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Phyllis Anwar

Phyllis Davidson Anwar was the first woman of her time to refuse to wear the chaderi (burqa), Afghanistan's tent-like veil.

Phyllis Davidson was born in Minneapolis in 1919 and finished high school in the Mesabi iron range of northern Minnesota. She was seventeen when her family moved to New York City in 1936. While her mother operated a boarding house on Riverside Drive near Columbia University, Phyllis attended Hunter College. It was at the boarding house that she met Hammad Anwar, a student at Columbia. They were married in 1939.

At Hunter, Phyllis was active in the Young Communist League, the youth group of the Communist Party. Although Hammad himself never became a Communist, he shared her partisanship for the oppressed. The couple hoped to play a role in fostering progressive changes in Afghanistan when they returned to his homeland in 1941.

In Afghanistan, Phyllis challenged the seclusion of women not only by rejecting the chaderi but by attending movies, swimming and riding a bicycle in the bazaar, activities fully in concert with her husband's desire for modernizing reform. However the Afghan monarchy viciously quashed any talk of reform, and Phyllis and Hammad Anwar were forced to flee the widening net of repression at the end of 1943.


The couple resettled in the New York City area, where Phyllis devoted herself to raising three sons. When the youngest entered kindergarten she became a public school teacher, a career she pursued into the late 1970s.

Phyllis' interest in Marxism was rekindled by the activism of two of her sons, and after her retirement from teaching she began to lend her literary talents to the production of Workers Vanguard, the newspaper of the Spartacist League, a Trotskyist organization. She eventually joined the SL for several years.

An accomplished cellist, Phyllis subsequently focused her energies on practicing and performing chamber music. She died in 2002.


The sun never shines on Afghan women

Phyllis Anwar gave the following speech at an International Women's Day forum at Harvard University in March 1980, entitled "Women of the East--Proletarian Revolution or Slavery: Down with Islamic Reaction! Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!" The forum was sponsored by the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League. It is reprinted from Women and Revolution (Spring 1980).

I lived in Afghanistan from 1941 to 1944. Now, countries that have oppression of any sort oppress their women more than they oppress their men. I suppose that the most obvious misery was the veil. The veil in Afghanistan is not a simple thing over the head held with the teeth or the hand the way it is in Iran. The first time I saw it was when we were met in Jalalabad after a day's trip in a truck with holes in the side.

My brother-in-law had come to meet us, and he had a bundle for me. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. He said this was the veil and I should wear it. I unwrapped this thing and here was something long enough to go over my head to the ground. The top was a very beautifully embroidered cap, and fastened on it was cloth like muslin bed sheeting dyed a pale blue. It was cut in lengths long enough to reach from the ear to the floor, and then it was folded in pleats–and only when the top of this pleating extended from ear to ear were you through and you fastened it onto the cap. Then in the front, unpleated, was a piece that came down approximately to the knees. And then after the embroidery was done they pulled out threads and left little holes–little more than one eighth of an inch of webbing to look through–so everything was kind of shadowed. This is where the Spartacist League got the slogan, "The sun never shines on Afghan women."

This slogan is true in much more than just a literal sense. In a climate that would be absolutely superb for a TB sanitarium–the air is so clear there that at night when the moon shines you can see color–there is a high level of TB, especially among the women. They don't get the sun and they breathe the dust that swirls up underneath when this approximately 30 yards of muslin moves with the breeze, and they choke on it. And in the rainy season the veil gets wet. If you could imagine all that wet cloth hanging on your head–it's very tiring. And if you have a small baby, the baby is carried underneath this. It is an exceedingly unhealthy thing. Little girls at the school where I taught–which had to be called a hospital to fool the mullahs–also had to wear this veil, only in black, which was the color of the school uniform.

My husband, an Afghan who had been a student in America for eight years and a leftist (as I was), refused to let me wear it. He said that we would take our chances. Up to this time the veil was so strictly enforced that even foreign women married to Afghans wore the damned thing.

