Never the Twain

Will educated and progressive Americans ever start to recognize that the Islamic concept of a global caliphate is fueling thousands of Islamist terrorists, all of whom have explosives and some of whom have nuclear weapons? This stark reminder that many people fail to understand that evil and injustice truly exist comes from Phyllis Chesler, the well known personality, emerita professor psychology, psychotherapist, and feminist leader in her new book, An American Bride in Kabul.

Why does the Islamic world refuse to accept and observe international declarations on equality of women, human rights, and fundamental freedoms? On December 8, 1948 the UN General Assembly (UNGA) spoke of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. It proclaimed a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

In the Islamic world no such achievement has been attained. The inferior state of women in Islamic countries is well known. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women adopted by the UNGA on December 18, 1979 called on nations to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, and to end discrimination against women in political and public life, as well to ensure equality in education, health, and employment.

In spite of this declaration, gender inequalities remain entrenched in many societies. Women are often denied access to basic education and health care, suffer violence and discrimination, face occupational segregation, lack empowerment, and experience considerable gender gaps. States have not revoked their laws, or altered their customs, that discriminate on the basis of sex and gender bias.

In Islamic countries culture and tradition as well as sharia law are responsible for limiting the fundamental rights of women. The resulting stereotypes and norms explain the legal, political, and economic constraints preventing advancement of those rights. Change of social and cultural patterns are essential to eliminate the prejudices and the practices based on the idea of the inferiority of women.

There are many reasons for this unwillingness to draw attention to the refusal of Islamic countries to provide rights of women. One is the use of the concept of cultural relativism, the view, with some few exceptions, that all cultural beliefs are equally valid or at least that no one is superior to others in regard to individual or collective behavior. But in the globalized world today the argument advanced by spokesmen at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that "What might seem to be discriminatory in the eyes of some might not be discriminatory in the eyes of others" is unacceptable. Should anyone now approve of incest, cannibalism, female genital mutilation, or honor killings of women?

In her new book, Phyllis Chesler argues that honor-related violence against women and gender apartheid are human rights violations and cannot be justified in the name of cultural relativism or religious custom, or political correctness. This is wisdom learned from her romantic adventure more than 50 years ago. In her extraordinary, beautifully written story she recounts the short period of her life when at age 20 she, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, NY, married an Afghan fellow student, a Muslim, and went with him to his home and wealthy family in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Chesler opens the book dramatically with a startling sentence, "I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan." But this is a tease since she explains that the harem simply meant women's private quarters, not a brothel as pictured in Hollywood films. She admired the country, or perhaps the image, of Afghanistan. She had, and perhaps still has, a fondness for exoticism, of perfumed gardens, and high ceremonial communal meals.

This naïve, romantic Jewish adventurer immediately encountered reality. Her American passport was taken from her and was never returned. She, the wife of an Afghan, had no rights as an American, and was to be trapped as property in a household in which her father-in-law had three wives. She had no privacy, she was starved, and was a virtual prisoner who was only able to escape by luck when she was ill which led her father-in-law to get her an exit visa to the U.S. The seemingly Westernized husband had been transformed into a uncaring if internally tortured individual. Her acute realization was that her "unexpected house arrest was not as shocking as my husband's refusal to acknowledge it as such." She now portrays him as a man torn between religious and family traditions and his appreciation of Western values.

Chesler's new understanding of callousness, violence, and sexual inequality propelled her not only into feminist activism when she returned to the U.S., but also to political understanding. She recognized the falsity of the Islamic charges against the West. Gender and religious apartheid in Afghanistan were indigenous to the region; they were not the result of Western imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, racism, or military occupation. She observes that the Islamists such as the Afghan Taliban want to turn the clock back to the seventh century.
The book is an absorbing account of an extraordinary love story which in a sense has never ended. She provides a vivid account of the exotic culture to which she was exposed, and indeed appreciates some of it. But the memoir is valuable as a firsthand account of the reality of the life of a woman, and the discrimination she and Muslim women face, in an Islamic society. Indeed, it is an indirect warning to those women prepared to marry Muslim men.

This is not a political or history book though she does discuss the impoverishment of Jews, and Hindus, in the 1930s, and the cordial relationship between Nazi Germany and Afghanistan, which sheltered Nazis after World War II. The book is important in two respects. Chesler reprimands the politically-correct cultural relativists who are not only unwilling to criticize but actually defend traditional practices such as honor killings and also the wearing of niqab (face masks) and burqas (veil), which she calls "a sensory deprivation chamber." These masks and veils are now seen in the U.S.; Afghanistan has thus landed in the West while the West is still deployed in hostilities in Afghanistan.

Perhaps most important is Chesler's account of the impact of 9/11 which did more than bring back memories of her days in Afghanistan. She now speaks to the world about the difference between freedom and tyranny, about the presence of "bad" Muslims, the disgraceful demonization of Israel, and the danger of radical militant Islam. One can only hope that the politically correct and the cultural relativists in the West will take heed.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.