Review: Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom, by Phyllis Chesler, Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $24.95
It is a great tragedy in America that whenever someone calls for balance and fairness in political discussions, the media and the academy, they are often denounced as fanatical, hateful, right-wing zealots. They are accused of McCarthyism. Their work is refused publication in many mainstream outlets. They are blacklisted and smeared.
Unfortunately, that has been the experience of noted feminist and former-leftist Phyllis Chesler. Aside from being closed out of (among others) The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, which once published her work, she was also recently purged from a women’s email list-serve for daring to challenge a consensus view among its members–that Palestinian Arabs are the victim of Jewish aggression rather than the other way around. (Never mind the fact that a debate over Israel ought to have little if any place in an honest discussion of either U.S. or global women’s rights). In 2003, she had also dared to write The New Anti-Semitism.
Worse, Chesler in 2003 also took Swedish film producer Lukas Moodysson to task for refusing to show “Lilya 4-ever,”–on sexual slavery–in Israel. And she exposed the issue in FrontPageMagazine. This, according to the list members, amounted to a full-scale abandonment of reason, a defection to the enemy, and required that she be silenced. The same attitude prevailed when Chesler wrote in FrontPage on gender cleansing in Sudan. What mattered most to the list was not what she wrote, but where. After President Bush was reelected in 2004, Chesler was shut out of the women’s email group all together, effectively at the behest of Nation columnist Katha Pollitt.
Furthermore, an apparent campaign amongst many feminists to denounce Chesler and everything she writes grew increasingly pronounced. This book should embarrass the feminist community by exposing examples of this kind of insanity. What ever happened to civil discussion among civilized people?
Rather than address the contents of the book, Chesler’s critics tend to favor name calling. They refer to â€œerrors,” which they fail to document. â€œShe is now nothing more than another fanatic neoconservative screaming at liberals,” writes one Amazon reviewer. Says another, â€œEvery thing different from her own current worldview automatically becomes labeled `anti-feminist’.” Chesler’s critics, in effect, resort to petty childishness.
All the feminist nay saying notwithstanding, Chesler’s new book demands to be read, not only by feminists but by all men and women. For it contains important new ideas about why feminism–and respect for the rights of Muslim women in particular–ought to be factored into American domestic and foreign policy. She calls on feminists (and others) to â€œacknowledge that our multi-cultural correctness has endangered those held hostage by jihadic, totalitarian Islam–including ourselves.”
Before continuing, I must disclose my participation in research for the contents of chapter 7, which concerns the Islamic community’s treatment of Muslim women in the Europe and North America. (I will confine my comments to the rest of this book.)
Chesler feels strongly about the current global jihad and its effect on women, in part, because of her own captivity long ago in Kabul. In chapter four, she tells the story of her captivity in Kabul as the wife of an Afghan national. Although an Orthodox Jewish American girl, she married her college sweetheart in the summer of 1961 in New York state. He just happened to be a Muslim. In telling her story, she hopes to â€œhelp other westerners understand and empathize with Muslim and Arab women (and men) who are increasingly being held hostage to barbarous and reactionary customs.”
This is not only a laudable feminist goal, the story that Chesler tells is a compelling one. When she returned from her captivity in Afghanistan on December 21, 1961, she literally kissed the ground at Idewild (now Kennedy) Airport. When she had landed in Kabul as Ali’s new foreign, American and Jewish bride, officials confiscated her passport, which she never saw again. Upon her arrival, her westernized husband â€œsimply became another person.” He barely spoke to her, and treated her with annoyed embarrassment, coldness and distance.
Ali had never mentioned that his father was polygamous. But upon arrival in Kabul, Chesler was consigned to live with Ali’s mother Aishah, or â€œBeebee Jan” (Dear Lady), whom his father had long since abandoned for his third wife. There came a time when Chesler was no longer allowed to slip out of her house unattended. She immediately went to the American Embassy, right next to the family compound. When she could not produce her passport, the Marines would escort her home, telling her that as â€œthe wife of an Afghan national” she was no longer entitled to American protection.
Beebee Jan stopped the servants from boiling Chesler’s drinking water and washing all the fruits and vegetables. She allowed the cooks to use only rancid ghee (animal fat). Chesler lost weight rapidly. She began to starve. She contracted hepatitis, turned yellow and vomited continuously. She kept demanding to see an American doctor. At last, she was sent to the new Tom Dooley hospital, where the English speaking doctor told her â€œyou are very sick and you have to get out of here.” Her mother-in-law tried to pull out the IV prescribed to deliver vitamins and nutrients.
