A Cause Unveiled

Hollywood Women Have Made the Plight
of Afghan Women Their Own-- Sight Unseen

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page C01

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LOS ANGELES, March 29. Last August the compassionate, concerned, dedicated women of the Feminist Majority -- a small group of activists based in Hollywood and Washington -- were utterly miserable.

It had been eight months since Mavis Leno, wife of Jay and member of the board, had declared her intention to take on the cause of Afghan women. Eight months of letter-writing, of networking, of power-lunching, and she'd gotten plenty of sympathy but no real action.

The average American remained blissfully unaware that women half a world away were being repressed by the Taliban, the ultra-conservative Islamic group that had swept to power in 1996 and dragged the country back several centuries. The Taliban decreed that women were to be hidden beneath full-length shrouds in public and denied them education, freedom of movement and the opportunity to work. Women who resisted were beaten. Women suspected of offenses like adultery were stoned. To death.

"It was clear to me," says Mavis Leno, sitting in her West Hollywood headquarters, "that if women in the West didn't do something pretty spectacular, these women were lost." She is dark-haired and articulate, with a vague resemblance, strangely, to her famous husband. She goes on, "It would be like the German and Polish Jews, like the peasants under Stalin. They'd be swallowed by history. And I didn't want that to happen while I was alive."

So Mavis and Jay Leno dug deep and handed over $100,000 to get the movement rolling.

And roll it has. In six months the Taliban's "war on women" has become the latest cause celebre in Hollywood. Tibet is out. Afghanistan is in. The Lenos hosted a briefing for insiders at their home. The media showed up in force at their news conference last October. Even President Clinton got on board. Ten days ago, he spent an hour talking with a Feminist Majority delegation about the plight of Afghan women. The latest twist is that Clinton pal and veteran TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produced a media event tonight at the Directors Guild that was the official coming-out of the Afghan women's cause.

It was a must-attend happening, gathering perhaps the largest number of celebrities for a single cause since the "We Are the World" campaign 14 years ago. Some 70 household names -- everyone from Vince Gill to Marlo Thomas to Lionel Richie to Paula Abdul to Christine Lahti -- were on the guest list. Richie sang an anthem he donated, "Love, Oh Love," and Naomi Judd and Gill also performed. Alfre Woodard, Gillian Anderson and Lily Tomlin were among the speakers.

At the Feminist Majority offices, the adrenaline rush from this rising momentum is unmistakable. Leno is charged, if somewhat weary. "For a human rights situation this is unusually simple," she says. "The Taliban are spectacularly villainous. They are so uneducated, they don't have the wit to disguise their villainy. That's a rarity. You can't write it off to culture or religion. It's so inhumane. So unaccepted. This is not a decent way to treat human beings."

Her colleague, national coordinator Kathy Spillar, nods in agreement. She repeats what other Feminist Majority board members have already noted: "There is no 'other side' to this issue."

But it turns out that there is another side to this issue.

There is no question that there has been severe persecution of women under the Taliban, the Sunni Muslim militia that controls 90 percent of the nation and is an offshoot of the rebels funded largely by the United States after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. But the question of women's oppression in Afghanistan -- like most problems in that troubled part of the world -- is intensely complicated.

Several specialists on Afghanistan disputed some aspects of the picture painted by the Feminist Majority, notably about access to health care and education. They expressed concern that the Hollywood activists are distorting the reality of the current conditions, exaggerating abuses, and taking them out of a critical historical context.

Worse, some international relief officials fear that if the Feminist Majority's campaign is successful, it may end up harming those who most need help by encouraging donor nations to reduce their aid or cut it off completely.

"Those who are speaking out now are well-intentioned but they don't have the full story," says Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan relief operation of Save the Children, in a phone interview from Pakistan. "It's misleading to the point where there's more and more of a movement from human rights groups and the Feminist Majority to say cut off all aid, which is a real misunderstanding of the situation and will only hurt the very groups these women want to help."

"This is a terrible snow job," says Judy Benjamin, head of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who returned a couple of weeks ago from visiting Afghan refugee camps on the border with Pakistan. "It's amusing almost, but sad. With the Jay Leno connection they have struck it rich and gained Hollywood, but trust me, they're terribly misinformed."

In testimony before Congress earlier this month, Leno noted that the Taliban has "banned women from being treated by male doctors," and that "the few female doctors who are permitted to work are often harassed." During two days of interviews at the Feminist Majority offices, the impression left on a reporter is that health care is virtually unavailable to women in Afghanistan.

