Human rights advocate Mavis Leno

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Chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls explains the connection between the Taliban and women in Afghanistan.

As chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation's Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls, Mavis Leno has been at the forefront of insuring that the plight of Afghan women is included in the world's reporting on the war in Afghanistan. She helped defeat efforts to construct an oil pipeline across Afghanistan that could have increased Taliban control in the region and has testified on gender apartheid before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Married to talk show host Jay Leno, she's been featured in articles in numerous publications.


Tavis: Mavis Leno is chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s campaign to help Afghan women and girls. Last week here in Los Angeles, she and her husband – some guy named Jay Leno – hosted the annual Eleanor Roosevelt Awards for Global Women’s Rights. Mavis, good to have you on the program.
Mavis Leno: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you here. You just saw a conversation I had with Richard Lugar, senator from Indiana. So Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, is in Washington this week for a lot of very important meetings and one of the things that he wants is our support. The Obama administration, support from Capitol Hill.
He wants support in his effort to talk with, if not negotiate with, the Taliban. Your thoughts about that, because these women’s issues are connected to the Taliban.
Leno: This is a very bad idea, as far as I’m concerned. This is selling the rest of the country down the river, because from every person I speak to who is working on the ground in Afghanistan, the hundreds of friends that I have who live in Afghanistan, who are Afghan, they all say the same thing, whether they’re working in rural areas or cities, whether they’re working in the parts of the country where the Taliban is strong or the parts where they have not got much impact, but they all say the same thing – no one in Afghanistan likes the Taliban.
They do not want the Taliban in their country, in their culture, in their lives, in their government in any way. The problem is the Taliban functions in Afghanistan very much like the Mafia functions in Sicily. They scare people and arm-twist people into cooperating, often people who have very few means of defending themselves against the Taliban.
But if we get in first, we can provide the upside – schools that are not madrassas which only teach boys and only teach them the Taliban-twisted form of Islam and how to assemble a Kalashnikov.
Because essentially, all they do is raise cannon fodder, and that was how they were raised. That was what made a lot of the Taliban the strange people they are today.
Tavis: You started to raise this now, Mavis – let me just ask it more directly. The connection between the Taliban and women or the disconnect, put it that way, is what, exactly?
Leno: Well, most of the Taliban grew up in madrassas that followed this extreme fundamentalist and somewhat distorted form of Islam which is based on the Wahhabist beliefs. It’s a relatively recent religious deviation from Islam, and then they’ve added their own twists.
But what these Taliban heard as boys was basically women need to be controlled for the society to be good. They need to be controlled in every possible way, because nothing a man does to a woman or with a woman is his fault. (Laughs) It’s always the woman’s fault.
They see women as having the potential to bring the wrath of Allah down upon them, and in fact I was in Europe when the Icelandic volcano decided to spew out ash, and –
Tavis: You finally made it back, I see.
Leno: Oh, yes, yes. (Laughter) Some of the imams were releasing statements saying that things like this volcanic ash cloud and some of the really huge earthquakes we’ve had recently are the fault of women for dressing and behaving in an immodest manner.
So now what can you do? It’s not like well, if you would only get educated, or if you only would do this or that. They basically want you to just go back, sit down and shut up in the most exaggerated way.
Tavis: How did this become a passion project for you? I suspect that in your own life and your own work and witness, to say nothing of the fact that you’re married to a guy named Jay Leno, there are all kinds of folk coming at you who want you to do this, that, or the other. How did this become a passion project for Mavis?
Leno: Well, it’s rooted in my passionate feminism. I’ve been a feminist since I was a little girl, and my father told me that I couldn’t become a jockey, which at seven was what I wanted to be. (Laughter) Because I was horse-crazy, you know? He said, “You can’t because women aren’t allowed to become jockeys.”
I don’t know whether that was just in California or whether it was national or what, but the news – because my parents were extremely even-handed with my brother and I and never ran into – no one ever told me I couldn’t do anything.
