Don’t try to label Phyllis Chesler, because you’re not going to confine this woman to a category. She’s an American Jew who has worn a burka, while living, ultimately against her will, in Afghanistan. She’s a liberal feminist second-waver who’s the author of a book called The Death of Feminism–who will tell you that for feminists today “reality has no defining role in determining their thoughts or their actions.”
NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Chesler about where feminists fall short and what they have to offer.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Are feminists feminism’s worst enemies?
Phyllis Chesler: Yes and no. Feminists, as well as women, have some terrifying external enemies. For example, Islamists oppose the ideals of dignity and equality for women by their practice of gender apartheid. This is a system which includes some, if not all, of the following human-rights violations: female genital mutilation, veiling and hijab, purdah, normalized daughter- and wife-beating, arranged (child) marriage, often to first cousins, polygamy, honor murder, the imprisonment, torture, beheading, stoning to death, and hanging of rape victims, suspected prostitutes, and feminist dissidents–especially in Iran today.
Such Islamist misogynists have many Western allies and apologists…
Among them are many academic and establishment feminists who are also apologists for Islamic religious and gender apartheid and for the international trafficking in women and girls. In this, they are feminism’s worst enemies. For example, many academic feminists fear that any serious critique of veiling, purdah, or polygamy might be slandered as “racist.” They are right. These days, telling the truth about indigenous Islamic barbarism towards women and men is quickly branded as “politically incorrect” and dismissed as “racist” and “imperialist” arrogance. It requires real courage and clarity to stay this particular course of truth-telling. While some feminists did sound the alarm about the Taliban, they did not rescue Afghan women physically, personally, militarily, or economically. In addition, feminists have not focused on the right to motherhood, but primarily on the right to abortion; they have not focused on creating a strong feminist foreign policy, but primarily on the rights of gays and lesbians. Personal sexual freedom and identity politics have trumped universal human rights.
I happen to support civil rights for gay people and women’s reproductive freedom, but we are at war, and such rights will matter little if we are all bombed back to the tenth century. Iranian feminists have always marched for women’s rights on International Women’s Day. In the past, they have been roughed up, arrested, sometimes tortured. The fact that they are willing to march at all is heart-stoppingly brave. This year, they have been informed that if they march the police will shoot them down on the spot. Western feminists have been as shockingly quiet about this as they have been about the repeated gang-rapes in the Sudan perpetrated by genocidal ethnic Arab Muslims against black African Muslim and Christian women.
Lopez: What do you hate most about feminism today?
Chesler: I don’t “hate” anything about feminism. Those feminists who work in the areas of violence against women (incest, rape, sexual harassment, domestic battering, prostitution, and pornography); those feminists who work within religion to further the cause of both God and humanity; and those feminists who fight discrimination against women in the workplace have my profound respect and gratitude: such feminists are both Republicans and Democrats, religious and secular, they are in all professions, and they exist everywhere in the world.
However, I mourn the Stalinization and Palestinianization of the feminist postcolonial and postmodern academy and media. Because such feminists refuse to “judge” Islamic gender apartheid, they and their institutions and organizations have become anti-activist, anti-American, anti-Israeli, isolationist, and, at best, tools of the Democratic party. At worst, they are apologists for Islamist jihad. To avoid the McCarthyite charge of “racism,” such feminists have been willing to sacrifice the victims of Islamism on their “multicultural” altars.
Lopez: What’s most infuriating about the “death” of feminism?
Chesler: The fact that a cowardly, conformist, and pale imitation of what feminism was meant to be is now touted as the “real thing.” The fact that an aggressively secular and primarily narrow and intolerant feminism has driven away millions of women (and men) and that this fact does not give what is left of organized feminism the slightest pause. Also, the refusal of feminists to really grapple with woman’s inhumanity to woman (the title of my tenth book) is saddening. Like men, women–including feminists–also internalize sexist beliefs. In addition, women are both hard-wired and socialized to compete mainly with other women, not with men–and to do so through slander and ostracism. Thus, the mainstream feminist refusal to acknowledge that, like men, women are human beings, as close to the apes as to the angels, is sad and infuriating.
Lopez: What would you like every American to know about your Afghan captivity?
