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Mavis Leno: Lives of Afghan women

Mavis Leno has been chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation's Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan since 1997. The wife of "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, she has been a longtime outspoken critic of Taliban treatment of women. She currently is leading the effort to insure the restoration of women's rights in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

CNN: Precisely how many Afghan women are controlled by Taliban rule?

LENO: At this point, it would be very difficult for me to say because of the huge refugee population -- people fleeing to every border country in such numbers and so continuously that I doubt that anyone has a headcount on that anymore. But I will say that prior to the war, women were definitely the majority of the population, probably 60 percent due to 20 years of war in that country.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Haven't you have been fighting this issue since long before September 11?

LENO: Yes. The Taliban took over in September of 1996, and I joined the Feminist Majority and took on the plight of the women as my particular task in February of 1997. I have worked on this from that day until now.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What kind of lives did Afghan women lead before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan? What sort of life do they lead now?

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LENO: Afghan women before the Taliban had had equal rights under the law since the early '60s. They represented 70 percent of the teachers, 50 percent of the medical workers, they held elected positions and were free to wear the clothes they wanted and come and go as they wished. The war that ultimately led to the Taliban takeover had begun to eat into their freedom, not through anybody oppressing them, but through the sheer physical danger to themselves created by the chaos of the war. But they were still working across the whole spectrum of jobs in that society, and their choice of dress and demeanor was still up to them.

With the Taliban takeover, the women were immediately, without any exceptions, told to go to their homes and stay there. They were told they could no longer work in any capacity. Since there are a huge amount of war widows in this country who are the sole support of their families this threw many families into starvation. The only answer to this problem offered by the Taliban was allowing women to beg if they had no son older than six who could beg for the family instead. They can now be punished if they leave their houses unaccompanied by a close male relative, and wearing a shroud-like garment called a burqa. They can be punished if more than three unrelated women are found gathering together, if their windows are not painted dark so that no one can see in, or even if their shoes make a noise when they walk. By now you can see what brought me into a human rights campaign on their behalf.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What does the Muslim faith say about women's rights?

LENO: You know, it's very similar to asking people what the Bible says about women's rights. It depends on the beliefs of the person you ask. But I do understand that the Taliban form of Islam opposes many direct statements about women in the Koran. For instance, it is a religious obligation of all Muslims to at once take any educational opportunity that is given to them. This is equally required of men and women. The Taliban forbid the education of girls, even to teach them to read. And all the rest of the Islamic world condemns the Taliban version of Islam as a distortion or a perversion of true Islam.

CNN: Is the war effort by the United States helping or hurting women under the Taliban rule?

LENO: Well, it obviously cannot be a helpful experience to the people living in the country. But, it does open a window of opportunity for these women to get their lives back, which might otherwise not have occurred for many years. But it is only an opportunity. It is very much up to our country, to the UN, and to the Afghan people who oppose this treatment of women to make sure that any new government that may arise after the Taliban collapses will ensure equal treatment for these women.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do most of the male population view this the same way as the Taliban?

LENO: No. The Afghan nation was always known in this century to be a liberal nation in the Islamic world. They followed a moderate form of Islam, and the people who lived this way, both men and women, had no desire to follow Taliban teachings. They were taken over at the point of a gun, and ruled at the point of a gun. What was a terrible burden and loss for the women was nearly as bad for the men. Men who depended on their wives' income, as well as their own now are responsible for the total support of their family, and often had to help widowed family members who no longer had any sort of income. They have to accompany their wives any time their wives go out.

So, in essence, all the normal tasks of living, which could once be split between two people, now fell on the shoulders of the men. Men were also forced to grow long beards and attend numerous prayer services during the course of any single day. That further cut into their overburdened lives. The loss of all the skilled female workers meant it was hard for anybody of either sex to get health care or education any longer.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do you think this oppression of woman will effect the young girls growing up?

LENO: Because this is a situation which is only five years old, we feel there is a good chance to undo damage which has been done. The Afghan women have made superhuman efforts to educate their daughters in secret homeschools, which my organization helps to fund, and they do this when they could be executed for it if they're caught. We also help to fund groups that smuggle medical care into the women who have very little access to it any longer. So, we feel that if this situation turns around under a new government, it will not be hard for these girls to get their lives back on track. But, the United States, our allies, and the United Nations will all have to contribute to the rebuilding of this country if stability and lasting peace are to be hoped for.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

LENO: First of all, anyone that would like to contribute money, energy, or ability to our campaign to help these women can get in touch with us at 1-888-WEWOMEN or they can reach us on the web at This is the greatest chance these women will probably have to see their rights restored. Now is the time to help.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

LENO: Thank you.

Mavis Leno joined the chat room via telephone from Los Angeles, California and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, November 09, 2001 at 2 p.m. EST.



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