An American Feminist Fighting Sharia: an Interview with Dr. Phyllis Chesler
by Jerry Gordon (January 2014)
In December 2003 we organized a summit with noted counter-Jihadists at a private university club in Manhattan. We were endeavoring to develop a concerted campaign in America to warn about the threat of Qur’anic doctrine and sharia to Constitutional guarantees of free expression, liberty and freedom. We had assembled notable figures from both academic and non-academic research sources to attend the conference. Among the attendees was Dr. Phyllis Chesler, noted radical feminist, author of bestselling books and peer–reviewed journal articles, ground breaking pioneer in the fields of women’s studies and co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology.
When we made our initial acquaintance with her, we also learned of what had propelled her doctoral studies in these fields. She had been virtually imprisoned in purdah, a women’s enclosure, in a polygamous household in Kabul, Afghanistan with her US passport taken away. All because she had married a man whom she thought was a young bohemian like herself at a private college in the US who came from a privileged Afghan family. Her marriage to her Afghan Muslim husband culminated a tempestuous relationship between a young scholarship student from an Orthodox Jewish background and the debonair attractive young Muslim man who shared her un-orthodox views. Her marriage to her Afghan Muslim came at a time in the early 1960’s when cross cultural encounters were both exotic and yet politically correct. That fantasy ended upon her arrival at Kabul Airport with the taking of her US passport and abrupt introduction to Medieval 10th Century purdah in her husband’s Afghan household. Her debonair husband abandoned her in the women’s enclosure controlled by her Afghan mother-in-law who sought to convert her from Judaism to Islam. She subjugated Chesler to totalitarian control of her person under Islamic sharia law in violation of universal human rights.
Chesler's subsequent illness, flight back to America, and annulment of her marriage to her Afghan husband led to her professional pursuit of an academic program in feminism and advocacy of changes in women civil rights and equality. Her 1972 landmark best seller, Women and Madness capped her research and women’s psychoanalytic practice, becoming an iconic work in 20th Century American feminism. She also went on to deepen her appreciation of Judaism and to fight for female equality in worship, Torah and Talmud study against the strictures of Orthodox Judaism. Her deepening involvement in her Jewish faith, including a second marriage (and divorce) with an Israeli and birth of her son Ariel, crystallized in another pioneering work in 2003, The New Antisemitism. That book drew groundbreaking attention to delegitimization and demonization of Israel and the Jewish people by leftists and Palestinian advocates. Her views expressed in The New Antisemitism, have grown in importance given contemporary compelling research on European and Islamic Antisemitism. Views that belatedly have been recognized by both American and World Jewish leadership. You can view Chester’s oeuvre of published works and scheduled appearances in 2014 at her website, here.
At the December 2003 private conference many of us in the emerging counter-jihad activist community heard her discuss Islam as a system of gender apartheid under sharia knowing that she had directly confronted it. We urged her to take the time out of her feminist endeavors and write about the experience. She subsequently did in a chapter her book, The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom and a Middle East Quarterly article in 2006, “How Afghan Captivity Shaped my Feminism.” That is a reflection of the long lasting support of Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum where she made been made a Fellow. That exposure drew her into conflict with many leaders in the US and world feminist movement who took multi-cultural relativism as an article of faith that conflicted with what Chesler contended was the imperative of universal civil liberties in the face of Islamic anti-Western triumphalism.
Chesler’s academic research also extends to honor killing, female genital mutilation and support for banning the burqa under doctrinal Islam. As a result she has been much sought after to provide expert testimony in court matters involving Muslim women in such matters. In a recent Fox News op ed, “Beneath Burqa-Bruised and Badly Beaten Teenager”, about a recent violent occurrence reported in The New Zealand Herald she drew attention to the precursors to violence committed against Muslim women. Using the extreme example of quadruple honor killings of a polygamous Muslim family committed by the convicted Afghan Canadian Shafia family, she drew attention to the moral equivalence of “omerta” in Muslim families. Chesler said “that sustained physical abuse and psychological cruelty often precedes or is correlated with a subsequent honor killing.” In the case of the savage beating of the Muslim teenager in New Zealand, hidden from public view by a burqa, Chesler commented that the police became aware that “members of the community in positions of power and trust knew that the abuse was serious but did not help the girl.” Given the increasing evidence of cases of FGM committed in the US by African and Muslim émigré families, legislators in more than 21 states have introduced legislation seeking tougher sentencing guidelines despite existing federal law that prohibits the horrendous procedure.
