Washington, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly 1,000 prominent American women and celebrities gathered on Monday in Hollywood, California for a high-profile event to draw attention to what they are calling "gender apartheid" against millions of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The gala was organized primarily by Mavis Leno, the wife of one of America's most popular television celebrities and comedians, Jay Leno. The Feminist Majority -- a small U.S.-based non-governmental organization focused on promoting women's rights around the world -- sponsored the event. Mrs. Leno is a board member.
Leno says the Taliban -- an ultra-conservative Islamic group which currently controls about 90 percent of Afghanistan -- has introduced a rule of law which is oppressing women.
As it stands, just a few years ago women in Afghanistan moved about freely, going to school and universities and working as doctors, teachers and even government employees. But today, under the Taliban's new rules, women are not allowed to work or go to school. They cannot leave their homes unless escorted by a close male relative and shrouded in the head-to-toe burqa with only a narrow mesh opening through which to see. Windows on their houses must be painted black to prevent anyone from looking in, and they are required to wear shoes that make no sounds when they walk.
In an interview with RFE/RL on Wednesday, Leno said she organized the event because she and many others like her strongly believe Afghanistan's 11.5 million women and girls today are little more than "prisoners in their own homes under a system of gender apartheid."
"It's just so easy to dismiss what happens to women as being cultural or religious in its basis. And it happens that in Afghanistan, none of those things are true. This is neither the culture nor the form of Islam that was followed in this country prior to the Taliban."
In fact, Leno is so passionate about the plight of Afghan women that she has done far more than just organize Monday's event. First, she and her husband personally reached into their own pockets and donated $100,000 to the Feminist Majority's campaign to raise awareness of Afghan women under the Taliban rule.
Leno has also testified in front of several U.S. congressional committees on behalf of Afghan women, and was instrumental in convincing a U.S.-based company -- Unocal Corporation -- to pull out of a consortium that planned an 8,000 million energy pipeline that would have stretched across Afghanistan. She has additionally spearheaded an awareness campaign among ordinary Americans, urging them to write and call their representatives in the U.S. Congress to keep the issue alive.
Leno is unapologetic about utilizing her celebrity contacts to bring further attention to the situation of Afghan women. Monday's Hollywood event was packed with a large number of U.S. movie stars and singers, and even included several prominent California politicians.
Neither U.S. President Bill Clinton nor his wife Hillary were able to attend, but the president pre-taped a message which was played at the gala. Hillary's mother and brother were in attendance.
Leno said one of the most touching moments of the gala for her came when popular singer Lionel Richie, accompanied by a choir of young girls, sang "Love, Oh Love," a song he wrote especially to highlight the plight of Afghan women.
Leno also said she was also moved when presenters read a few letters that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan by women thanking her for the effort to raise international awareness of their difficulties.
President Clinton said in his pre-taped speech it is "tragic" that women in Afghanistan are under such serious repression. He added that it was terrible that the Taliban has sought to deprive millions women in Afghanistan of their most basic rights by imposing "rigid and inhumane policies to render them silent and invisible, uneducated and unemployed."
"Let me be very clear about the position of the U.S. The denial of basic human rights in Afghanistan or anywhere else is simply unacceptable. If the leaders of the Taliban or any faction in Afghanistan's bitter civil war want international acceptance, they must respect the rights of all their people. They must treat women as human beings."
But the Taliban's foreign ministry criticized Clinton, saying he insulted the Islamic culture by commenting on the status of women in Afghanistan.
African-American actor Sidney Poitier also made a emotional statement during the gala, comparing the situation of women in Afghanistan to South African apartheid. He said: "In truth, they are one and the same. Oppression is oppression. Let's call it what it is. It is evil."
But not everyone agrees with Leno and her supporters. There were a few protesters out in front of the building where the gala was held who disagree with the idea that Afghan women are oppressed.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan relief operation of Save the Children, says while Leno and the Feminist Majority are well-intentioned, they are misinformed about Afghan women.
Wilder said: "It's misleading to the point where there's more and more of a movement from human rights groups and the Feminist Majority to say cut off all aid, which is a real misunderstanding of the situation and will only hurt the very groups these women want to help."
But Leno told RFE/RL that neither she nor the Feminist Majority has ever suggested cutting off any kind of funding to relief or humanitarian organizations that deal with Afghanistan.
Leno said that when she started becoming involved in bringing awareness to the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban, she publicly made an announcement and issued press releases saying that she would never support any embargo or sanctions against agencies and organizations that provide relief aid and humanitarian assistance to the women of Afghanistan. That promise still stands, she said.
Leno said Monday's gala raised thousands of dollars for a continued media campaign on the issue, and to fund refugee camps set up to provide women escapees with food, shelter and medical care.
She added: "I have no idea who has suggested that we have decided to take these sorts of actions, but let's just say that there are obviously vested interests on the other side." In the end, none of the controversy seemed to dampen the enthusiasm and desire to help Afghan women at the gala Monday night.
Popular actress Gillian Anderson declared to rousing applause: "Let this be the first day that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters around the world and declare that their persecution and abuse is our business."
Fellow actress Alfre Woodward added: "Tonight, through the magic of the human heart and a little crackling of electricity of the air waves comes one of the first glimmers of light into the darkness 6 the news that America cares! American women care! And the women who are gathered here this evening want to say to you, the women of Afghanistan: 'Mahba Shumah Hahsteem' -- We are with you."