My Life In a Harem: New Yorker Recounts Afghanistan Nightmare

Phyllis Chesler and her new memoir. Photo: Joan L. RothShe is an iconic feminist activist, scholar and best-selling author. But Phyllis Chesler’s journey to self-realization began in an unlikely place, more than 50 years ago, when she lived in a harem.

“I didn’t realize until the last decade that my very American feminism had been forged in the fires of my experience in Afghanistan,” Chesler told Yahoo Shine in a conversation about her newest book, a memoir, “An American Bride in Kabul,” due out on October 1. “In observing gender segregation there, it helped me to see it here, even though it was a pale reflection.”

Her remarkable story is one of a cross-cultural, cross-continental romance and huge life lessons, of a young and “invincible” Jewish girl from New York and a princely Muslim man from the Middle East. It’s about crossing over—from naiveté to eyes open wide—with a single flight across the ocean.

Chesler, now 72 and living in New York, was attending college in NYC when she met and fell in love with Abdul-Kareem, a bohemian film buff from a wealthy Afghan family. “I was 18 when I met him, and he was really my first boyfriend,” she recalled of the young man (whose name was changed in her book, along with those of his relatives). “He was like an American, but more interesting—more sophisticated, more glamorous.” They married quickly, upsetting her Orthodox Jewish parents, and then took off on what was to be a grand adventure—world travels and an eventual move to Paris, with a brief settling down in Kabul, where her husband’s family lived.

But the fantasy began to sour before they even left the airport in Afghanistan, where a slew of family members greeted them, and where officials confiscated Chesler’s passport, assuring her it was “a formality,” and that she’d have it returned to her soon. She never saw it again, though, as an Afghan wife she was her husband’s property, and had no need for a passport. It would be the first glaring sign of many to come that Chesler was in way over her head.

“I knew nothing about where he was taking me,” she said. “I was so foolish.”

Chesler and Abdul-Kareem in the early NYC days. (Photo: Phyllis Chesler) Other signs: The newly married couple would live in a house with relatives, including one of her father-in-law’s three wives—a huge, luxurious house staffed with servants—but without privacy nonetheless. Chesler would quickly find out that, by being an Afghan wife, she’d lost all the types of freedoms she had become accustomed to, from riding a bus around the city alone to sunbathing in a swimsuit on her own property.

Women were to stay at home and be guarded by men, she learned, and she found herself trapped in purdah (seclusion), or, as she describes it, “house arrest.” And suddenly Abdul-Kareem, who had seemed so Westernized and open-minded while in New York, would completely turn on her—refusing to help her live as a free woman, or even listen as she expressed her outrage.

Chesler’s book—her 14th, including the feminist classic “Women and Madness”—takes readers inside her five-month ordeal of captivity through vivid details and recounted conversations. She describes both the startling dynamics of the harem—one mother-in-law’s cruelty toward both Chesler and the servants, the suspicions she aroused by simply wanting to sit alone and read or go out for a walk—and of her marriage. She is raped by her husband, and hit, which is a detail Chesler said she might have never remembered had it not been written in her old plastic diary, purchased in a bazaar. 

“I know people block out things that are painful,” said Chesler, a psychotherapist and professor emeritus of psychology. “I didn’t think it included me, but it does.”

After contracting a near-deadly case of hepatitis, and with some unexpected help, she soon gets out of Afghanistan and, eventually, out of her marriage, though she keeps ties with Abdul-Kareem and some family members (including his second wife) for several decades. And she remains forever and profoundly changed.

The ordeal has led Chesler—remarried, for a time, to an Israeli, with whom she had a now-35-year-old son—to hold and voice some opinions not necessarily popular within feminist and other liberal-minded circles. For example, she said, she believes it’s important to be mindful of immigration, and to learn to differentiate between the oppressors and the oppressed. “As much as American feminists have correctly criticized our right-wing misogyny, it’s not in the same league as Islamic misogyny,” she explained. “We have no idea what might be coming our way if we are not protecting our borders.”

She also stressed that she has “universal standards” for human rights, and that she doesn’t buy into the idea of “Who are we to say?” when it comes to questioning the unjust values of foreign cultures.

“It’s a subtle kind of racism for Westerners who are safe and free to say, ‘We can’t judge that,’” she said, particularly when it comes to the inequality of women, such as forced burqa-wearing. In her book, Chesler describes the constrictive outfit in her book as “a sensory deprivation isolation chamber” which is “claustrophobic” and “constitutes torture,” and she suggests the U.S. not only not support its existence in the country, but that it should go so far as to ban it, as some European countries have begun to do.

Despite the threats of fundamentalism, Chesler said she was never scared of writing her honest account—which she felt particularly compelled to share post-9/11. “If you do the kind of work I’ve done, you don’t notice that you should be afraid,” she said. She did have some personal concerns about reactions from Abdul-Kareem and his family, though, and she called him earlier this year to let him know she had written the book. “He was quiet,” she said. And, though they’d maintained a cordial relationship until then, they have not spoken since.

“I wish that our politics hadn’t driven us so far apart. I had always been so proud of maintaining that friendship over these 50 years,” she said. “But maybe that was naïve, too.”