Praise for her work in these latest efforts for women and freedom from Islamic totalitarianism is reflected in her abiding friendship with noted former Muslims including our NER colleague, Ibn Warraq, author of critical works on Islam, including Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate's Defense of Liberal Democracy.
Chesler has maintained communications with her former Afghan Muslim husband despite their divorce. Five decades following her escape from Kabul she completed the long suggested a memoir of her confrontation with an Islamic household ruled by sharia, An American Bride in Kabul. Read our review of Chester’s latest book in the current edition of the New English Review.
We recently were afforded the opportunity to renew acquaintances and interview Dr. Chesler about her Afghan memoir, professional career as a psychoanalyst in women’s health, commitment to Jewish women’s equality and her advocacy and expert testimony against Islamic doctrinal denial of women’s rights to their physical person, liberty and freedom.
Jerry Gordon: Dr Chesler thank you for consenting to this interview.
Phyllis Chesler: Thank you for inviting me.
Gordon: What prompted you to write, An American Bride in Kabul?
Chesler: Afghanistan and its people seem to have followed me into the future and right into the West. Islamic burqas are here in America, on the streets and in the headlines. One reads about Afghanistan daily in most major newspapers. This is the country where I was once held hostage; it is the country which sheltered Bin Laden after he was exiled from Saudi Arabia and Sudan. He hatched his 9/11 plot in an Afghan cave. And now, the entire civilian world is being held hostage by Al Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-like Jihadists. An eerie coincidence. Also, in my lifetime, Afghanistan has also literally turned into a Margaret Atwood dystopian novel—even darker and more misogynistic than The Handmaid’s Tale. Given the increasing persecution and subordination of Muslim women, I decided to connect my five long months in purdah to the surreal lives of Afghan and Muslim women today, including in the West.
The Al Aqsa Intifada of 2000 and 9/11 also changed the direction this book would take. How could I write about Afghanistan and Muslim women without also writing about Jihadic terrorism and its war against civilians, both infidel and Muslim, and against both Israel and the West?
Gordon: What was seductive about Afghan reformist Abdul-Kareem during your courtship at college that led to your marriage as an Orthodox Jewish woman to a Muslim man?
Chesler: I was a naïve eighteen year old, a full scholarship kid at a private college and there he was—dapper, charming, debonair, a Prince right out of my childhood fairy tales, a fellow bohemian, as secular as I had become, and so very attentive. In retrospect, he was shadowing me, monitoring me, but at the time, I was flattered and thought it meant that he loved me very much. We never discussed religion. In 1959, there were no college courses about Islam or about Islam’s historic imperialism, colonialism, conversion by the sword, and slavery. I thought Jews and Muslims were both “other” in America and therefore somehow similar. He promised me a Grand Adventure the likes of which only wealthy, mainly British travelers had experienced: Time in a place that was once the cross-roads of the known world. Also, just perhaps, like so many other Jewish dreamers, I also yearned for a mystical union between Isaac and Ishmael. Thus, I married Ishmael.
Gordon: What happened when you reached Kabul and entered your Afghan husband’s polygamous household?
Chesler: When we landed in Kabul, officials smoothly removed my American passport—pro forma for all foreign brides. I never saw that passport again. Suddenly, I was the citizen of no country and had no rights. I had become the property of a polygamous Afghan family and was expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives in purdah. That means that I was not allowed out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones. I had expected a life of travel and adventure but this marriage had transported me back to the tenth century and trapped me there without a passport back to the future.
