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Speaking Out

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Lined with bookshelves and packed with antiques, the Beverly Hills home Mavis Leno shares with husband Jay—he of the chin and the wit—looks less like a celebrity showplace than an English library. That suits Mavis, 52, just fine. “I read anytime I’m not doing something else,” she says of her 10-book-a-week habit (satisfied mostly by mysteries and Victorian novels). “It has all the qualities of an addiction.”

Yet lately she has pried herself away from her reading to bring attention to what she regards as an urgent and compelling cause: the plight of women in Afghanistan, who are being systematically persecuted by the ruling fundamentalist Islamic sect known as the Taliban. After years in the shadow of her famous husband, she has stepped forward publicly for the first time, chairing a national campaign to bring attention to the regime’s brutal policies. “She is not really comfortable in the limelight,” Jay, 48, says of his wife. “But once she’s out there, she does as well as anybody.”

As Mavis Leno sees it, there is no choice but to speak out. “The silence,” she says, “is killing these women.” Since the Taliban militia seized control of most of the Central Asian nation in 1996, it has forbidden women to work outside the home or attend universities and has severely curtailed medical care by prohibiting doctors from touching female patients. Though Western fashions were once the norm in Afghanistan, now women must wear burqas, confining shawls covering virtually the entire body—and exposing any part of the skin is punishable by beating. “These are human rights outrages of the first order,” says Mavis, who as chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s campaign is calling on Washington to impose economic sanctions on the regime. “We’re comparing it to apartheid in South Africa.”

Mavis traces her altruistic streak to her mother, Victoria Nicholson, and her late father, Nick, a character actor who appeared on TV shows including Mannix and Sea Hunt. “I didn’t try to teach Mavis anything except good manners and the old standard Golden Rule,” says Victoria, 84, who lives next door to the Lenos with Mavis’s brother Rikki, a retired chef’s assistant.

An avid reader since childhood, Mavis dropped out of UCLA after a year to pursue a career writing sitcoms. Though she had only modest success, her professional interest took her to such Los Angeles comedy clubs as the Comedy Store, where she met Jay in 1976 through a mutual friend. “The chemistry was instantaneous,” she recalls. “I thought he was absolutely gorgeous.” They married in 1980, and she frequently accompanied him as he toured nationally during the late 1970s and ’80s.

In some ways they couldn’t be more different. She likes antique shopping and European travel; he hates going abroad (her brother and mother join her) and spends his free hours tending to a fleet of dozens of motorcycles and vintage cars. And her bookish nature contrasts with Jay’s ebullience. “It’s like the whole world is his high school,” she says. They have chosen not to have children, in part because Jay was constantly on the road until he landed the Tonight Show job in 1992, but the marriage has never faltered. “They are a yin-yang situation,” says comedy writer Merrill Markoe, a friend, “two people with different strengths and weaknesses who match each other perfectly.”

Though Mavis has enjoyed the fruits of Jay’s success, she has rarely traded on his fame. “I was never interested in deflecting any of that spotlight to myself,” she says. But as she grew concerned over the plight of Afghan women, she decided it was time to act. “Jay’s celebrity,” she says, “is something I can bring to the table to save these women.”

She had been seeking an issue that needed her energies when she found herself at a 1996 luncheon seated next to Feminist Majority chair Peg Yorkin. Mavis joined the group’s board in ’97 and last month took over the Afghanistan campaign. On Oct. 22 in Los Angeles, Mavis had Jay at her side for a news conference at which she announced the couple was donating $100,000 to the cause. “The bravery of these women is stunning,” she says. “I firmly believe we are their last hope.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles