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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 15:14 GMT
Cherie Blair attacks Taleban 'cruelty'
Afghan women wearing burqas
Afghan women have been forced to wear the burqa
The prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, has spoken out against the repression of women's rights under the Taleban.

In a rare foray into frontline politics, Mrs Blair attacked the "repression and cruelty of the joyless Taleban regime".

The women here today prove that the women of Afghanistan still have a spirit that belies their unfair, down-trodden image

Cherie Blair
The Taleban had denied the basic rights of education and employment to women, who faced brutality if they did not conform, she said.

Her comments came as she launched a campaign to improve Afghan women's rights and education on Monday.

She said: "The women in Afghanistan are as entitled as the women in any country are to have the same hopes and aspirations for ourselves and for our daughters - a good education and career outside the home if they want one, the right to healthcare and, of course, most importantly, a right for their voices to be heard."

The campaign for Afghan women is also being fronted by US first lady Laura Bush, who made a radio broadcast in America on Saturday on the issue.

Cherie Blair
Mrs Blair was joined by senior female cabinet ministers
Mrs Blair was joined at the launch by senior women cabinet ministers, including International Development Secretary Claire Short and Education Secretary Estelle Morris, as well as Afghan women who now live in the UK.

Ms Short highlighted the poverty and low life expectancy rates in Afghanistan before going on to attack Saudi Arabia's denial of the vote to women as a denial of their basic human rights.

Standing alongside two women teachers from Afghanistan who had fled the country because of the Taleban, Mrs Blair said: "The women here today prove that the women of Afghanistan still have a spirit that belies their unfair, down-trodden image.

"We need to help them free that spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see."

Downing Street said Mrs Blair wanted to "lend her support" after seeing and reading about how women have been oppressed under the Taleban.

A spokesman said: We feel it is important to underline just what has happened, what the situation has been like for women and girls within Afghanistan.

"Their human rights have been denied, people have been executed in football stadiums in front of cheering crowds, girls have had to be educated in secret. There is a story that we have to keep telling."

'Brutal oppression'

Mrs Bush used her husband's weekly radio address to rally support against the Taleban.

She is the first wife of a president to deliver the whole of the weekly radio address.

Correspondents say that up until now she has played a low-key role in politics, in contrast to her predecessor Hillary Clinton.

In the address Mrs Bush said she wanted to highlight what she called the Taleban's "brutal oppression" of women.

Laura Bush
Mrs Bush: Taleban seek to intimidate and control
"Only the terrorists and the Taleban forbid education to women. Only the terrorists and the Taleban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish," Mrs Bush said.

"The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control," she added.

The Taleban regime "is now in retreat across much of the country, and the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are rejoicing," Mrs Bush said.

"Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists."

Mrs Bush was keen to emphasise that her address was not aimed at Muslim nations as a whole.

MP's welcome

Labour MP Joan Ruddock, who works to promote links between British and Afghan women, welcomed the new campaign.

"I think it's extremely important to highlight the plight and raise the profile of Afghan women as it is the end of the Taleban.

"I hope very much that the involvement of the two first ladies will do just that."

Downing Street said it did not know whether the two leaders' wives had talked in person about the campaign.

The BBC's Rachel Wright
"Cherie Blair made a rare venture into frontline politics"
International Development Secretary Clare Short
on the suggestion that it may not be better for women under the Northern Alliance

Political partners
What role should they have?
See also:

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