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Can We Rescue Afghan Feminists First?

America and the West have mainly vowed to rescue the men who interpreted for our troops.

Phyllis Chesler
Phyllis Chesler

American troops are leaving Afghanistan—and, as I've written before (1,2), the moment that the last western military boot leaves Afghan soil, the Taliban will torch every single shelter for battered women, burn down every schoolhouse for girls, shoot on sight every naked-faced female television broadcaster, politician, police officer, teacher, and physician. Women and girls will again be banished from public view, whether hidden under burqas or kept indoors. Their fates will be terrible.

The Taliban will not allow girls and women to attend school—or go to work. Those without husbands and fathers will be forced to beg or to become highly stigmatized prostitutes. Those with male relatives will be subjected to normalized battering, rape, incest, and honor killing.

Come September 1, 2021, the Taliban will start publicly stoning women, feminists first, to death for their alleged crimes. The hands of thieves will be cut off according to Sharia law. Women will again stumble around in chadaris, burqas—sensory deprivation isolation chambers on the move.

Women in Afghan burqas (c) Wikimedia commons

We must rescue these women—but as yet, we possess no Feminist Air Force and no feminist government with the power to air-lift women out of danger and onto sovereign soil. This is actually something that I first called for way back in 1971.

What drives me so?

I was once held captive in fairly posh purdah in Kabul. This dangerous but magnificent adventure became something of a writer's treasure. From time to time, I miss the splendid, soaring beauty of the mountains, the biblically barefoot, naked-faced nomad women, the charm and humor of individual Afghans. I do not miss having my American passport taken away or the loss of my liberty.

When we landed in Kabul, at least thirty members of my husband’s family were there to greet us. The airport officials smoothly confiscated my American passport. "It's just a formality, nothing to worry about," my husband Abdul-Karim assured me. "You'll get it back later." I never saw that passport again.

I was now the citizen of no country and the property of a large polygamous family. Unbeknownst to me, my father-in-law had three wives and twenty one children. And I was expected to live with my mother-in-law. All Afghan daughter-in-laws do so.

I was also expected to convert to Islam.

I was essentially under house arrest and living in the tenth century. I had no freedom of movement, nothing with which to occupy myself. I was supposed to accept this.

I had experienced gender apartheid long before the Taliban made it headline news.

When I returned from Afghanistan, I kissed the ground at New York City's Idlewild Airport. I weighed 90 pounds and had hepatitis. Although I would soon become active in the American civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and feminist movements, what I had learned in Kabul rendered me immune to the Third World romanticism that infected so many American radicals.

Perhaps my "Western" feminism was forged in that most beautiful and treacherous of countries.

Firsthand experience of life in Kabul has shaped the kind of feminist I became and have remained—one who is not “politically correct" or a multi-cultural relativist.  I learned how incredibly servile oppressed peoples could be and how deadly the oppressed could be toward each other. My poor mother-in-law was very cruel to her female servants. She beat her elderly personal servant and verbally humiliated our young and pregnant housemaid. This was an observation that stayed with me.


Fast forward to Now. American and Western troops are finally leaving Afghanistan. We could not nation-build nor could we permanently change the mindset of the Taliban.

Earlier today, I published an article in which I proposed a rather obvious solution to the desperate danger in which educated Afghan women, especially feminists, now find themselves.

Let’s rescue them first. Let’s rescue them even if they have never worked for American troops but have worked on behalf of women’s freedom.

America and the West have mainly vowed to rescue the men who interpreted for our troops, as well as their families. However, in doing so, we may be importing Islamic gender apartheid into our midst.

Do we really want to do that?

“Why not focus on the women who staffed the shelters for battered women in Kabul and Herat?”


Although I’m sure there are exceptions, the mainly male interpreters who have helped American troops may be somewhat educated in terms of language skills, but really, have they—and will they—give up the practice of forced female face-veiling, child marriage, cousin marriage, polygamy, purdah (segregating women), child labor, woman-battering, gender segregation, and honor killing? If they engaged in these behaviors back home, won’t they do so even more when surrounded by an infidel culture? How long are we obligated to try and change such tribal behaviors? Is it even possible to do so?

I once worked with a Canadian advocate for an educated Afghan man who behaved in the most primitive of ways in Canada—he hid his Afghan wife, preyed upon Canadian women, made impossible demands—and then turned on the very Canadians who had helped him. I doubt he was unique.

I’m currently in touch with an activist in the UK who is helping the government resettle Afghan refugees as they arrive. She tells me that the men want only new houses, not apartments, and new furniture as well—plus, they do not plan to send their children to school because they need them to work on behalf of the family. They do not want their daughters to mingle with infidels.

Why not focus on the women who staffed the shelters for battered women in Kabul and Herat; the women physicians, teachers of girls, naked-faced television journalists, police officers, (who risked death every single day), the parliamentarians—or, in short, those Afghans who have already rebelled against Islamist misogyny and who are most likely to embrace western ways?

Today, I took this simple idea one step further. I wrote to my Congressional and Senatorial representatives (Kirsten Gillibrand, Carolyn Maloney, and Chuck Schumer), as well as to other New York State politicians and attorneys (Attorney General Letitia James, NYC Council member Ben Kallos, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, New York State Senator Liz Kreuger, New York State Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright, Guardian Angel and Mayoral candidate Curtis Silwa, and NYC Council member Dan Quart) in the hope I could interest them in this most worthy project.

“I had experienced gender apartheid long before the Taliban made it headline news.”


I also turned to Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and human rights activists such as Ali Alyami, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Asra Nomani, and Raheel Raza and to grassroots activists such as Mandy Sanghera.

I contacted every member on the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (which includes 20 US Senators, a list of whom can be found here), but since no one from New York State is on the committee, my plea for Afghan women will not be heard. Members of this committee include Senator Bob Menendez (New Jersey), James E. Risch (Idaho), Ben Cardin (Maryland), Marco Rubio (Florida), Ted Cruz (Texas), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), along with thirteen others.

If, by chance, they represent YOU, please consider writing to them. Please use my proposal and link to this article if you wish.

I understand: We are not morally responsible to do that which cannot be done, namely, educate the Taliban to respect all human life. It is increasingly clear: We cannot successfully impose a Western view of human rights there – or in neighboring Pakistan or Iran – even as we are condemned as racist imperialists and colonialists, often by Western "progressives."

But we have influenced many of the women in Afghanistan. They have devoted their lives to serving girls and women.

I cannot help thinking about them.

As feminists, can we at least try to save some of our counterparts?


Featured image to this article is a mural by Afghan graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani (c) Wikimedia Commons

Middle East

Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology, the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness (1972), Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (2002), and Requiem For a Female Serial Killer (2020).