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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 17:09 GMT
Cherie 'lifts veil' for Afghan women
Cherie Blair QC listens to speakers with Afghan women
Much of Mrs Blair's career has focussed on human rights
By the BBC's political correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti

Monday's briefing at 10 Downing Street was unusual - not for the subject (women's rights in Afghanistan), but for the host.

Cherie Blair, wife of the Prime Minister Tony Blair, led calls for the international community to help Afghan women win back some of the human rights they lost under the Taleban.

This was one of her very rare interventions in government matters, and part of a concerted transatlantic exercise - Laura Bush, America's First Lady, performed a similar duty at the weekend, by making the weekly White House radio address.

Cherie Blair
Cherie Blair talks about the traditional Burqa dress

This was a forum that until then had been the exclusive preserve of the President.

Why is it being done?

The bald answer out of Downing Street is that Britain and America have led a coordinated military, diplomatic, and humanitarian campaign, and they now want to "lift the veil" on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is also part of an exercise to keep reminding the public about the reasons for the bombing of Afghanistan, and why the present situation, with the Taleban apparently crumbling, should be supported.

'Strong views'

Mrs Blair, a QC and part-time judge, has spent much of her career focusing on human rights issues, and so it is no surprise she holds strong views on the issue.

She herself told her audience that as "somebody who has been on the margins of the political world", she had seen how communities worked more productively when women were involved.

But there will inevitably have been eyebrows raised at this use of the prime minister's wife to reinforce government policy.

She and Laura Bush are only in the public eye by virtue of marriage.

'Oppression of women'

The oppression of women under the Taleban has already been well publicised and documented, and some will see the regime's overthrow as being a by-product of the war rather than a prime objective.

Other objections will include the fact that women were being oppressed by the Taleban for several years before the West decided to get involved.

But however stage-managed this event may feel for some, Downing Street's aim is to get the issue aired - and using Mrs Blair, rather than simply the two female Cabinet ministers who appeared with her, undeniably gave the event added interest.

It guaranteed headlines in Tuesday's papers - and that, after all, is exactly what Downing Street wanted.

Political partners
What role should they have?
See also:

08 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Labour and Tories row over Cherie
16 Nov 01 | UK Politics
First ladies back Afghan women
03 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugee women at risk
25 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan women speak out
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