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Stealing Back the Lives of Women

Rights: Mavis Leno is leading the charge against Afghanistan's Taliban, who are subjugating women and girls.

October 28, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a cause, women are never chic. Rain forests, ailing children, vanishing species, AIDS . . . these are the issues that generate philanthropic and activist heat. Women in need . . . well, the fuzzy-warm factor is pretty low. What assails women is usually some pervasive system. The social order. The male psyche. The government. Who wants to confront such behemoths?

Mavis Leno, it would seem. Mavis Leno, wife of Jay. Her life has been, she says, "a very fun, boho kind of existence," but now she is making her high-profile activist debut--on behalf of women. And Afghani women at that.

Last week, she and her husband donated $100,000 to the Feminist Majority Fund, of which she is a board member, in an effort to increase awareness of women living under the Taliban.

A rebel army of religious zealots, the Taliban wrested control of Afghanistan two years ago. At the time, the Muslim majority, including women, had been leading modern if war-torn lives. Women went to college, held jobs outside the home; they made up 70% of the country's teachers, 40% of its doctors. They moved freely. Under the Taliban, all that changed.

An annotated list of the new restrictions and reprisals reads like something from "The Handmaid's Tale." Women no longer are allowed to hold jobs or attend school or college. They may not be treated by male doctors. They may not leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative, and then only if covered from head to toe by a burqa, a body-bag-like garment with a square of netting to peer through.

If they fail to comply with any of these rules, they are beaten or shot.

"These women have had their lives stolen from them," Leno says. "Here, if a woman or girl vanishes, you see it all over the news. This is a whole country, 11 1/2 million women, gone."

She is spearheading the Feminist Majority Foundation's Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid, which is demanding that the U.S. treat Afghanistan as it did South Africa under apartheid--refusing to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government and trying to convince business interests to stay out until these women's rights are restored.

Policy-wise, it's working. "In 1996, we began a campaign of public education and awareness," says Katherine Spillar, the foundation's national coordinator. "And the U.S. has taken a position--both President Clinton and Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright have been outspoken in their condemnation. But we need to do more. We need to put pressure on the government to restore these women's rights."

Leno, she says, "got active just as we were starting. She's testified before Congress, demonstrated, led a delegation to protest Unocal's proposed pipeline [through Afghanistan]. She's really made it her issue."

It is not a glamorous issue, nor is it easily remedied or even assuaged. One cannot simply raise money to fund research and hope for the best. One cannot send these women to Disneyland. It's a cause for a hard-liner, a lifelong, in-the-trenches activist, possibly a nun. And Leno is none of these things.

A rally-attending feminist all her life, she has been with the foundation just two years. But one day she found herself at a meeting in which members were despairing of their efforts.

"We were talking about tabling the whole thing," she recalls. "We were getting nowhere. The press was absolutely silent, and we couldn't raise any money. I'm sitting there, and suddenly I feel this imaginary shove in the back. I thought, 'Oh, right, this is why I'm here!' "

"Here" is the foundation's headquarters in West Hollywood, an odd pinkish building with reflective glass doors and windows. There is an enormous signed poster from "Thelma and Louise" on the wall and Price Club-sized bottles of Rolaids and Motrin. Seated in a large conference room, Leno seems very much at home.

She says that she has long felt the debt she owed the feminist movement and that the time had come to pay up.

"For years, I've been on the road with Jay. I've traveled a lot, done some freelancing," she says. "I've basically been a tourist through life. But I always intended to pay my debt, to give back. This issue is so heart-rending. I was tortured by the image of them trapped in their houses, not knowing if anyone even noticed they were gone. I have to be one of the people looking for them."

So she threw her hand in--including her ace in the hole, her husband, who had supported her from the start. The story of the $100,000 donation, which was made very publicly on both coasts, is a funny one. Seems Hulk Hogan challenged Jay Leno to wrestle on pay per view. Leno agreed, with the stipulation that his share of the profits go to charity. Those profits turned out to be a lot more than either Leno had expected.

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