Gordon: Describe for us how purdah, sharia treatment of women, subjugated your freedom in your Afghan husband’s household?
Chesler: I lived gender apartheid long before the Taliban or the war lords arose. My Afghan husband was not religious but his family was and so was the country he had not lived in for more than a decade. My mother-in-law kept trying to convert me to Islam. Polygamy was accepted. Half-brothers jockeyed and competed for their father’s attention and inheritance. Although the women had been unveiled by King Zahir Shah in 1958, the poor women of Kabul and the women in the provinces wore burqas or hid from stranger-men behind long veils. Everyone’s marriage was arranged, traditionally to a first cousin, but not necessarily. There were no “love matches” which were viewed as a filthy Western idea. I was a prisoner in fairly post purdah. I could not go out alone, without permission, a male escort, and a female relative to chaperone me. No one but me found any of this abnormal or horrifying.
Gordon: How much of the denial of basic freedoms in what you witnessed in Kabul was tribal versus emblematic of Islamic sharia treatment of women?
Chesler: Women were not the only ones who lived under royal Afghan tyranny and a much closed society. Male political dissent was punished; any man who could not manage his wife was in trouble and got his family in trouble. My Afghan husband had brought an infidel, Jewish, American woman to Kabul as his bride. He was already in trouble. The jails in Afghanistan were always filled with political dissidents, “Western” oriented dreamers and thinkers who were tortured and locked away for years. Once, long ago, Afghanistan was pagan, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu, even Jewish—but that all ended with the Arab conquest and the forcible conversion of the people to Islam. It is sometimes hard to say that Islam versus tribal culture and tradition are responsible for what we view as human rights violations and atrocities. Let’s just say that any indigenous barbarism or tribal customs that existed in Afghanistan pre-Islam was not tempered or abolished by Islam. In some cases, for example, the stoning of an alleged adulteress/rape victims, the persecution of religious minorities, polygamy, cross-amputations, rote recitation of the Qu’ran in Arabic without comprehension, physical punishment of children by mullah-teachers, etc. is very much a part of Sharia practices.
Gordon: How did the experience and flight from Kabul impact on your lifelong pursuit of feminism and women’s rights?
Chesler: I believe my feminism was forged in purdah in Kabul. That experience may also explain why I am not a cultural relativist and why I believe in universal human rights. Even if we cannot guarantee such rights in a Muslim country, we can do so for everyone who lives here in the West and in North America. I am not one of those academics who believe that it is a woman’s religious right to choose to wear a face veil (niqab) or burqa (ambulatory body bag/sensory deprivation isolation chamber). I also understood that while American women may be discriminated against economically, politically, legally, and in terms of physical and sexual violence, that we have the right to fight for our rights, without being stoned or be-headed; we have free public libraries, access to education and employment, we are not forced into arranged marriages. Thus, I always understood that America, despite all its flaws, is the best country in the world, not the worst.
Gordon: When did you return to the study and observance of Judaism and what place does Jewish feminism have in gender equality?
Chesler: I have always been a proud Jew. I helped create feminist Jewish rituals (Passover Sedarim, etc.) and stood against anti-Semitism starting in the early 1970s. But, when I prayed with the Original Women of the Wall for the first time in 1988, I was asked to open the Torah for the women for the first-time ever. It wedded me fatefully to this struggle which is now in its 26th year. I began to study Torah. I joined synagogues, both Conservative and Orthodox. I published a book with my chevrutah (Torah study partner), Rivka Haut, who is a serious Talmud scholar, about this legendary struggle. Recently, alas, this struggle has now been fatefully compromised by a group we call The Women of Robinson’s Arch, led by Anat Hoffman, the very woman who defamed Israel all over the United States for the last decade. I never used this injustice against Jewish women’s religious rights at the Kotel against Israel in the world media. Actually, come to think about it, if we were waging such a struggle in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, or Afghanistan we would all have been stoned to death a long time ago. I publish devrai Torah which may be found at my website under Judaism. Feminism born in the secular world has been used by religious Jewish feminists who have become rabbis, cantors, and Torah scholars—which is rather revolutionary.
