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Women Under Islam
A feminist takes an unblinking look at gender repression in the Muslim world.
Daphne Patai writes in City Journal.
Islamic Gender Apartheid: Exposing a Veiled War Against Women, by Phyllis Chesler (New English Review Press, 462 pp., $29.99)
Phyllis Chesler’s crucial early encounter with the reality of Muslim social norms began in 1961, when, at the age of 20, she married an Afghan student she met while attending Bard College. Totally unprepared for what was to follow, she accompanied him to his family home in Kabul. Nearly 50 years later, Chesler told this extraordinary story in detail, in her 2013 book An American Bride in Kabul. Using her old journals and letters, she describes her five months in her father-in-law’s patriarchal, polygamous Muslim household, from which, sick and undernourished, she finally escaped.
Buttressing this account are details from the extensive reading Chesler did over many years in an effort to understand better her own experience, and that of women in the Muslim world generally. Turning her attention first to her own, American, society, Chesler became a feminist activist, reformer, and writer. Her 1972 bestseller Women and Madness sold 2.5 million copies and established her as a major feminist voice of the seventies. Over the course of writing a dozen books in the subsequent years, Chesler came to realize that the West had made remarkable progress in advancing the status of women, while across much of the Muslim world a surge of Islamic fundamentalism had reversed progress in women’s rights.
Islamic Gender Apartheid: Exposing a Veiled War against Women, Chesler’s new book, comprises a series of essays published between 2003 and 2016. She is particularly incensed that the same people who describe Israel, falsely, as an “apartheid state” routinely disregard the indisputable gender apartheid existing in much of the Arab and Muslim world. The result is that the seclusion of women, face and full-body veiling (Chesler describes the burqa as a “sensory deprivation chamber”), female genital mutilation, so-called honor killings, polygamy, rape, and other forms of violence against women (as well as against gays, apostates, dissenters, and religious minorities) are all excused—or simply denied—by Western liberal apologists for Islamism.
Chesler has no patience for the refusal of feminists and other left-liberals to criticize women’s subjection under Islam (which, she reminds us, means “submission”), a reality she discusses in great detail, citing case after case, changes in law and custom, Western capitulation to Islamist complaints and demands, international pronouncements, and political developments. She exposes and protests the barrage of distortions disseminated by academics, the elite media, certain feminist groups, paid propagandists, true believers, and others.
This stance, along with Chesler’s impassioned defense of Israel, has led to her ostracism by activists and ideologues whose main concern is to vilify the West. This, of course, requires persistent denial of the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the world over the past few decades have been undertaken by Islamists proclaiming their commitment to jihad, and that most Muslims worldwide are not protesting what is being done in their name. Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama led the way in refusing to identify notorious terrorist acts as the work of Muslims operating in the name of Islam.
Not that this is a peculiarly American problem. Chesler writes of escalating crime rates in European countries with large Muslim immigrant populations, a fact suppressed, often with the collusion of local police and government officials. Similarly, while anti-Semitic attacks in many Western countries are minimized, every new terrorist outrage is accompanied by concerns over Islamophobic “backlashes” that never seem to materialize.
Chesler has maintained fearlessness and fidelity for decades as she responds to lies and distortions, highlighting the human costs of cultivating hypocrisy and denial, always insisting on distinguishing facts from accusations, using reason and evidence to combat the by-now routine charges of racism that foreclose informed discussion and dissenting views. As a result, genuine feminist heroes such as Chesler and Ayaan Hirsi Ali get excluded, boycotted, or disinvited from talks and conferences, while community activist Linda Sarsour, who promotes Sharia law and speaks contemptuously of those who disagree with her, is a celebrity on college campuses and in the media.
Chesler insists on an absolute commitment to universal human rights, without culturally relativist excuses. “No one seems to understand,” she wrote in 2015, “the slightest thing about Muslim history in terms of its anti-black racism, conversion via the sword, hatred and persecution of the kuffar (infidel), its gender and religious apartheid, and its very long record of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide…. Anyone who notes the surreal nature of Islamic barbarism operating today is also viewed suspiciously and nervously.” Chesler’s unswerving allegiance to exposing the world’s real war on women has cost her friends in high places, but her experience and knowledge of the life of women under Islam make her an invaluable resource for anyone eager to look past the distortions and misrepresentations we routinely hear about the Muslim world.
Daphne Patai is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.