Personal Nightmare Helped Shape Pioneer Feminist
Discovery of Unexpected Sexism Far From Home Impelled Activist's Work
I have two friends, one a Republican and one a Democrat, to whom I gave pioneer feminist and passionate writer Phyllis Chesler's newest book, An American Bride in Kabul. Both read it. Independently of each other, they said to me, "Every American should read this book!" I have two other friends, one a feminist and one not. Each of them read the book and said, "Every American should read this book!"
Chesler, a Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York and a force of nature whose insightful writing and speaking and activism helped impel the Second Wave of the women's movement, was 20 years old in 1961, had been raised by Orthodox Jewish parents, and was a college student in the United States when she fell in love with and married a fellow student who was from Afghanistan, seemed European in manner and interests, and shared her love of theatre, film, and the world of ideas. Writing now in part from diaries she kept at the time, in her new book she vividly and compellingly describes the shock she experienced when she married him, moved with him to Afghanistan, saw him immediately transformed into a stranger who appeared totally in line with his family's isolation of her in purdah and forbidding of her to leave their compound alone to explore her new city and country.
When, desperately ill, she managed a secret escape and return to the U.S., subsequently ending the marriage, she began decades of learning about Afghanistan and the treatment of women and of Jews there, as well as about Islam, feminist Muslims, and other subjects related to her own experience. What she had been through helped her become one of the most influential, fearless, far-sighted feminists of her time.
Kirkus Reviews, which my publisher once described to me as tough on authors, published this statement about the book: "A renowned psychotherapist's richly compelling memoir about how her experiences as an Afghan man's wife helped shape her as both a feminist and human rights activist.... Intelligent, powerful, and timely." I agree.
The depth and thoughtfulness of Chesler's description of what happened to her and how she came to understand how and why she ended up virtually imprisoned by a man she deeply loved is an illustration of a theme that has interested me for decades. My 1985 book, The Myth of Women's Masochism, was in part a response to the then- and still-frequent claim that women's suffering is borne of their need to suffer, indeed their enjoyment of pain. It was an absurd and dangerous claim then as it is now. Applying that understanding to what Chesler describes, we see that she not only did not need to suffer and certainly did not enjoy it but rather detested it and began searching for an escape as soon as she realized that she could not change her situation or her marriage but could only try to get out. As for whether it was a search for suffering that led her into the marriage, clearly it was not. The man she married was smart, thoughtful, interesting, and loving and respectful toward her at the time. When someone treats you that way, if you develop and cling to suspicion that underneath it all, he must be a tyrant and a misogynist, you are called unwomanly and paranoid. At age 20, born and raised in New York, unfamiliar with the worlds of Afghanistan and her husband's family's place within it, she could not possibly have foreseen what she encountered after arriving in Kabul. Once she got there, she tried hard to avoid pain and enjoy herself, explore and learn about Kabul, and persuade her husband to go back to treating her as an equal. When her first foray outside the family compound to see the city led to panic and rage from her husband and his family, she saw that she could not have any kind of life there and would have to leave. In fact, she did escape in remarkably short time and against huge odds. And she used what she had learned not only to avoid such dangers in the future herself but also to try to make the world safer for women and girls. She cofounded the Association for Women in Psychology, the National Women's Health Network, and the International Committee for the Women of the Wall and wrote more than a dozen books about an awe-inspiring range of topics, many of which no one had dared write about before...at least not with the insight and courage with which she did it. Hardly the actions of someone who revels in suffering.
A recent book by psychologists Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell is called Blind to Betrayal and is in a way the offspring of The Myth of Women's Masochism. Without ever naming that myth outright, Freyd and Birrell in their clearly-written, beautifully-argued book address the question, "How can people -- especially women -- fail to recognize when they are being betrayed or take so long to see it?" Some, of course, would claim that masochism blinds them to betrayal. Writing about betrayal both by individuals in one's life and by institutions such as the educational system, the workplace, religion, and the military, Freyd and Birrell present case histories that show how intense fears or fervent hopes can be so powerful as to make one unaware of being betrayed. It almost seems too obvious to have to spell out, for instance, that love and joy experienced in a relationship with a partner makes one want more of that love and joy, so that what in retrospect can be seen as a sign that the partner was unfaithful at the time is seen as the partner's emotional distance due to pressures from work or having been abused as a child. And because women especially are expected to wear rose-colored glasses, to overlook the faults of others or, if the faults are major, to shoulder the burden of helping others overcome those faults, and women who fail to do so are called unfeminine, impatient, and self-centered, the danger signs are invisible or masked. That is lightyears away from the wish to be betrayed, rejected, or humiliated, but it all too often is mislabeled as masochism. Similarly, the terror of being alone or of harming one's children by depriving them of the presence of a father (even an abusive one) in the home can lead to betrayal blindness but is very different from enjoyment of pain. Thus, Blind to Betrayal is an important book, and its authors go beyond their lucid description of what causes blindness to betrayal -- in men as well as women, by the way -- to provide practical guidance for those who see that people they care about are being betrayed when the victims of the betrayal cannot yet see it themselves.
The myth that women enjoy suffering has been used to keep women down for far too long, allowing societal impediments to women's happiness and advancement -- including the too-frequent condoning of men's violence against women and glass ceilings in the workplace -- to be blamed on women's alleged seeking out of pain and enjoyment of it. These two books in different ways do much to help debunk that vile and dangerous myth.
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