But Benjamin and Wilder and a U.N. official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, all confirm that there are segregated women's wards in many Afghan hospitals, and that the Taliban has rescinded restrictions on women's health care. A much larger problem, they note, is the lack of medicine throughout the country and medical personnel, particularly in rural areas.

Education for girls is formally banned by the Taliban. But nearly a dozen non-governmental groups are conducting schooling for boys and girls, and home schooling is widespread in the capital of Kabul.

Where the abuses strike most viciously, it seems, is in cities like Kabul, which was increasingly Westernized, particularly under the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Under the Soviets, women were free to work and pursue an education, and many gained prominent roles during the civil war in the '80s and '90s as men were siphoned off to fight. For these women, the ban on employment and the deprivations of the burqa, the full-length shroud women are required to wear by the Taliban, are particularly demeaning.

But sweeping statements like those in the Feminist Majority's media advisory for tonight's event -- "In Afghanistan today eleven and a half million women and girls are prisoners in their own homes" -- are largely inaccurate, according to those familiar with the country.

Says Zalmay Khalilzad, a Reagan administration expert on Afghanistan now at the Rand Corp., "In the rural areas, what the Taliban is seeking to impose is not very different than what the norm has been."

Leila Helms, a Westernized, Afghan-born woman who is pro-Taliban, has just returned from a two-week tour of Afghanistan where she says she filmed six hours of interviews with women in five provinces. The burqa, she said, is not widespread in the countryside, and she met many women moving freely about, without male relatives as chaperons.

Says Helms: "I met 150 women. I asked every one if they were beaten or knew someone who had been. . There was one woman who'd been beaten once on her shoulders two years ago because her face was showing and she was talking to a man she didn't know. Every single other one hadn't been beaten, and did not know someone who had been beaten."

These prickly issues aside, the reason why Helms -- a secular, pro-abortion American -- favors the Taliban is because for six years she witnessed the country's devastation when she and her husband worked in Afghan refugee camps at the Pakistani border from 1988 to 1994. For Helms, the admittedly repressive Taliban at least brought peace to the country, and Hollywood's sudden concern for Afghan women angers her.

She explodes: "Where were they when all these women were being raped, when women were being killed because they were not following the Muslim Brotherhood," the faction that ruled Afghanistan after the expulsion of Soviet troops. "Where were they before the war when women didn't have rights? Where were they throughout the war when women were rotting in the refugee camps?"

She continues: "For nearly 20 years in Afghanistan there has been no law, no order. We lost almost 2 million people to the Russians. The women don't want to be saved by the Feminist Majority. Finally they have peace, and people in America find religion on the issue of women in Afghanistan?"

Lastly, there is Abdel Hakim Mujahed, the Taliban's representative in the United States, who calls the entire campaign "negative propaganda made against us intentionally," which is true enough. He says: "There is no doubt that we cannot make our society like American society, but I can tell you that the situation existing there is far more better than what it was."

Back at the Feminist Majority, there is some softening of the line when confronted with these points of view. President Eleanor Smeal agrees that the Taliban's repression is unevenly enforced but denies that her group has exaggerated the abuses.

"One of the biggest frustrations is you cannot get the exact same fact from any one person. It's very complicated -- you have to listen very closely," she says. "We don't have to exaggerate this. If only one-tenth of this is happening -- we're not trying to exaggerate, we're trying to say what people have told us, and to go with eyewitness accounts."

Smeal also emphasizes that the campaign is not designed to squeeze humanitarian aid to the country, which goes directly to relief agencies and does not pass through the Taliban. Rather, she wants pressure on the government to lift quotas for refugees and to restrict support for economic and agricultural programs in Afghanistan.

She urges, "The big picture is what we've got to keep in mind. We're trying to call attention to horrific conditions."

So how did this come to be Hollywood's new cause of the day? Why not "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo? Or mutilation in Sierra Leone? Or slavery in Mauritania?

Mavis Leno got involved with Afghanistan the way things usually happen in Hollywood -- through a tight network of acquaintances. The longtime feminist heard about the Feminist Majority from group co-founder Peg Yorkin, who sat next to her at a lunch for the New Yorker's "Women's Issue" in 1997. Then she found out that she lived across the street from another board member, Lorraine Sheinberg, wife of producer Sidney Sheinberg.

"I realized -- Oh, this is everything I want, a small group, a short line from recognizing an issue to taking action," recalls Leno, who had been looking for a charitable outlet.

The group was already involved in protesting conditions in Afghanistan when, at the January board meeting last year, Leno -- who up to now has not been a public personality -- offered to lend her name and abilities.

