“This is the story of a young and naive Jewish American woman who meant to rebel against tradition but who found herself trapped in the past, stuck in the Middle Ages, without a passport back,” declared Dr. Phyllis Chesler.
The date was October 1, the venue Manhattan’s 92 Street Y, the occasion the debut of Chesler’s 15th book, An American Bride in Afghanistan (Palgrave MacMillan).
Chesler is an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at CUNY, a psychotherapist, and an internationally renowned author and lecturer. Among her bestselling books are Women and Madness (1972), The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and The Death of Feminism (2005).
On this evening Chesler not only celebrated her 73rd birthday, she also detailed the trajectory of the dark chapter in her life recounted in her new memoir.
Over the years she had written intermittently about her horrific experiences as a Jewish woman held in marital captivity in Afghanistan in 1961, but it was only recently that she made the decision to detail these harrowing memories in full-length book form.
Chesler, her voice resonating with intensity, read a selection from her memoir to the audience:
I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan. I am eighteen and I have just met my prince. He is a dark, handsome, charming, sophisticated, and wealthy foreign student. We are in college in America. True, he is a Muslim and I am a Jew. I am very Jewish. But he is the Agha Khan, and I am Rita Hayworth. He is Yul Brynner, and I am Gertrude Lawrence in “The King and I.”
When we land in Kabul, officials smoothly remove my American passport which I never see again. Suddenly, I am the citizen of no country, and have no rights. I have become the property of a polygamous Afghan family and am expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives, wear hijab, and live in purdah. That means that I cannot go out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones.
I am also expected to convert to Islam. I am living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid is the norm and where my reactions to it are considered abnormal….
Responding to a question from the audience, Chesler explained why she married in the first place.
“Ah, I was young and I fell in love. My Afghan bridegroom was a Westernized man I had known for nearly three years at college in America. He cooked for me, he was tender and attentive – he just never mentioned that his father had three wives and twenty-one children or that I would be expected to live under a polite form of posh house arrest or that I would be expected to convert to Islam.”
Audience members were clearly moved by Chesler’s presentation.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I came here tonight,” said Audrey Levinson, 62, of Gramercy Park, as she waited on line to get her copy of the book autographed.
“I certainly knew of Phyllis Chesler and had read Women and Madness when I was in college, but I must say that my curiosity was piqued when I had read some pre-publication reviews of An American Bride in Afghanistan.
“Hearing Dr. Chesler’s words here this evening really sent a lightning jolt throughout my entire being. To say that it was enlightening and exceptionally informative is an understatement.”