Well, the result of this refusal was that the prime minister called my husband into the office and asked him why he didn't make me wear the veil. My husband said, "She's an American citizen and I can't do a thing with her." So the prime minister said, "Okay, but no Afghan can walk through the bazaar with a foreign woman beside him. So after this when you walk through the bazaar together, she's to walk a hundred paces behind you."

So he would start out and after I'd counted to a hundred paces, I would start out. And in the middle of the bazaar he would meet a friend. Now in Afghanistan you do not say "Hi" and walk on. "How are you? How's your mother? How's your father? How's your brother? How's your uncle? I hope your father is well. I hope that your mother is feeling fine. Your brother I am sure has recovered." This goes on for ten minutes. Do I stop in the middle of the bazaar for ten minutes while men walk by whispering obscenities on the assumption that I don't know enough Persian to know it or go on by myself? So I would walk up and join my husband and then we would walk on together. And the next day the prime minister would call him, and I'd see him bicycle past the school and know that he was about to catch hell again. And again the hundred-pace rule would be established. That was a battle that went on all the time we were in Afghanistan.

The day I arrived in Kabul there was a demonstration in front of the palace by the mullahs. They had gathered to protest the fact that the rich ladies were making their veils out of silk and that was sort of revealing when the wind blew. And anyhow women's ankles showed and the men standing on the corner could tell whether they were young or old or rich or poor. What the mullahs wanted was that the women should wear these big pants–they are kind of balloon pants, maybe ten feet wide gathered in with string and with feet in them like kids' pajamas–and wooden clogs to keep them off the gravel. That way the men would not be overstimulated by seeing the women's ankles.

Another bad thing that women go through is the business of marriage. They are more or less bought. In fact, there is a brideprice that goes along with it. And the man can divorce his wife simply by writing three times, "I hereby divorce you." I was divorced in this way in order to get out of Afghanistan, because so long as I was married I couldn't get an exit visa. I was never allowed out of the city of Kabul.

Now you may think that all of this has improved, because after all it was 35 years ago. But three weeks ago I saw an interview by a New York Times reporter with a doctor among the tribes [New York Times, 24 February]. He was not involved with either tribe in a new area he was in, so that made him a mediator of the feuds. So a man of one tribe was killed and then his tribe was ready to kill someone in reprisal. The doctor suggested they mediate this thing, and in the end they decided they wouldn't kill anyone. They would take what the other family offered. There was a sum of money, two mules–and two little girls!

The Iranian religious fanatic Khomeini says in his book that it is a great honor for a girl to get her first menstrual period in the home of her husband. Well, it at least makes sure that the wife is virgin. In any case, so much stress is placed on this that both families hang around on the wedding night to make sure the sheets are properly blood-smeared the next morning, and any wife's mother makes sure to have a fresh-killed chicken on hand to make the situation come out right.

When I was there I had many female relatives who used to talk to me about life for women in Afghanistan–how lucky I was that I didn’t have to wear the veil, how lucky I was that I could read, how lucky I was to see, how lucky I was. And one of them once said to me that she didn't care who invaded the country. Anything would be worth it to get rid of a life like this. Now I spoke to her about this recently and she's changed her mind because the Russians have come in and she says there's violence. She sees the tanks and the shooting and says it is violence, and she does not realize that every single day of her life has been violence. Violence of the most degrading kind. The thing that happens to women in Afghanistan is the destruction of the person–the complete destruction–so that when a 13-year-old girl came here from Afghanistan, it took three years before I could persuade her to try to learn to read. She knew that women don't read!

The day after my brother-in-law brought me that veil in Jalalabad we got to the top of the pass where you go down into Kabul and there I saw what to me over these past 35 years has been a symbol of Afghanistan. We rounded the curve of the mountain, and there lying beside the road was a cow with the whole center of its stomach eaten out and two vultures standing there finishing it off. They looked as tall as I am. It was so horrible to look at that to me it has been ever since the symbol of what life in Afghanistan is like.

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