Gordon: What was your career path subsequent to you return to America that transformed you into a pioneering academic in women’s studies and later co-founder of the Association of Women in Psychology?
Chesler: I returned to complete my last semester at college, spent nearly three years fighting my Afghan husband for a divorce, something he opposed, entered graduate school in psychology, and got a Ph.D in 1969. I was also active in the American civil rights movement and became a leader in the American feminist movement. My first book, Women and Madness (1972) became a classic work and a bestseller. I would say that this work has possibly changed the mental health professions and their clients by at least 20-25%. Thus, sexism remains in the diagnosis and treatment of both genders. But 25% is still something.
Gordon: In Sacred Bond: The Case of Baby M (1988) you championed the rights of a surrogate birth mother in a New Jersey case and subsequent law. What were your arguments and the opposing views of liberal feminists?
Chesler: I had published With Child. A Diary of Motherhood (1979) and Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody, (1986) which I expanded and updated in 2011. I saw the Baby M case as a new and more terrifying kind of custody battle which it was. Many liberal feminists, themselves or their daughters wrestling with infertility problems, wanted this option if needed, especially since adoption is so perilous an undertaking in terms of bureaucratic red tape and other problems. Also, such feminists were ambivalent about biological motherhood and truly believed that if a woman—any woman—broke a contract that this would be used against all women in terms of women changing their minds. This is ridiculous. Men and business people always demand changes to contracts. But if a contract is illegal and immoral, involves enormous exploitation and risk to the “surrogate” mother, where is the glory in upholding it? When the Vatican came out against surrogacy, I was accused of “being in bed with the Pope.” I rather liked that.
Gordon: You experienced 9/11 in Manhattan as a defining moment. How did it impact you and change your feminist agenda?
Chesler: Even before that, the Al Aqsa Intifada had galvanized me. Although, as noted above, I had organized against anti-Semitism since the early 1970s, this was a quantum leap forward or backward. I knew the bloody beast was back and that I would have to write about it and about how the western intelligentsia was making common cause with Islamists who hated Jews and the Jewish state. When 9/11 happened, I said: “Now we are all Israelis.” And so we are.
Gordon: The New Antisemitism (2003) was among the first serious examinations of the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish nation of Israel and the Jewish people. In the decade since the book was published what developments have occurred that confirm your warnings?
Chesler: Thank you for remembering this. At the time it came out, major Jewish organizations were indifferent or hostile. I was mocked as the “Jewish Cassandra.” Liberal Jews would not allow me to speak. I was not reviewed in the mainstream media. On campuses, I needed bodyguards. Now, a decade later, the leaders of Jewish organizations are saying precisely what I said long ago. These same people are now raising money to organize on campuses. They claim they are “on it,” are solving the problem. They are not—they cannot, and they are way too late. Israel still does not have a Ministry devoted to Cognitive Warfare. We, the Jewish people, do not have an Al-Jazeera of our own which broadcasts around the clock globally, covers many issues, and when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, simply tells the truth. Israel has effectively lost the war of ideas. I belong to a premier group of pro-Israel advocates who are brilliant, informed, at the ready, but we are soldiers without boots or weapons and most work without funding. The determined and excellent grassroots pro-Israel groups that have sprung up fight each other for limited funding and Jews continue to give large sums to organizations that take no risks, still have President Obama’s back, and will sacrifice Israel in a heartbeat in the belief that they will remain safe and prosperous in America. Too few Jews want to bear the burden of associating themselves with a country which has been so demonized and isolated. Ironically, misogynist Jews, often Orthodox, often haredi, can be counted on to have Israel’s “back.” Kavod kaved. Glory is a heavy burden indeed.
Gordon: What was the message in The Death of Feminism (2005) that led to your complete rupture with academic and leftist feminists and your defense of Muslim and ex-Muslim women’s rights and issues?
