Hollywood stars come out to put pressure on US firms over Afghan women's rights

 

Charities and political causes are never in short supply in Hollywood. But celebrities and entertainment industry heavyweights are usually only called upon at the last minute to write cheques, almost never to plan strategy.

The issue of women in Afghanistan may change that.

Last week a group of 45 people gathered at the Beverly Hills home of Jay Leno, who hosts a popular nightly television show, to set about the business of raising $500,000 for a campaign to alert the world to the circumstances of women in Afghanistan.

"What is happening there is gender apartheid," said Katherine Spillar, the Los Angeles-based leader of the Feminist Majority, a powerful US women's group. "If this was happening to any other group of people, the world would be in an outrage."

Backed by money and the power of celebrities to attract attention, the group is planning an October 21st launch of their campaign in New York and Los Angeles. The goal, beyond bringing attention to the issue, is to pressurise US and international corporations to cease investment and support for the Taliban until it relaxes its restrictions on women.

The Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan in 1996, now controls about 90 per cent of the country's 20 million people. Strictly Muslim, with a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran, it has imposed a range of restrictions, including purdah, the custom of secluding women.

No woman is allowed to leave her home without a male escort. Houses where women live must have their windows covered. No woman is allowed to work or go to school. When they do venture outside, women must wear the burka, a head-to-toe garment which has only a small mesh opening at the eyes.

The absence of women has changed life dramatically, especially in cities such as Kabul. Before the Taliban took over, 60 per cent of the teachers in Kabul University were women, as were 40 per cent of the doctors in Kabul. Now the disappearance of women and international aid organisations has left hospitals unstaffed and devoid of supplies.

Islamic law is imposed by men who cruise the streets in pick-up trucks that display the white flag of purity. The men carry Kalash nikov rifles and shoulder-fired grenades. The penalty for crimes such as stealing is a Friday-afternoon display of cutting off hands in a soccer stadium.

One of the conflicts, however, is that Taliban has brought peace to the country ravaged by war for 20 years. Rape and looting, which were rampant, have ceased. Women are safer, but the price for such safety has been virtual imprisonment.

The Taliban representative in the US, Mr Abdul Hakim Mujahid, told the Washington Post that most women support the Taliban. Resistance to its edicts come from "only 1 per cent of Afghan women tied to a communist style of liberation".

Only three governments have recognised the Taliban; Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Leno's wife, Mavis Leno, has become deeply involved in the Hollywood project and has gone beyond hosting parties. Two weeks ago she attended a shareholders' meeting of Unocal, a major US oil company which is seeking to build a $4.5 billion pipeline to carry Caspian Sea oil and gas to the Indian subcontinent.

After hearing Mrs Leno's impassioned plea, the company has agreed to delay the project. Unocal says the Taliban would collect $50 million to $100 million a year in transit fees if the pipeline was built.

While the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and Mrs Hillary Clinton have condemned the Taliban, the US is still seeking ways to negotiate with the group.

For Hollywood, the campaign to change the Taliban recalls an earlier campaign in another country. "This must become an international issue as important as South Africa was," said Ms Spillar. "A generation of women is being lost."