At last, her father-in-law was summoned. Seeing that her illness and departure would be a victory over his westernized son Ali, Agha Jan (Dear Master) told her he knew of her plans to escape with the help of a German wife. But he thought it best if she left with the family’s approval, on an Afghan passport, which he handed her on the spot, along with a plane ticket. She flew via Aeroflot, via Tashkent, to Moscow, and finally on to New York. She survived, she now thinks, in part so she could â€œtell other westerners something about what it’s like for a woman and an infidel to live under Islam.” Islamists insist on religious freedom for themselves in the West but refuse it to westerners living in the East. And Islamists are now in â€œan accelerated jihad mode and are exercising all their trans-cultural options.”
In effect, Chesler is concerned that while Islamists are beheading Jews and American civilians, stoning Muslim women to death, jailing Muslim dissidents and bombing civilians on every continent, feminists are stuck in a rut that blames all this violence on Israel and U.S. imperialism. For that, she should not be faulted, but applauded.
She also bemoans the Islamization of the west. This ongoing process â€œinvolves profound cultural, religious and class differences” that severely imperil â€œa pluralist, democratic, and modern but class-based and historically racist civilization.” She worries what will happen to feminists, and indeed all of us, when â€œanti-modern, anti-western, and anti-tolerant class-based and historically racist cultures come to live among” us.
How that could happen is is explained in one especially fine chapter, where Chesler details what Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern women have to say from the freedom offered in the west. Today, the Islamic abuse of women continues apace throughout the world. Explains Merry Merrell, a Syrian American feminist, a poet and counselor who lives in Boston and London, â€œIt is vital for western feminists to say the truth about women living under Islam because of the news ways in which the Left’s sympathies with Islamist perpetrators has confused and silenced to many.”
Similarly, Chesler speaks with Egyptian American Nonie Darwish, raised as a Muslim, whose father trained Palestinians to kill Israelis. Says Darwish, â€œthis graceful country allowed me to practice any religion and gave me human rights I could only [have] dreamed of under Islam.” And she highlights the work of Homa Arjmand, who (subsequent to publication) defeated the adoption of Sharia law in Ontario family courts. Arjmand has consistently denounced the mistreatment of women under Sharia and Islam.
Many heart-rending stories of Muslim women further elucidate these points. Take the case of Jamila, a woman who was forced to marry her rapist, flung into purdah, kept locked up, starved, beaten, anally raped–and ultimately killed by her brothers for her the â€œshame” she brought to her family.
But where, Chesler asks, are western feminists in this fight against radical Islam? For the most part, she mourns, no where to be found: â€œMuslim and Arab women are being ill-served by feminists who want us to believe that all women are supportive and compassionate sisters and that even barbaric cultural customs, such as amputation, stoning, and honor killings are somehow minor or due to Western racism.”
Rather than protest these conditions, feminist women have used their positions in the academy to malign Israel. In 2004, when ten academic departments at the University of California at Santa Cruz were overtaken by pro-Palestinian politics and refused to sponsor speakers to counterbalance the consistence anti-Israel bias, the university’s women’s studies department weighed in on the side of the terrorists: The department sponsored a talk by Hedi Epstein, who compared Israel to a Nazi state. She is a member of the International Solidarity Movement, which has coordinated activities with terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Chesler reports.
Ultimately, though, this matters not only to women and feminists, but to all of us. When the west uncritically accepts (or even advocates for) barbarism, we hurt everyone. Furthermore, the treatment of Muslim women by the Islamic community is an important litmus test of how well these communities are integrating with western ideals of freedom and equality for all. In the east, they are a test of how ready societies long burdened by totalitarian governments are to accept democracy.
In closing, Chesler recalls the directives General Douglas MacArthur gave to his troops following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. These were to: destroy the military power, punish war criminals, liberate farmers, establish a free labor movement, liberalize education, decentralize political power–and separate church from state. These directives could well apply to the Arab and Muslim world, she writes. Hence it would be best to lobby against Islamic guidelines or influence for newly crafted Middle Eastern constitutions.
Of course, Chesler is not a general but a psychologist. But she notes that to jump-start democracy and modernity in the Islamic world, and especially to stop the most extreme violence against women and humanity, we must understand that â€œmerely casting a vote does not necessarily mean that one has voted independently or in one’s own self-interest.” For women, that requires being educated to value themselves as well as their families, clans and tribes. Without such education, women in particular may end up â€œvoting for totalitarian, theocratic, and misogynist leaders.” Furthermore, world leaders must understand that â€œthe force of Islamic terrorism… includes religious and gender apartheid.” Failing that, we will all be increasingly endangered by it.
This sometimes personal account of the current ills of the feminist movement is always thoughtful and accurate. It is also a critical study that cries out to be read.
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