I just couldn’t believe that not only was I flunked on this, but I was flunked at birth. It’s like, let me fail on my own merits. (Laughter) Let me bang myself up, let me not be strong enough or whatever you want, but don’t just say you’re categorically out.
My father told me about the feminist movement and that women had once been unable to vote, and in my family, anything you did want to know about, you went straight to the library.
So I read my way through everything about the suffragists, and they became my idols because when I was a kid – you may have experienced this a bit, being an African American – women never did anything in the textbooks when I was in school. (Laughter) It was Marie Curie and that was it.
Tavis: I know that story well.
Leno: Yes.
Tavis: As a matter of fact, I’m still looking for Black folk to have done something credible, in 2010.
Leno: Yeah, and I just read about the bravery of these women. People think that they just marched and the government got fed up and said, “Oh, all right.” But actually, they were stoned, their lives were threatened, they had to flee things all the time. What they were doing was fantastically threatening to the men of their time and hugely controversial.
But they went on with it and saddest of all, only a few of them lived long enough to see women get the vote. So they did all this without seeing the result. This was so heroic to me, and I just – all I can do for them is to pay it forward. It was in my heart very intensely to do something for women to move them forward.
Tavis: Never mind the fact that President Obama has now nominated a third woman to the U.S. Supreme Court – you like that?
Leno: Oh, I like that, yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Never mind the fact that we’re celebrating now what, the 50th anniversary of the pill, women are running corporations, et cetera, et cetera – you know the other side of this, the point you’re raising now, is that in so many ways, even basic ways, like equal pay for equal work, women are still maltreated, we still live in a sexist, patriarchal society, and that’s here in the U.S.
Leno: Yes.
Tavis: So if that’s the reality here at home, how do you get traction on an issue like this in Afghanistan? Does that make sense?
Leno: Absolutely, because of course that’s the first question I had to ask myself. I joined the Feminist Majority in 1998 because they are a brilliant, small, cutting-edge group of feminists. They take on things that seem like – well, who would take on an international issue? (Laughs) This small –
Tavis: And where we’re at war, of all places.
Leno: Yeah, yeah. Oh, this was before the war, in ’98. So as soon as I found out from our president, Eleanor Smeal, what had happened to the women in Afghanistan, I said, “This is my issue.”
It’s just a fantastic concept – how am I going to get this out so that it affects anything? After trying a long time to get it into the serious news, get “The Washington Post” or “The New York Times” interested, or “Newsweek” or et cetera, et cetera, it suddenly dawned on me – why am I doing this? I don’t know how to get to people like that, but I know how to make something famous in Hollywood.
So that’s what we did. We held a big press conference. Jay and I donated $100,000 to start a foundation to end gender apartheid in Afghanistan. We had one press conference in L.A. and one in New York, and we got all the popular magazines, the entertainment magazines, to come, because it was attached to Jay.
I always knew this was a thumping good story. When people hear it they feel like this is like something in a book. People couldn’t really act this way. But the Taliban foolishly published their edict so that you can prove that they officially decided to do things like punish women savagely if their shoes made a noise when they walked, cut a woman’s finger off if she’s wearing nail polish.
These things have really happened, and on and on. So we got American women angry and focused on helping these women, and that was one of the biggest things, I think, that came out of this, is women will fight like crazy for anybody but themselves, so if you give them somebody who could be them except in another country being treated this way by a bunch of teenaged bullies, basically, because most of the Taliban were very young, well, women get that.
Tavis: How do you know on an issue like this, Mavis, that you’re making progress? How do you track that?
Leno: Well, it’s not easy, because Afghanistan is so factionalized. There are places where it’s worth a woman’s life to try and go to school, and there are other places where women are freely going to school and they don’t wear the burqa, they just wear the hijab.
It’s a very mountainous country, which causes a lot of rural areas to be extremely isolated. You get kind of that same kind of situation that produced hillbillies in our country long ago. There aren’t any hillbillies anymore – (laughter) everybody knows everything now.
