Mavis Leno: More than just talk

Arts and CultureCultureAfghanistanTalibanSchoolsEducationTerrorism

For my money, the funny Leno is the one who's not on TV. Mavis Nicholson Leno is swift with the wisecrack, and she has this big, hearty, irresistible laugh that you suspect makes her her husband's best audience. But there's a fierce focus in her that I first saw about 10 years ago, after she'd begun working with the Feminist Majority on behalf of women in Afghanistan. That was well before most Americans could place Afghanistan on a map, much less knew what vileness the Taliban was up to. Leno may be the most ardent American champion Afghan women have, taking her crusade for literacy and healthcare to the news media and to Capitol Hill. When she spoke to me at the Feminist Majority offices in Beverly Hills, she was preaching to the choir. What she wants is a lot bigger choir.

Why did you choose this cause long before 9/11 and keep at it for so long?

The Taliban was so egregious and so extreme that if women who were free to speak did not speak, we might as well say to the entire world, "No matter what you do to women, no one cares, just go right ahead." I promised the Afghan women that I am not one of those Americans who has no attention span, and as long as this situation persists, I will be in there. Tenacity isn't just the most important thing, it's the only thing.

The war in Afghanistan was supposed to have changed things.

It started off well, no doubt about it. Everybody wanted to help rebuild schools for girls. There were a lot of people willing to put money and energy into health clinics for women, all kinds of things.

So what happened?

Four letters -- Iraq. As soon as all the attention swung to Iraq, all the money swung with it. The Taliban started creeping back.

Have you been to Afghanistan or the Pakistani refugee camps?

Jay would rather cut off his head than see me go to Afghanistan or Pakistan. The times when I had the chance to go, the people we work with told me that it was not safe. This does not mean I'm not going -- I will, but honestly, I feel I'm doing more good here.

What goes on there that gets the attention of people here?

Teachers dragged out of girls' schools and murdered. Girls' schools burned down. Girls who set out for school and never come home again. All these things have happened in the last year or two. When we went after the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan welcomed us; they fought alongside us; they suffered terrible casualties, and they took terrible chances because they wanted their children and especially their daughters to have education, healthcare. We made promises to them, and we need to keep those promises.

A new Afghan law would make Shiite women virtual prisoners in their own homes and sanction marital rape. Why does it seem like women's rights are always negotiable?

We are the first chip that they throw over to the opposition in every country; because it's been that way for so long, everybody's gotten this idea that women don't mind. I would like somebody to tell me how they think a woman who didn't like the culture that oppresses her can do anything about it when she can't vote, she can't go anywhere, she has no say over her own body? There's a difference between silence meaning agreement and being silenced.

What are you working on now?

To raise money for training midwives. It's not hard to train young women to be midwives. It's perfectly acceptable culturally, and it will give the girl more status in the community and perhaps some earning power. We'd like to see funding [for] small, indigenous NGOs because they get the job done for a hundredth the money that the big organizations do. They do it with a lot greater cultural sensitivity, because they're part of the culture.

Why is "feminist" regarded as a dirty word by some people?

The women who freed 50% of the American population -- at last, to hear their names in speeches [at the Democratic convention] was the most emotional thing in the world to me. So if you don't want to call yourself a feminist, then give it all back, OK? If these women so long ago had the guts to stand up and go through what they had to go through, then have the decency to call yourself a feminist.

When did you have your feminist "click," your epiphany?

My parents were not sexist, and my father thought I could do anything in the world and then some. When I was 7, I wanted to be a jockey. My father told me women weren't allowed. I couldn't believe it. I was perfectly willing to fail on my own merits, but to be flunked at birth? What kind of crap was that? That made me insanely angry. I read everything on the original suffragists, and they became my heroines, because the only women who ever did anything in the history textbooks of my childhood were Sacagawea and Betsy Ross and Marie Curie. That's it. And Betsy Ross sewed. When feminism first became a high-impact issue at the end of the '60s, flaming liberals like Mort Sahl turned out to be pigs, just pigs. Many of them have since recanted and apologized, but it shocked me.

You've lived with "wife of" after your name for 28 years. Does it help? Does it hurt?

There's no question but that I was helped immeasurably to give visibility to this issue by being married to Jay. We couldn't get any coverage. Finally, it dawned on me that if we attached it to Jay, which we did by donating $100,000, we could get huge [attention].

Did Jay have a "click" too?

Never, ever marry a man who doesn't love his mother. Jay adored his mother. Jay is just a natural egalitarian.

Did you guys watch Conan O'Brien's debut as "Tonight Show" host?

Oh, yeah. He did fine.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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