Chesler: There has been no complete rupture. I remain a feminist; I have not renounced the cause of women’s freedom. Also, over time, privately, cautiously, some Second Wave feminists have told me that I am brave, that I am right, that they wish they had the courage to speak out. My closest allies today are Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents and religious Jewish feminists. But politically correct journalists succeeded in keeping me as well as many others who share my views, off the mainstream/left stream airwaves and away from all the distinguished lecture podiums. Every so often, I get across the aisle. I will continue to talk to both sides of the aisle.
Gordon: You have defined the treatment of women under sharia as gender apartheid. How can the West combat it?
Chesler: Very simply by enforcing the laws of our land. But it is also not so simple. When daughters are beaten and death threatened, forced to veil against their will, they rarely “tell” authorities and when they do, proper action is rarely taken. No one (teachers, guidance counselors, child protective services, physicians) in the West wants to believe that a family will actually conspire to kill one of their daughters because she does not want to wear hijab, drop out of school, and marry her first cousin; or because she wants a higher education, wants to choose her husband, has infidel friends, wants to lead a Western life. Also, “rescuing” such a girl will mean putting her in the equivalent of a federal witness protection program and giving her a new, extended, adoptive Muslim family. This is labor intensive and costly and America is not yet ready to undertake this. Also, girls, even endangered girls, love their families they fear, and do not want to leave them.
Gordon: Why have honor killings occurred with disturbing frequency in the West?
Chesler: Although Hindus perpetrate honor killings as well, they do so mainly in one part of India, they do not bring this custom with them into the West. Only Muslims do so. I have published three studies in Middle East Quarterly in 2009, 2010, and 2012. I strongly suggest that your readers view them: Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence (2009); Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings (2010), and Hindu vs. Muslim Honor Killings (2012).
Gordon: Recently proposed state legislation has been introduced against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). How prevalent is FGM in domestic Muslim and African émigré communities in this country and would the adoption of the proposed anti FGM legislation make a difference?
Chesler: This practice continues even though it is prohibited by Federal law. I have recently been told by an immigration lawyer that FGM is very widespread in the United States and that the greatest number of such women are in New York City. New York! This means that unlicensed butchers carry out this often lethal and life-scarring procedure right here, sometimes without anesthesia; that girls are sent back home for “vacation cuttings;” and that licensed physicians are performing this mutilation. The girls and their families all believe that without this mutilation, the girl is impure, tainted, and that no one will marry her and she will remain a shameful burden to her father. Legitimate physicians will not treat pregnant women who have been mutilated which means that when they give birth, it is with no pre-natal care and in emergency rooms staffed by physicians who do not know how to cut through the massive scarring or how to safely remove such scarring after the birth. By the way, I do not believe that the Qu’ran mandates such mutilation; the custom began primarily as an African tribal custom but has been spread via Islam to non-African countries such as Indonesia where the rates are increasing.
Gordon: Under sharia doctrine domestic violence against women by husbands, male relatives and even female siblings is condoned for alleged unruly and disobedient behavior. Given that you are an expert witness in domestic cases involving Muslim and ex-Muslim women, has evidence of this surfaced in divorce, custody and spousal abuse matters?
Chesler: I have submitted affidavits to judges on behalf of girls and women in flight from being honor killed and in search of asylum. I have also learned that my work has been relied upon in a number of high profile prosecutions of honor killers in the West. This is a great privilege. Western style domestic violence sometimes results in femicide but not always. Honor killings are not like domestic violence. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins do not conspire to kill a teenage girl in the West. An honor killing is a family conspiracy or collaboration to do just this, although sometimes the victim is a battered wife. In both cases, the girl’s or the woman’s alleged disobedience is seen as shaming her family and ruining their standing in the community.
Gordon: Thank you Dr. Chesler for this engrossing interview with insightful observations on the treatment of women under Islam.
Chesler: Thank you for this opportunity to discuss these issues.
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