Mar­riage to Mus­lim a mis­take for fem­i­nist

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bill Rambo

IN the de­press­ing af­ter­math of the Arab Spring, the West watches elected Is­lamists thrown out in Egypt and in­sur­gent Is­lamists wag­ing civil war against bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship in Syria. An in­sider’s view of hu­man rights in Mus­lim coun­tries should be wel­come. Un­for­tu­nately, this of­ten har­row­ing mem­oir is not fo­cused or hard-hit­ting enough to pro­vide much new or clear insight. Phyl­lis Ch­esler is a fem­i­nist psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor. She has writ­ten a num­ber of books on women’s is­sues, in­clud­ing the 1973 best­seller Women and Mad­ness. In 2005’s The Death of Fem­i­nism, she ar­gued that po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and cul­tural rel­a­tivism were pre­vent­ing fem­i­nists from con­demn­ing de­vel­op­ing world and Mus­lim vi­o­la­tions of women’s rights. Ch­esler met Ab­dul-Ka­reem at Bard Col­lege in New York in 1959 when she was 18, and they were mar­ried in 1961. Nei­ther fam­ily — her re­li­gious Jewish par­ents, nor his wealthy Mus­lim side in Afghanistan — ap­proved. Af­ter a quick tour of Europe, the cou­ple went to Kabul, where, Ch­esler states, “I was held cap­tive.” Ab­dul-Ka­reem’s fa­ther, his mother, his fa­ther’s other wives, and the rest of the fam­ily, tried to force Phyl­lis into their com­pli­cated life, but she could not han­dle the change in her hus­band, or the “cul­ture where ex­treme gen­der apartheid was the norm.” In spite of her ro­man­tic ad­mi­ra­tion of many as­pects of Afghanistan, she grew restive and weaker and even­tu­ally con­tracted hep­ati­tis. Af­ter five months she re­turned to the U.S. on a tem­po­rary visa, never to re­turn to Afghanistan. She cred­its th­ese months in her early life with fos­ter­ing her fem­i­nism, and her staunch sup­port for hu­man rights, es­pe­cially in the Mid­dle East. She strug­gles with her ex­pla­na­tion of why it took her 50 years to write this book. The first half of her mem­oir, doc­u­ment­ing her stay in Kabul, is al­most night­mar­ish in its de­pic­tion of the in­hu­mane con­di­tions of her “dead­en­ing tor­por of a pro­tected life un­der house ar­rest.” Like Betty Mah­moody, of Not With­out My Daugh­ter fame, Ch­esler found her hus­band changed when he ar­rived in his own cul­ture from the man she thought she knew. Her ac­count is punc­tu­ated with co­gent ref­er­ences to her mas­sive re­search into other ac­counts of Western con­tact with Mus­lim cul­tures. Her book in­cludes sev­en­plus pages of bib­li­og­ra­phy, which she col­lected af­ter her short time in Ab­dulKa­reem’s fam­ily harem. How­ever, her chron­i­cle of cap­tiv­ity is pre­sented rather flatly, in the present tense. Selec­tions from her di­ary some­times seem in­dis­tin­guish­able in tone from the main nar­ra­tion. Ch­esler con­tin­ues to have con­tact with Ab­dul-Ka­reem, who es­caped be­fore Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion in the late 1970s. Her un­usual nos­tal­gia, and af­fec­tion for some in the fam­ily, some­times un­der­cut the im­pact of the emo­tional and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence she ex­pe­ri­enced. The sec­ond sec­tion of Amer­i­can Bride be­gins with an ac­count of her ef­forts to get a di­vorce or have the mar­riage an­nulled. She had given up her U.S. pass­port and trav­elled as an Afghan, prompt­ing prob­lems with im­mi­gra­tion bu­reau­cracy. The rest of the book in­cludes chap­ters on Jews in Mus­lim coun­tries, again draw­ing on her ex­ten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy, and ef­fects of 9/11 on the world and in her life. She presents an ac­count of courageous aid work­ers and re­form­ers in the chap­ter “Amer­ica in Afghanistan.” Through­out, Ch­esler chron­i­cles sig­nif­i­cant abuses against hu­man rights us­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence and oth­ers’. She un­con­vinc­ingly as­serts Ab­dulKa­reem’s de­sire to re­form Afghanistan’s misog­y­nis­tic cul­ture. Her de­scrip­tion of him as “my mea­sure of Afghanistan... a gen­teel, dap­per, hope­ful, soft-spo­ken fel­low” does not fit the man who of­ten ig­nored her, or hit her, dur­ing her time in Kabul, and even tried to force her to stay by im­preg­nat­ing her when she was ill. A more tren­chant ac­count and anal­y­sis of her life could have been very valu­able to Western­ers strug­gling to un­der­stand the dif­fi­cul­ties of the Mid­dle East. While her grace to­ward her cap­tors and their coun­try is ad­mirable, it un­der­mines the ef­fec­tive­ness of her story. Bill Rambo teaches at the Lau­re­ate Academy

in St. Nor­bert.

An Amer­i­can Bride in


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