ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Jay Leno and Mavis Leno turn serious about the plight of Afghan women

Everybody knows about Jay Leno's taste for topical humor. Far fewer are aware that his wife, Mavis, has long been one of Hollywood's most influential behind-the-scenes activists on behalf of women.

For more than a decade Mavis Leno has made the plight of Afghan women her particular case and this month she and the organization in which she plays a pivotal role -- the Feminist Majority Foundation -- will hold what amounts to a coming out party for the next round in this cause.

The feminist organization with a hip Beverly Hills-adjacent headquarters -- financed with the help of industry activist Peg Yorkin -- now has a global reach and the plight of Afghan women is a particular focus. (The group also publishes Ms. Magazine). Shortly after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, Mavis and Jay Leno gave $100,000 to help jump-start the foundations' global women's rights program.

Mavis Leno had been involved with the Feminist Majority -- founded in 1987 by former National Organization for Women President Eleanor Smeal and Yorkin -- for some time and had become concerned about the Taliban's often brutal discrimination against women. When Mavis Leno tried to interest news correspondents in the problem in the mid- to late 1990s, she hit a brick wall.

So she resolved to create a story that would appeal to people in an area she understood: the entertainment media. The entertainment media got it. And hard news reporters followed the stars as they -- like the Magi -- are prone to do.

In 2001 in an online chat on CNN, Mavis Leno told an interviewer: "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 6 who could beg for the family instead."

Since the American invasion of Afghanistan and the installations of the Karzi government, the situation for Afghan women has been extremely fluid, with progress in some places and deepening repression in others, according to Leno. (Girls attending newly reopened schools have had acid thrown in their faces by Taliban loyalists. Some have been kidnapped on their way to school and sold into human trafficking and prostitution.)

"Nothing thrives in chaos like criminal activity," Mavis Leno said in an interview this week at the Feminist Majority headquarters.

Mavis Leno and her fellow activists have waged an ongoing effort to make sure that the status of Afghan women figures into America's policy calculations. With President Barack Obama shifting the focus of American military back onto Afghanistan and Pakistan -- where the Taliban is aggressively expanding -- the local activists have been making a special effort to ensure that the rights of women are considered alongside Washington's strategic considerations.

Last week, foundation activists went to Washington to meet with members of the Obama administration. Sima Samar, who heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan, joined up with them. "We warned in 1998, and over and over again ever since, the women and girls in Afghanistan are the canaries in the mine," Smeal told reporters in Washington. "We cannot forget them if we are ever to gain peace and global stability."

But it takes cash to keep even the most compelling causes going. And so Mavis and Jay Leno will be hosting a fundraiser on April 29 at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the foundation's ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The event will be structured more along the lines of a salon (these are very serious folks) than the normal network- and-sign-a-check industry gala.

Among those being honored for their activism at the event are:

* Journalist Christiane Amanpour, who risked her life reporting on the plight of women in Afghanistan for CNN.

* Leymah Gbowee, who led an unprecedented mobilization of women across Liberia in a series of massive demonstrations to end the bloody 14-year civil war.

* Producer and philanthropist Abigail Disney and director Gini Reticker, who captured Gbowee's efforts in the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."

* "Law & Order" executive producer Neal Baer and "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit" actress Mariska Hargitay, who have worked to bring television audiences a better understanding of violence against women, including human trafficking and child soldiers. (Hargitay's series aired an episode this week on the subject.)

* Los Angeles activist Billie Heller, who has worked for nearly three decades to win U.S. ratification of the International Women's Rights Treaty.

Jay Leno (described by his wife as a true feminist) will serve as master of ceremonies.

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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