and to get a divorce became a long one.

After her six month visa expired, the United States told her she had to go back because she didn't have a passport.

She fought for years to not only stay in the United States, but to also get the divorce.

She fought with the United States government, despite having a birth certificate and other documents, proving she was a U.S. citizen.

Eventually a judge granted the divorce and she remained a United States citizen.

She now lectures around the globe about her experience and what she learned from that time.

Her time Afghanistan helped shaped her into the feminist she says she is today. She has written more than a dozen books and thousands of articles about the gender apartheid she says she witnessed, an atrocity she sees even today.

"The fate of these young girls is not a pretty one and that fate is being repeated now by ISIS, Al Qaida, Hamas, all over the Muslim world," Chesler said.

As for her message to the young women today, she says no matter the love, consider where you may have to move to.

"I would say if you really love him and you're determined to marry him, make sure you stay here in the West," Chesler said.

Despite her months in captivity, she says she doesn't regret her decision to go overseas.

"Because it became a writer's treasure, it became a feminist's dream, a feminist university of an education," Chesler said. "I think there's an urgent need now for people to hear what I'm saying and I think there's more opening now to do so."

Chesler said she was lucky to have survived and is taking advantage of the fact by making it her life's work to uncover gender apartheid.

Chesler will be speaking about her time in captivity and the book she's written about it, "An American Bride in Kabul," Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg at 2345 N. Front St.

The event is free and open to the public.

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