Chesler: When I was very young and twice as foolish, I married my college sweetheart who was, I thought, a very Westernized Muslim man from Afghanistan. When we traveled to Kabul on what I thought was merely a visit, my American passport was confiscated and I was put into[isolation]. This was not unique; it’s what happens to all foreign brides. And much worse: Custody of children whose fathers are Muslim or Arab and whose mothers are American–even if they are born in America–belong to the father and his family; only mercenaries can get such children back to America. And yes, individual Afghans are charming, soulful, poetic, hospitable, and beautiful. But they are not Westerners. Thus, to my amazement, I discovered that my father-in-law had three wives and twenty-one children. I quickly discovered that my Westernized husband also had a strong Eastern side: He saw nothing wrong with how women were treated (sheeted, segregated on public buses, subjected to arranged marriages, denied minimal educations and medical care) and expected me to accept Islamic gender apartheid. Well, as a matter of fact, he did see something wrong, but was perfectly willing to accept a very slow pace of change, even if that meant that I was instantly consigned to the tenth century while he continued on in the 20th century without me. Such behavior is hardly unusual today, nor was it unique to me almost forty-five years ago. I nearly died there. I managed to get out. I write about this in my chapter about my “Afghan Captivity” in my latest book The Death of Feminism. [The chapter is excerpted here.
My experience taught me some important lessons that are currently of vital importance to Americans.
First, I learned that both evil and barbarism are indigenous to every culture and not caused by imperialism, colonialism, or Zionism–as the Western intelligentsia would have it. Afghanistan had never ever been occupied by the British, who literally died in droves trying to invade. The refusal to enter the 20th century was an entirely Afghan and Muslim decision. I was there in 1961, long before the Taliban made things much harsher for girls and women.
Second, I learned that Muslims who can pass for Westerners often have multiple cultural personalities. In the West, they are like us; in the East, they are not. In a jihadic era, when jihadists are moving among us and have access to our most advanced ideas about tolerance and to our technology, it is important to keep this in mind.
Third, I also learned that America may not be perfect, but it is not the worst country in the world; rather, it is the best country. It is a perspective that I would like other Americans, especially our academics, to ponder. What we have here would constitute a revolution in any Arab and Muslim country.
Fourth, I am not a cultural relativist. I have seen the lives of poor people and of women in a third-world country and believe that they are entitled to the same rights and freedoms that Western people enjoy. We have a moral imperative to assist in the modernization of all human cultures; how to do so, and at what cost, remain unanswered, burning questions.
Finally, every day I lived in Kabul my mother-in-law tried to convert me to Islam. She eventually scorned me as the “Yahud” (the “Jew”). Thus, I became finely attuned to religious apartheid as well. I understood that, with some exceptions, Muslims do not have a history or a psychology of tolerating other religions very well; on the contrary. Islamic history is one in which Muslims have taxed, impoverished, jailed, murdered, or exiled all those who do not convert to Islam. Today, the level of anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda in the Islamic world is lethal, toxic, and has unleashed a global jihad against both Israel and the West. We cannot afford to tolerate the intolerant nor can we afford to minimize the dangers to our civilization posed by Islamist fanatics who have successfully hijacked their religion and peoples. There were also “good” and moderate Germans during Hitler’s reign. What matters is that they did not stand up to Hitler. What matters is that otherwise “good” people appeased him as well….
Lopez: Is it shocking to you that “feminism” can’t give President Bush any credit, at least, say, for removing the Taliban from power?
Chesler: Yes. I published a letter in the New York Times congratulating him for doing so. I have also written about the powerful women’s-rights language contained in many of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speeches throughout the Muslim Middle East. It is also shocking that the same feminists who protected President Bill Clinton’s sexual abuse of women have not congratulated President Bush for his appointment of Condoleezza Rice and for his Administration’s attempts to craft and enforce legislation against trafficking, both domestically and internationally.
Lopez: Did you actually get grief from feminist for writing about the “gender cleaning” of women in Sudan?
Chesler: Yes, I did. When I sent one such piece around, certain left feminists told me that they did not even want to read what I had written because they did not “approve” of my writing for conservative publications. Not even if my pro-woman pieces were solicited and welcomed in conservative quarters and totally censored in left-liberal mainstream quarters. I had a similar problem when I wrote about the refusal of Lukas Moodyson, the brilliant Swedish filmmaker, to allow his film against trafficking (Lilya-4-ever), to be shown at a feminist anti-trafficking conference in Israel. While he allowed the film to be shown in every country on earth where brothels, pimps, and traffickers flourished, he refused to allow anti-trafficking Israelis to show the film once because he disapproved of Israel’s military policies. I wrote a piece about censorship and prejudice and about the demonization of Israel which was immediately rejected by the New York and L.A. Times. I published it in Frontpage Magazine and within 48 hours Moodyson reversed his decision and allowed the Israeli feminists to show his film. The fact that my piece got some immediate positive results did not matter. All that mattered was that I had published it in a so-called “right-wing rag.”
