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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 339-354

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Social Thought and Commentary

Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency

Charles Hirschkind
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Saba Mahmood
The University of Chicago

On a cool breezy evening in March 1999, Hollywood celebrities turned out in large numbers to show their support for the Feminist Majority's campaign against the Taliban's brutal treatment of Afghan women. Jay and Mavis Leno hosted the event, and the audience included celebrities like Kathy Bates, Geena Davis, Sidney Potier, and Lily Tomlin. Jay Leno had tears in his eyes as he spoke to an audience that filled the cavernous Directors Guild of American Theater to capacity. It is doubtful that most people in this crowd had heard of the suffering of Afghan women before. But by the time Mellissa Etheridge, Wynonna Judd, and Sarah McLachlan took to the stage, following the Afghan chant meaning "We are with you," tears were streaming down many cheeks.2

The person spearheading this campaign was Mavis Leno, Jay Leno's wife, who had been catapulted into political activism upon hearing about the plight of Afghan women living under the brutal regime of the Taliban. This form of Third World solidarity was new for Mavis Leno. Prior to embarking on this project, reports George magazine, "Leno restricted her activism to the Freddy the Pig Club, the not-so radical group devoted to a rare series of out-of-print children's books." 3 She was recruited by her Beverly Hills neighbor to join the Feminist Majority, an organization formed by Eleanor Smeal, a former president of NOW. [End Page 339] Little did members of the Feminist Majority know that Leno would make the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban rule a cause celebre: not only did the Hollywood celebrities join the ranks of what came to be called the "Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan" campaign, but a large number of popular women's magazines (like Glamour, Jane, Teen, etc.), in addition to feminist journals like Sojourner, Off our Backs and Ms., carried articles on the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban. The Lenos personally gave a contribution of $100,000 to help kick off a public awareness campaign. Mavis Leno testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to Unocal shareholders to dissuade them from investing in Afghanistan, and met with President Bill Clinton to convince him to change his wavering policy toward the Taliban. In addition, the Feminist Majority carried out a broad letter writing campaign targeted at the White House. The Feminist Majority claims that it was their work that eventually dissuaded Unocal officials to abandon their plans to develop a natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan, and convinced the Hollywood-friendly Bill Clinton to condemn the Taliban regime.

Even skeptics who are normally leery of Western feminists' paternalistic desire to "save Third World women" were sympathetic to the Feminist Majority's campaign. This was in part because the restrictions that the Taliban had imposed on women in Afghanistan seemed atrocious by any standard: They forbade women from all positions of employment, eliminated schools for girls and university education for women in cities, outlawed women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative, and forced women to wear the burqa (a head to toe covering with a mesh opening to see through). Women were reportedly beaten and flogged for violating Taliban edicts. There seemed to be little doubt in the minds of many that the United States, with its impressive political and economic leverage in the region, could help alleviate this sad state of affairs. As one friend put it, "Finally our government can do something good for women's rights out there, rather than working for corporate profits." Rallying against the Taliban to protest their policies against Afghan women provided a point of unity for groups from a range of political perspectives: from conservatives to liberals and radicals, from Republicans to Democrats, and from Hollywood glitterati to grass roots activists. By the time the war started, feminists like Smeal could...