Recalls Smeal, "I said, 'Are you willing to do this? This will change things.' She said, 'We can't abandon those women. We've got to try everything.' "

But for the first eight months or so of her involvement, Leno "came close to popping a blood vessel," she says. "I couldn't get anything rolling." Unocal, part of a huge oil consortium that was considering investing in Afghanistan, pulled out of its pipeline project; that was good. But apart from that, she recalls, "Nothing. Zip. No interest. No nothing." She testified in Congress before a foreign appropriations subcommittee; one media outlet, Afghan radio, showed up. Stories would air on shows like "20/20," and there would be no bounce. "No one could get anyone to raise the visibility of this one-eighth of an inch," she says.

Finally Leno decided that the economics of the movement had to change. She and her husband decided to use the proceeds from Jay's pay-per-view wrestling match with Hulk Hogan to fund the campaign.

Says the late-night host: "At some point you have to do something good with your life. God didn't seem particularly impressed with my collection of cars and motorcycles, he's not an enthusiast when it comes to material possessions. So I figured that at some point you have to do something good, especially in terms of what you make."

Armed with the seed money, the Feminist Majority completely revamped its strategy. It adopted a symbol, put together political action mailers. It set up a toll-free number. It held a press conference that was scheduled -- serendipitously -- a day after the United States had attacked Islamic militant Osama bin Laden's alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan; the media showed up this time.

Bloodworth-Thomason and Leno have focused the campaign with a vengeance. They now have a symbol -- a piece of blue mesh that is the peephole for the Afghan shroud -- a logo and a name, "gender apartheid."

Bloodworth-Thomason brought a burqa with her to the White House when she visited the Clintons at Thanksgiving. The president, Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea all were "astounded by the oppressiveness of the garment," she reports.

Then the activists decided to "go bigger," as they put it, deciding to put together a major media event, to gather as many celebrities as possible to raise the profile of their campaign.

For three months Leno, Bloodworth-Thomason and others have been working the phones, and the huge response is in itself a lesson in the no-degree-of-separation world of Hollywood. Lorraine Sheinberg called Gillian Anderson, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin and Marlo Thomas, among others. Yorkin called Janet Leigh, Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews. Yorkin's daughter writes for "Chicago Hope" -- hence Christine Lahti.

Mavis Leno ran into music producer David Foster who got hold of Vince Gill. Another friend knew Lionel Richie and got him to donate a song to tonight's event. Cybill Shepherd heard from a friend. Bloodworth-Thomason's assistant called Naomi, Wynonna and Ashley Judd's assistant and arranged for them to attend.

"At the beginning we thought, 'If we get two or three celebrities on board' -- and I don't even know what happened. All of a sudden it just blew up," Leno says.

Another unexpected windfall: Leno called Abigail Van Buren to participate. Dear Abby couldn't make it but suggested Leno write a letter to her column. It has yielded some 30,000 phone calls so far. Leno went on "Larry King Live," and recently was a guest on her husband's "Tonight" show.

For the Feminist Majority, this must be the beginning of the road to success. Says Yorkin: "When Hollywood got interested in apartheid in South Africa, that was the beginning of the end. We want the same thing here."

Is the lack of women's rights in Afghanistan the most pressing human rights abuse in the world? "It is an urgent situation," affirms Sheila Dauer, director of the women's human rights program for Amnesty International. "The event they're holding is very important. I would congratulate all the celebrities taking part in this Afghan action."

But others say the dismal situation in Afghanistan is tied just as closely to the economic devastation brought on by 20 years of savagery. Says Benjamin, "Definitely women in Afghanistan are suffering tremendous abuses, their human rights are not being respected. But you need to put this in the context of what's happened to the country in the past two decades. Much of the grief and poverty is a result of conflict and war, not a result of the Taliban. There is suffering and poverty, but in most of Afghanistan people will say the Taliban have brought peace and security."

This very notion makes some Afghan women, in touch with the Feminist Majority, desperate. "Everything you hear is true, is real," pleads Zieba Shorish-Shamley, the Afghan-born director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Freedom in Afghanistan. "I think some of these international organizations are minimizing the atrocities being committed because they want to continue to work, pay their mortgage, send their children to school. These people are beginning to minimize in order to please the Taliban, so they are able to work."

But Jay Leno has the final say on this matter: "They're shining a light on the problem. If this all turns out to be wrong, if it's a huge mistake -- and there seems to be an awful lot of proof in the other direction -- nobody did anything for the wrong reasons."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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