Gregor Hunter - Apr 17, 2007
Phyllis Chesler said she believes her experiences as a woman living under Islamic law in Afghanistan have given her a perspective which few others in academic circles can understand.
When Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 1971, Chesler said she appealed to American feminists to airlift women out of the country to protect them from the violence that she had witnessed under similar Afghan laws.
“I knew they would be gang raped, impregnated, then killed by their families, or by themselves. The women (in America) thought that I was being poetic. But I was right,” she said.
On campus Monday, Chesler addressed topics of female oppression in the Muslim world and growing anti-Semitism worldwide, including academic circles and the media.
She spoke on about her young life as a Brooklyn-born Jewish woman trapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, by repressive laws against women.
Today, Chesler is a professor emeritus of psychology and women’s studies at the College of Staten Island, and since the 1970s she has campaigned for women’s rights and been a prominent writer and lecturer.
Chesler said she traveled to Afghanistan at the age of 20 to marry her childhood sweetheart and visit some of the oldest cities in the world.
“I went to Afghanistan hoping I would have a grand adventure,” she said.
She recalled that things took a wrong turn as soon as she arrived, when a government official confiscated her U.S. passport. She said she was unable to leave the country, denied human rights, and was treated “like a slave,” until she eventually escaped and fled to the U.S.
“I literally kissed the ground at Idlewild Airport (in New York) when my plane landed,” she said.
Organizers said they selected Chesler to speak because of her scholarly reputation and her history of academic protest.
“She is a pioneer in feminism, she has spoken out over 30 years,” said Leila Beckwith, co-chairwoman of the UCLA chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international faculty organization from more than 200 universities across the world and the group that hosted the lecture.
Though the lecture did not focus exclusively on feminism, Jessica Danial, a first-year pre-psychology student, found the feminist perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict that Chesler addressed most interesting.
“Dr. Chesler delivered a fascinating lecture which opened my eyes to the dire situation that many women face in the Islamic world including gang rape, honor killings, and genital mutilation,” she said.
Chesler said she believes there is growing anti-Semitism in the Middle East because of new communications technologies such as the internet.
“Today, in my opinion, the danger to the Jews is far graver and more complex than the pagan or medieval world, and graver than it was during World War II. The new anti-Semitism you see in almost every form, in every language, beamed around the world on Youtube,” she said.
Beckwith said they hoped Chesler’s visit would revitalize student interest in global women’s rights.
“I hope that they will be more aware of how women are treated and the problems that they face in Islamic countries.” Beckwith said.
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