ON THE JOB
Mary MacMakin assists Afghan war widows in the face of Taliban crackdowns.
By Chaney Rankin
A friend of Mary MacMakin’s once asked her if she’d rather be referred to in the press as a “jailbird” or a “sprightly grandmother.” MacMakin, a 72-year-old grandmother of four, decided the second description was more fitting, since she’d really spent just a few days in an Afghan holding cell.
Yes, the soft-spoken woman did time, in an incident that sparked diplomatic furor and international headlines.
MacMakin, ’49, has worked in Afghanistan on and off for the past 40 years. In July 2000, the nation’s fundamentalist Islamic leaders arrested her on charges of spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity—accusations she and her colleagues firmly deny. The Taliban government held her for four days in a juvenile detention center. Then, under diplomatic pressure, they deported her across the border into Peshawar, Pakistan, where she persists in her efforts to aid impoverished Afghan women and children.
MacMakin helps war widows and orphans support themselves and their families through an organization she launched five years ago, called PARSA (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan). Other governments might view such work favorably, but expatriate efforts like PARSA irk Taliban leaders, who consider them subversive.
The Taliban—proponents of an extremely restrictive interpretation of the Koran—took over Afghanistan in 1996, declaring their intent to create a “pure Islamic state.” Under Taliban rule, women’s lives are rigidly controlled: they cannot go outside their homes without a male relative, they are forbidden education, even as children, and they are not allowed to work to support themselves or their families. Edicts like these hit particularly hard in war-torn Afghanistan, where many families lack male breadwinners. Afghan women left without male financial support have two choices: beg in the streets or line up by the thousands for organized handouts. Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross served 35,000 widows through its food-distribution program in the capital city of Kabul.
MacMakin, a Boston native who majored in physical therapy at Stanford, first traveled to Afghanistan in 1961, when her husband was transferred there. She fell in love with the country and decided to make it her permanent home, running local projects for humanitarian organizations such as Save the Children and CARE, and teaching Afghan women the skills needed to practice physical therapy (hence the “physiotherapy” in PARSA).
She got her first glimpse of Kabul’s “widow problem” in 1996, when she returned to the city after a decade away and worked with the CARE emergency feeding program. “One to two thousand widows at a time would gather at the distribution point to get their [ration] cards checked and then receive their food,” she recalls. “My first thought was: ‘These women need to be able to stand on their own two feet and not depend for their living on a little plastic card.’” So MacMakin, familiar with Afghan women’s talents as embroiderers and seamstresses, formed a small group of widows and their daughters who would gather in her living room to make handicrafts. The room became a gift shop, selling to tourists and expatriates.
Today, MacMakin’s organization has a U.S. office that sends out newsletters and helps secure donations and grants, including federal funds. PARSA reaches thousands of Afghan women and children through a variety of projects. It sends medical supplies to orphanages and hospitals, helps widows obtain ration cards, supports homeschooling for girls by paying for teachers’ salaries and classroom materials, sets up home-based cooperatives where widows produce and market woven goods, and provides job training to fatherless boys serving as de facto heads of households. “These women and boys would not have an income without Mary’s efforts,” says Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American activist in Falls Church, Va. “I call them Mary MacMakin’s flock.”
“The most remarkable thing about Mary is that when you meet her, she is so quiet and unassuming,” says longtime friend Kay Mowbray of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. “It doesn’t seem possible that she could be so strong or do all the things she does.”
MacMakin insists she didn’t create PARSA purely out of altruism. “I’m not a bleeding heart. I walk by the beggars with no problem. I do what I’m doing because I can and because I enjoy it,” she told Vogue magazine in an interview last March. In particular, MacMakin says she relishes contact with the Afghan people, both men and women, whom she describes as “born welcomers.”
The Taliban, which took over just a month after her gift shop opened, were unfortunately not so welcoming. Though not the first to curtail Afghan women’s freedom, they have been the most effective, MacMakin says. “The freest these women have ever been was under Soviet rule, when they wore miniskirts and went bareheaded. They loved it. The Mujahideen [a loosely knit post-Soviet regime] reintroduced the enveloping chadri when they entered the city in April 1992, but they were no match for Afghan women and girls, who teased the Muj and laughed at them. When the Taliban entered Kabul on the 26th of September 1996, the laughing and teasing stopped instantly.”
Independent foreign organizations such as PARSA were still allowed to operate, but only under heavy supervision and constant harassment from several directions. “People who were jealous of the lucky women working inside the office . . . used to ‘report’ us to the Taliban so that they had to come and investigate,” MacMakin says. After four years of maintaining a low profile and exploiting loopholes to keep her work going (the government rules by specific decrees rather than established laws), she and PARSA finally fell victim to a Taliban crackdown on July 9, 2000. Another foreign organization started advertising on the radio for female employees, and that was the last straw for the Ministry of Prevention of Vice and Preservation of Virtue. The government shut down PARSA and several similar organizations, and MacMakin—who in frustration had written some “injudicious” things about the Taliban in PARSA’s newsletter—was detained, then deported.
At the moment, PARSA is allowed to assist Afghan women but cannot employ them. It still has a Kabul office, staffed entirely by men. MacMakin runs things from a makeshift base in Peshawar, with the help of some female staffers whose passports enable them to go back and forth across the border. MacMakin herself is forbidden entry into the country she considers home. “As long as the Taliban are in control,” she says sadly, “I cannot go back.”
Chaney Rankin, '00, is a freelance writer studying linguistics at Georgetown University.
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