I got letters when I appeared on Jay’s show twice to talk about this, and I get letters, like, from coal-mining towns in West Virginia – “Mavis, your outfit was amazing, but what made you pick those shoes?” (Laughter) Like they’re all fashion stylists.
So there’s nothing like that left in this country, but in Afghanistan the destruction of all the infrastructure plus the isolation of so many rural communities, makes it possible for all these nasty little drug lords to pop up and all this sort of mischief.
But we do know that the work that we’re helping with over there is going very well. We have people from our organization that have been over and continue to go over and see what’s going on.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier, Mavis, that your passion and your work in this area started prior to the war that we are still engaged in.
Leno: Oh, yeah, mm-hmm.
Tavis: That we’re increasing our troop levels in.
Leno: Yeah.
Tavis: How has the challenge of making progress on this front become more difficult post-war? Once we started engaging this country militarily, I assume the work must be more difficult.
I make that assumption because if it’s hard getting traction on this before we go to war with somebody, once we go to war our patriotism kicks in, our nationalism kicks in, our fanaticism kicks in, and nobody wants to hear about their side of the story. We don’t even talk about the deaths of women and children in this war. So if you can’t get traction before the war, how do you do it afterwards?
Leno: Well, actually, in the beginning it was very good because first of all, President Bush, to his great credit, said that he was going to make the complete restoration of women’s human and civil rights a non-negotiable part of the new governmental constitution. That was a great help, to say the least, because they then were forced to put in a lot of women who were notorious troublemakers (laughs), many of whom I’m very proud to know. (Laughter)
Then in the beginning, Americans – he did a good job, President Bush, of making it clear to Americans that we were not fighting the Afghans, we were fighting with the Afghans against the Taliban.
So I think most people knew that the Taliban were an invading force in Afghanistan and not there by any sort of popular consensus, but then the Bush government strayed into Iraq, governmental interest and attention drifted from Afghanistan.
A country that has been through what Afghanistan has been through – the war with the Russians, the war between different factions of the Mujahideen to get control of the country and then the hideous, draconian thing that the Taliban imposed on them, a country that has been through all that, they can’t just get up the next day, dust themselves off and gather together a standing police force, a standing army, a working judicial system with lots of trained people to handle it.
It takes time for them to reestablish the things that keep this sort of stuff from happening to us.
Tavis: Let me close our conversation where I began, Mavis. So President Karzai is in our country this week, meeting with a lot of important people. If he were to have taken or were to take a meeting with you and your colleagues at the fund for the Feminist Majority on this issue, what would be at the top of your list?
Tavis: Well, top of the list would be why not continue to work against the Taliban when your country identifies them as unwelcome and the enemy of the government and traditional life that you want to go back to? Because this was once a peaceful, democratic country where women had legal rights under the law and worked in every – they didn’t always wander around in those horrible burqa things.
They worked in every major position in society. Why not pursue that course instead of taking the laziest possible option and trying to dicker with villains?
Tavis: You hopeful?
Leno: I am a tremendous optimist, and I believe that it takes a long, long time for human rights things to come about to where you hope they’ll come, and I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime any more than the first suffragists saw women get the vote. But I believe it will happen because I know the very remarkable people who live there.
Tavis: Before I let you go, I know this is a big year for the Leno family.
Leno: Yes.
Tavis: Mr. Leno, who I spoke to the other day on his 60th birthday – he had a big birthday this year – and you have a big wedding anniversary this year.
Leno: That’s right. (Laughs)
Tavis: Thirty years.
Leno: Yes.
Tavis: Jay and Mavis, 30 years this year, so congratulations on that as well.
Leno: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Thanks for your work on this issue, and good to have you on the program.
Leno: Very nice to have been here. Thank you so much.

Tavis: Thank you. Thank you, Mavis, glad to have you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm