The rights of women in Afghanistan

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Mavis Leno of Feminist Majority on the need for Obama to focus on the rights of Afghan women

Story Transcript

U.S. Feminists for women’s rights in Afghanistan

SHARMINI PERIES, JOURNALIST, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m in the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC, and I’m joined by Mavis Leno. She served as chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan since 1999, which after the fall of the Taliban became the Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls. The organization successfully protested the construction of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan. Allegedly it would have supported the Taliban. Thanks for joining us, Mavis.

MAVIS LENO: Oh, my pleasure.

PERIES: Mavis, if you remember, after 9/11, when there was so much focus and attention on Afghanistan, and there was also a lot of attention on the plight of Afghani women, and particularly those scenes in the stadium where women in garb were being stoned by the people of Afghanistan, and somehow the war on Afghanistan was prefaced with the liberation of women of Afghanistan, and you were part of that campaign, you started the Feminist Majority Campaign—actually before that, in 1999.

LENO: Oh, yes.

PERIES: Tell us a little bit about the campain.

LENO: Well, we started the campaign because we thought that this was the most glaring instance of institutionalized abuse of women, the Taliban treatment of the Afghan women, that had any hope of being resolved. As we know, there are other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where women undergo similar abuse, but that they are not places where effort would yield any effect. This, however, was not part of the true Afghan culture. This was entirely the idea of the Taliban imposing it upon the Afghans. So we felt that this was something which was worth an outcry because it would be changeable.

PERIES: How did you come to work on this issue in terms of—were there Afghan women involved in bringing this to you and drawing your attention to it?

LENO: Actually, when I joined the Feminist Majority in 1998, I told them that I was particularly interested in trying to help women in other countries on their path to the same path that we as American women have followed, not to impose our way of life on them. But there are feminist organizations in every country in the world, and it seemed that we could reach a hand out to our sisters and say, "Here’s how we did it. What can we do to help you? You know, you tell us, we’ll help."

PERIES: So at the time, the Bush administration, did they consult with women’s organizations here?

LENO: Well, this was actually before the Bush administration. This was under Clinton. And our chairperson, the head of the Feminist Majority, Eleanor Smeal, had learned from feminists in England that this was going on in Afghanistan. It was still fairly new at that time and was getting no press coverage at all. I later found out that the reason it got so little press coverage is that most people that were reporting on it assumed that it was just a variation of how the women had always lived, which is not true at all. But, of course, the Taliban wanted to encourage that assumption so that there wouldn’t be any sort of outcry. Once Elly laid it out, everything that was going on, at a board meeting that I was attending, I immediately said, "Okay, this is my thing. I’ll take it on." And so we decided to tackle this issue from that point.

PERIES: So was the Feminist Majority Foundation consulted at any point before going into Afghanistan with this recent war?

LENO: No. No. All the consultation came—because the war was not about the women, it was about al-Qaeda. However, we were consulted after the Taliban were defeated, because it had by that time become very clear that our organization had succeeded in making American women really, really angry about what had happened to the Afghan women and really devoted to the idea that our government should see to it that any peace and new government that was created in Afghanistan would give women back their rights. And I say "give them back" because they did have equal rights under the law in Afghanistan.

PERIES: The new Obama administration has recently announced that their focus will be on a humanitarian surge rather than a military surge, in spite of the fact that they’re increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. What do you think about that? And are you a part of those discussions?

LENO: We are only indirectly a part of those discussions, in that we are always interacting with people that are in the Obama administration, because many of them are friends of ours from a long time before the Obama administration. However, I think that the course that they’re talking about is very good. I think that we very badly need to demonstrate to the rest of the world, and in particular to the Islamic world, that we just don’t walk in and wreck things, that we stay and help everybody fix things, that we are willing to build as well as knock down. And I do believe the Obama administration, the entire mindset, as far as I’ve observed it so far, is that direction. Afghanistan really deserves a real chance to go back to the peaceful and, you know, relatively humane government that they once had.

PERIES: If you had a chance to speak to President Obama yourself, and having been following this issue for an entire ten years now, what advice would you give him?

LENO: Basically, the constitution that was passed in Afghanistan after the war was over is a good constitution. What we need to do is enforce it. Everything to do with Afghanistan now is simply about helping the Afghan government enforce the Constitution. We all need to help. The country is poverty-stricken and largely illiterate. It is very difficult to get a peaceful democracy erected in that country.

Now we have to labor against a Taliban that has encroached massively on parts of the country. A lot of corruption has crept into the government. Millions of dollars have been spent on the reconstruction effort, yet, you know, there’s really no progress to the people. What are the impediments?

LENO: Well, first of all, we need to train and employ the people that live in the country. It is a good thing to build a bridge that has been destroyed so that people can have commerce in and out of their community again. So there’s value in reconstructing those things anyway. But by far the useful value is to hire workers that live in the country in the area, and if there aren’t enough trained workers, to train them. That’s what did not happen before, because, you know, there’s a lot of businesses that were very friendly with the Bush administration, and they get the contracts, and they go in, and they bring their own people.

PERIES: Yet a lot of these companies that have been hired to do the reconstruction and development use the Taliban as the excuse that the encroachment of the Taliban is preventing them from making progress. Is that what you hear on the ground?

LENO: I think there’s probably some truth to that, without a doubt. But I also think that a lot of companies that do work abroad—and we saw this with Halliburton in Iraq—show a callous disregard for the convenience of the country, the people in that country, the dollars being spent by the American taxpayers, or any other thing that doesn’t bear directly on what’s convenient for them, and this is a very bad thing. And, hopefully, the Obama administration will not go that way, and they will try and help people in the area go to work on the projects that benefit their area, because those projects will have to be maintained when we’re gone. And so these people will be trained to maintain them.

PERIES: One of the things that the Feminist Majority Foundation is doing is creating a dialog between Afghan women and US women, and bringing Dr. Sima Samar here was one of those efforts to foster the dialog. What are you hearing? And what can you act on that would really help improve the situation of women there?

LENO: We are trying to think of everything that we can think of, because women in America really want to help. There will be no dearth of women here who will not try to do things for their sisters in Afghanistan and other countries. We started with Afghanistan, but our interest is in helping women all over the world, because although we are one-half of the population of the earth, we are treated as a minority and viewed as a minority. So we need to struggle in the way minorities struggle and unite with each other across borders the way other minorities have successfully done.

PERIES: Surely women must be frustrated in Afghanistan, particularly with even organizations like yourself who’ve been there for ten years and who are saying, "Look, we’re here to help you." Yet you’ve been so limited in terms of what you could deliver to them.

LENO: Well, I think they understand, I hope they understand the difficulties that we run into, because, for instance, one of the things that we wanted to involve ourselves in, as many women at NGOs also in Afghanistan are trying to do, is rebuild schools. But you build the school, and then the Taliban burns it down, or you build the school, and then the girls that are meant to attend the school, it’s too dangerous for them to leave their houses and try. They are attacked, they’re kidnapped, they suffer acid attacks, and so forth. And you begin to realize that all the legal freedom that you bestow on women is useless if the country they live in makes it impossible for them to actually use that freedom in any real way. It’s not safe for women to go to work. It’s not safe for women to go to schools. Not in every area—there are areas where it’s possible, but clearly until we can push back the Taliban, it’s not going to be safe for women and girls to function as equal members of their society until the Taliban is gone.

PERIES: Mavis, thank you very much for joining us.

LENO: My pleasure.

PERIES: And we wish you luck with your program and working with the women in Afghanistan.

LENO: Well, let me say on behalf of the Feminist Majority that we were there for the women as soon as we learned what had happened to them, and we will be there no matter what happens during the course of this administration. I’m optimistic, but we’re in it for the long haul. It takes a long time for a human rights issue to work itself out, and we do not have a short attention span. We are on this; we will continue to be on this; we will not leave off our efforts until these women have their rights back for real.