In addition, as I write in The Death of Feminism, the level of anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda and intolerance towards all those who do not kow-tow to it is fairly monumental on many feminist list-serv groups. If one does not believe that America “deserved” 9/11; if one does not view America as the true “terrorist”; if one does not believe that Arabs and Muslims are being persecuted in America for “racist” reasons; and if one does not simultaneously believe that the Jews are “imagining” or “exaggerating” anti-Semitism–then one is not welcome on such list-serv groups. In fact, I was literally “purged,” Stalinist-style from one such group for my various pro-America and pro-Israel “Thought Crimes.” It was a most instructive experience.
Lopez: What do you mean by “women’s studies has been taken over by totalitarian thinkers?”
Chesler: The kind of closed-minded “political correctness” which I have just described above is typical of groupthink and totalitarian thinking. If someone thinks for herself in an independent and creative way and dares to come up with non-party-line conclusions, she or he is then, in classic Orwellian style, deemed the enemy, a traitor, a non-person. Their work will not be read or discussed. They will not be invited to debate or to debate in a civilized and honorable way. They will be called a “racist” and a “neoconservative.” If a feminist dares raise the specter of Jew-hatred and the demonization of the Jewish state among leftists and feminists, she will quickly discover that she has become unwelcome in the mainstream media and among leftists (who actually think of themselves as liberals), and among feminists. Palestinianized Western feminists are more concerned with the so-called occupation of a country that does not exist (Palestine), than with the occupation of women’s bodies worldwide under Islam. The fact that feminists and leftists still continue to call for boycotts of Israel and to actively demonstrate against a war-time president even after 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 tells me that they have literally been brainwashed and that reality has no defining role in determining their thoughts or their actions.
Lopez: What’s the “new feminism” you envision?
Lopez: I have no intention of leading a new feminist movement. Hopefully other, younger people might do that. For all the reasons mentioned above, I doubt I could work with feminists who are so anti-America, so anti-military, so anti-Israel, so depressingly left–and so intolerant of intellectual diversity. I could work with feminists, especially religious, Republican, conservative, and Muslim feminists, who understand that totalitarian and terrorist Islam and jihad must be militarily defeated. If not, all our gains will be for naught.
I would very much like to see every American trade and peace treaties tied to women’s rights. In addition, every micro-lending program should stipulate that girls in that particular village will not be genitally mutilated, forced to marry as children, and that they will be educated. I believe that there are feminists in the administration who are thinking similar thoughts. I could work with them, but I could also best work on such policies as part of a conservative think tank. The Western academy, as I know it, is no longer hospitable to non-politically correct thinking. See what happened to Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, when he crushed the divestment in Israel initiatives and dared to say aloud something that might be true about gender differences in math and science He was forced to resign. Also see how many distinguished and Saudi-funded universities feel that the concept of academic freedom exists solely to protect the hate speech of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and of other such hate groups.
Lopez: To what extent is there easy common ground on the Right and the Left as far as a new feminism goes?
Chesler: Perhaps such categories as “left” and “right” are no longer useful. I write about this at length in The Death of Feminism. On the other hand, the “Left” is aggressively secular and anti-religious; considers pornography to be “protected” hate speech; considers prostitution and trafficking to be forms of “sex work” which should be de-criminalized or legalized; views paternal sole-custody of children as the feminist solution to the problems that mothers have when they juggle child care and career responsibilities; believes that men and women are actually the “same”; has absolutely no foreign policy except that of opposing whatever President Bush and America do or ever have done–they really might as well be French; and has no universal feminist policy vis-à-vis jihadic Islam and its Muslim victims. The “right” has opposite views on these subjects. Although some “right-wingers” have diverse views on abortion, civil rights for gay people, the role of multi-national corporations in a time of war, the importance of intellectual and ideological diversity; the dangers of appeasing the Islam, etc. there are few “left wingers” who are at all diverse on their issues. If I am wrong–I hope they start saying so quickly, loudly, and proudly.