Phyllis Chesler has had a curious career. Back in the 1970s, along with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and company, she was a leading “second-wave” feminist, whose 1972 book Women and Madness sold 2.5 million copies. Yet, in some respects, she always differed from her activist sisters. For one thing, she didn’t idealize non-Western cultures, or seem deluded into thinking that she and her fellow middle- and upper-class American women were the most oppressed creatures on earth. For another, she didn’t hate men. On the contrary, far from buying into the notion that women are morally superior to men and that they get along with one another in deep, rich, and wonderful ways that men cannot, she wrote a whole book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2009), about the manifold ways in which women hurt, exclude, judge, and abuse one another.
There was always some distance, then, between Chesler and the feminist establishment, and, over the decades, it has only widened. While the women’s movement of the 1970s at least boasted some tough, smart leaders who stood up for their less privileged sisters around the world, today’s feminism is first and foremost an academic phenomenon—rife with caution, careerism, and conformity, drenched in political correctness, steeped in rhetoric about capitalism and American hegemony, and at least as focused on race and class as on gender.
The professors who dominate it still rant on about the patriarchy, but they’re careful to target only white Western men, having learned from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a “theorist” of “postcolonialism” based at Columbia, that it’s racist, neo-imperialist, and (yes) postcolonialist for white Western women to try to “save the brown woman from the brown man.” Hence they tiptoe around, relativize, or even overtly defend the planet’s most patriarchal societies while savaging white American men.
Chesler—to her immense credit—doesn’t buy it. Quaintly enough, she’s opposed to the violation of women’s rights wherever she sees it, and doesn’t hesitate to say so. Her reaction to 9/11 was to pay even greater attention than before to abuses in the Muslim world, including honor killings and other “honor”-related violence, as well as to the increasing demonization of Israel—subjects that she has researched in depth and written about with a thoroughly justified indignation.
As a result, she has become persona non grata in the groves of academe. When I attended a women’s studies convention a couple of years back, Chesler’s name came up in more than one session, always pronounced in the same contemptuous tone by the ambitious young grad students and junior faculty who dismissed her as a “white Western hegemonic feminist” who doesn’t realize that ticklish matters like honor killings need “to be positioned within a trans-national postcolonial feminist perspective” (a fancy way of saying “hands off”).
One reason Chesler refuses to take a “transnational postcolonial feminist perspective” on the mistreatment of women in Islamic cultures is that she’s been there. She was a mere teenager—a nice, New York Jewish girl, very intelligent but also very naïve—when she fell head over heels for a wealthy, exotic, sophisticated fellow student at Bard, tied the knot in a trice, and, her head filled with romantic images of a lifetime of international travel, bookish conversation, and passionate lovemaking, moved with him in 1961 to his family home in Kabul.
But as she recounts in this remarkable memoir, her glamorous beloved—who, in the United States, had been a staunch supporter of sexual equality—metamorphosed in Afghanistan into a stern enforcer of traditional gender roles. Deprived of her passport, denied freedom of movement, and severely reprimanded for the slightest sign of insubordination, she spent her days locked up with the clan’s other females (including the mother-in-law from hell), in a harem where there was nothing for them to do except gossip, bicker, plot against one another, and consume the endless pots of tea and little cakes that the servants kept bringing in on trays.
Chesler’s account of this period of captivity, during which she endured an illness that brought her close to death, is never less than riveting. But it’s more than just (as they say) one woman’s remarkable story: Chesler brings to her material—the raw experiences she underwent as an unworldly girl—a half-century of personal reflection about that episode of her life, decades of professional work in human psychology, and years of research into Muslim (especially Afghan) history and culture. In addition to providing ample excerpts from the diaries she kept at the time—juxtaposing, to striking effect, the voice of the callow girl with that of the wise and erudite woman—Chesler quotes from a great many books, some of them over a century old, by other Westerners who visited Afghanistan, including Western women who, like her, made the mistake of marrying into a culture about which they knew next to nothing.
The result is an utterly enthralling work in which every page is rich with insight. But the real triumph here is that Chesler’s account of her Afghan sojourn—which makes up the first half of An American Bride and feels un-toppable—is, in fact, overshadowed by what follows. For it turns out that Chesler, after making it back to America against her husband’s wishes, gradually reestablished a unique, if consistently tense and uneasy, friendship with him that has endured to this day.
One hardly knows what to make of this. On the one hand, Chesler’s compassion for her ex-husband—who, eventually, also had to flee Afghanistan for America, and whom she now regularly hosts in her Manhattan apartment—speaks extremely well of her. On the other hand, her readiness to forgive him, not only for his long-ago deception and tyranny, but also for his continuing patriarchal arrogance and condescension, almost makes one want to see her behave like a real hardcore feminist and kick him in the pants before tossing him out the door.
But that’s not all. Before the book ends, Chesler shares a dark fact about her ex-husband’s family history that she discovered relatively recently—and that forced her to sit down for a few moments to catch her breath. The revelation, which is also guaranteed to shake up any sympathetic reader, underscores just how dark and treacherous the waters were into which a young girl once, long ago, so eagerly, ignorantly, and recklessly dove.
In the final analysis, this is not only the extraordinarily engaging and moving story of a young woman and the man she once loved—and still, now, despite her formidable intelligence and instincts, clearly continues to love in some mysterious way. It is the story of two civilizations: one of them ancient, and yet considerably less than civilized; and the other, for all its newness, perhaps too civilized to acknowledge just how far short the other falls of true civilization.
Bruce Bawer is the author, most recently, of The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.