Phyllis lucky to escape from Afghan hell with her life

THE enclave of Brooklyn's Borough Park is a world away from the dusty streets of Kabul.

Home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel, the New York neighbourhood wasn't enough for Phyllis Chesler.

She wanted more from life - and she got it.

At just 18, Phyllis found herself stripped of her rights, without a passport and trapped as the property of her husband's polygamous Muslim family in Afghanistan.

Secluded, starving and fearing for her life, she fought against her husband's family's attempts to convert her to Islam and her husband's bid to permanently tie her to the country through childbirth.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Phyllis isn't bitter about her experiences in Afghanistan.

"I learned a good deal about liberation and self-determination," she said from her New York City home.

"Many of my ideas about freedom and living in harmony with Muslims may have come from there."

Phyllis is a renowned Jewish feminist who has written about gender issues and honour-related violence for 40 years.

But what she went through in Afghanistan had been a closely guarded secret - until now.

Her new book, An American Bride in Kabul (Palgrave Macmillan), is an account of what she went through and what she learned about "gender apartheid".

It's a long way from her inauspicious beginnings in Borough Park, colloquially known as Boro Park, in Brooklyn.

Born into an Orthodox family, her father Leon arrived in America from Poland - his grandfather had hidden him after his mother died in a pogrom.

Her mother Lillian's family came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Phyllis said her parents were not Zionists, nor political, but she rebelled against them by becoming a Zionist and joining the socialist-Zionist, anti-religious youth movement, HaShomer Hatzair, and later the even more radical left-wing Zionist youth movement, Ein Harod.

"They thought the youth group I joined was a Godless, communist conspiracy," Phyllis recalled.

"When they brought the rabbis to me to demand that I quit a 'Godless organisation', I joined Ein Harod.

"I actually loved studying the Torah, but there was no future as a girl in 1940s and 50s Boro Park - I left it behind.

"On the day I should have been batmitzvah I ate non-kosher food.

"To my parents it was a big crime and big sin, but nothing happened to me, I didn't die."

Phyllis, now 73, was 18 when she fell in love with a handsome older Afghan man, Abdul-Kareem, whom she met when the pair were studying at Bard College.

"He was five years older than me and I thought he was utterly interesting," she said.

"He'd travelled through Russia and Europe, I had great ambitions and dreams and was very taken with his charm and sophistication.

"We had mutual interests in film, theatre, the arts and opera.

"I brought him to Boro Park for Shabbat and my parents were near-hysterical.

"Their reaction may have been one of the reasons we were driven closer together."

They later married in a civil ceremony and travelled to Europe for their honeymoon, with a plan to visit Abdul-Kareem's parents in Afghanistan.

Phyllis admitted: "His father had three wives and 21 children and I was expected to live with my mother-in-law, possibly convert to Islam and wear a hijab.

"I used to have a notebook with a picture of the Rambam (Maimonides) in a turban in it.

"In Kabul, everybody looked very biblical, so maybe there was some kind of paradox there.

"Afghanistan was a small-landlocked, medieval-like country, with bastions of ruling families. It was 40 years behind America."

Arriving in Kabul, the couple were greeted by numerous relatives.

An airport official demanded she hand over her American passport, but she refused.

But assured it was a formality, she relinquished it.

"I was rendered the property of an extended Afghan family," she said. "I was totally naive - I thought we would meet his family, travel through Turkey or the Middle East and come back to America.

"I thought it would be a grand adventure and I would remain safe.

"My husband thought he and I could work together in the film industry in Afghanistan, but he was a dreamer.

"I took one look at the Islamic gender apartheid there and wanted to get out. The country was illiterate."

On arrival, Phyllis was taken to her father-in-law's compound - where the patriarch, his three wives, 21 children, two grandchildren, at least one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law and an unknown number of servants and relatives lived in a number of luxury two-story European-style houses, with patios, indoor gardens and verandas.

But she described it as a "prison" and a "harem".

Phyllis was targeted by her mother-in-law, who she said was cruel and crazy.

Hardly seeing her husband, she also caught hepatitis and dysentery.

Phyllis tried three times to go to the American embassy, hoping her country would protect her and help her get home.

But without a US passport, she no longer had any rights as an American.

"My father-in-law visited me and said he knew of my attempts to leave, which he eventually helped me with," Phyllis explained.

"Maybe he didn't want a dead American on his hands and was glad to get rid of me."

Given an Afghan passport, she flew home to New York, via Tashkent, Cairo, Moscow and Copenhagen.

"My parents picked me up at the airport - they were overjoyed and happy I was home," Phyllis recalled.

While in Afghanistan, she discovered that the country had sheltered Nazis after the Second World War and exploited them if they were scientists.

She also found out about Jewish Afghans who had lived in the city of Herat for 100 years.

Now an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York, she has published thousands of articles and, most recently, studies about honour-related violence, including honour killings.

She has also testified for Muslim and ex-Muslim women who are seeking asylum or citizenship based on their belief that their families will honour-kill them.

Phyllis explained: "There are still many barbaric customs which are indigenous to that area of the world, such as polygamy, being stoned for adultery and female genital mutilation.

"Islam has a long history of imperialism, slavery and apartheid. The West struggled with slavery, but abolished it."

Abdul-Kareem left Afghanistan before the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979.

Phyllis, who has a son by an Israeli man, added: "I interviewed him for a magazine, but it made him angry.

"He was so bitter and said I didn't understand the politics of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

"I told him about the book, but I have no idea what he will make of it.

"I later became friends with his second wife and An American Bride in Kabul is dedicated to her.

"But the work I have done studying antisemitism, coupled with my support for Israel, mortifies her children.

"They saw my academic studies on honour killings and attacked me for it and questioned whether I was a racist."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph