Celebrity is not the same as power

Protests by Winona and co are unlikely to impress regimes such as the Taliban, says Raymond Whitaker
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The Independent Online
THE beardies of Kabul had better be worried: Winona Ryder is very cross with them. So is Whoopi Goldberg, Nadine Gordimer, Jeanne Moreau, Clare Short and Susan Sarandon.

All these eminent (or at least famous) women have been lined up by Emma Bonino, the European Union's hyperactive Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs. She wants their help to put pressure on Afghanistan's Taliban fundamentalists, who have sent women home from their jobs and forced them to wear the all-enveloping burqa in public. Today, International Women's Day, we - along with Whoopi, Winona et al - are meant to tell the Taliban to stop being so medieval.

The commitment of Ms Bonino herself is not in doubt. She has seen the plight of Kabul's women for herself, and was arrested by the religious police in the process. But you have to wonder whether the mullahs who control the Taliban know or care about Glenn Close or Montserrat Caballe, others who have lent their names to the campaign. In Kabul, after all, they stage "executions" of television sets and cassette tapes.

It might be argued that celebrities are enlisted for our benefit, to focus our fickle attention on people or issues we might otherwise be unconcerned about. But as Carla Lane and Paul Daniels have proved, the famous are not always too careful about the causes they endorse. You may remember that they were made fools of on television by the satirist Chris Morris, who got them to deplore the suffering of a mythical Indian elephant with its trunk stuck up its rectum. Are any of Ms Bonino's stars any better informed about Afghanistan? I doubt it.

This is not to dismiss the influence some celebrities can have. Thousands of people in Ethiopia and other African countries are alive today because Bob Geldof founded Live Aid in fury at what he was seeing on television. But Live Aid is a good illustration of the limits of that influence: by helping people their own government refused to help, it took the problem out of the hands of Mengistu Haile Mariam's nightmarish regime, and arguably helped to extend its stay in power. (The Independent on Sunday is aware of the same difficulty in appealing for medicine for the children of Iraq: they are the innocent victims of Saddam Hussein's unwilling- ness to provide for his own people.)

What this shows is that stars are great at getting us to reach in our pocket for the less fortunate; less so when it comes to achieving political solutions in faraway places. In the case of Ethiopia, that came only when rebels managed to build up enough military power to drive Mengistu out. No performer worth his or her salt went near South Africa for the best part of a quarter-century, but the apartheid government was unmoved until it faced the prospect of an economic boycott, particularly by American multinationals. While celebrities played their part in convincing these companies that trading or investing in South Africa was bad business in the US, that demonstrates another point: their pulling power is at home, not abroad.

How much has Sting's involvement held back the destruction of the rain forests? When the Dalai Lama is seen with Richard Gere or Brad Pitt, do the Chinese oppressors of Tibet cringe or laugh? Celebs are something of a blunt instrument, the glare of whose presence tends to wash out the shades of grey in a complex situation.

"Since the Taliban regime took over in September 1996," says a pamphlet from Ms Bonino's European Community Humanitarian Office and presumably endorsed by her famous friends, "women have been stripped of rights they took for granted. They cannot look at a man outside the family. They cannot go out unaccompanied. They can no longer go to schools or universities. They cannot drive a car or ride a bicycle. They cannot go out to work, even as cooks or cleaners ..."

All true, but there is a less simplistic way of looking at it. "From a Western perspective this is a horrific violation," says Karen Munday, "but for many women in Afghanistan this is not such a big change." Ms Munday, who is not a celebrity, has just completed three months in Kabul, working as a nurse in child malnutrition clinics run by the charity Action Against Hunger.

"Before arriving in Afghanistan," she writes, "my head was filled with horror stories about the condition of local women. I ... expected to be met with a bunch of downtrodden, disillusioned and repressed females. From my first days I discovered what a false impression that was."

Ms Munday makes the point that university education, let alone driving a car, was something only the daughters of the elite could aspire to in the past. Ms Bonino's pamphlet carries a photograph of carefree, unveiled female students taken in Kabul in 1995: at that time their less well-connected sisters were at constant risk of molestation and rape by the previous regime's undisciplined fighters. As the nurse says, educated women may feel demeaned by the Taliban, but its presence offers "at least some degree of stability and peace, within the family as well as within the city".

In contrast to the helpless image projected by the EU, Ms Munday comments that the women of Kabul, inured to war and atrocities, show great resilience. They "have never lost their sense of fun and have found their own ways to get round the Taliban laws".

Nobody is suggesting the Taliban is anything other than a bunch of ignorant, oppressive chauvinists who would sooner let a woman die than have a male doctor treat her, but telling them so is probably not the way to get them to change. A degree of cultural sensitivity is needed, and a movie star cannot be expected to know that. Better to use him or her to raise dollars in California, then seek a way of sending the money to the Afghan widows, who will find it much easier to get their menfolk to listen with a bit of wealth in their hands.

Regimes such as the Taliban or the Chinese Communists are unlikely to be impressed by the number of luvvies you have on your side. It is a sign of the Dalai Lama's despair at what is happening to his country, not his strength, that he is prepared to be photographed with certain well-known but rather vacuous supporters. The lesson is that celebrities are a weapon best used sparingly. Far from dignifying a worthy cause, they may simply trivialise it.