Five months ago, a 71-year-old American grandmother was arrested as a spy by the world's most ultraconservative Muslim regime the Afghan Taliban.
Apparently, the real reason the Taliban jailed Mary MacMakin was that her small Kabul-based aid agency hired women, and the Taliban ban education or work for most girls and women. After international pressure, they deported MacMakin. She got back in by an oversight, and then they kicked her out again.
But MacMakin is indomitable. I know because last December she helped me examine firsthand the terrible plight of Afghan women in Kabul. So I wasn't surprised to learn that she was in the United States recently raising funds for her Kabul-based aid agency, PARSA (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan), which she now runs out of Peshawar, Pakistan.
On the phone, she was as feisty as ever about the need for the world to pay attention to the worsening situation for Afghan women and girls.
"The Taliban have made two monstrous mistakes," she says, "keeping women out of the workplace and not letting girls go to school. It is criminal. They will have a 16-to-18-year delay in the training of (women) doctors and nurses. When they have none, they will see their mistake." (Note: Male doctors are only rarely allowed to treat women, and then only in the presence of a male relative.)
But MacMakin didn't wait around for things to get better. Having lived in Afghanistan from 1961 to 1967, when her former husband was a U.S. aid officer, and again from 1971 to 1981, she fell in love with the country. She returned in the 1990s as a physical therapist and worked for humanitarian aid agencies, then founded her own using her $500 monthly Social Security check.
Now, she gets U.S. and foundation grants to train war widows in crafts, educate orphan boys to be electricians, and set up girls' home schools. She stayed on when the Taliban, a movement of rural religious students, took over most of a country devastated by Soviet occupation and then by civil war. She used to interview candidates for grants in taxis because she wasn't allowed to visit Afghan homes.
The Taliban claim to base their strictures on Islam and on wartime conditions, but Islam contains no ban on women's education, and the Taliban has worsened women's wartime suffering. In Kabul, female beggars roam the dusty streets like ghosts, enveloped in the suffocating blue burka, which has only a tiny mesh opening for the eyes. Tens of thousands are war widows who can't work and depend on foreign aid to prevent starvation.
Last year, the Taliban seemed to relent a smidgen. I visited a private home school, one of many funded by PARSA and other international agencies. There, vibrant 8-year-olds, who were bundled up against the cold in quilts, learned to read and write from Koranic lessons written on blackboards by female teachers who were no longer permitted to work outside their homes.
Some aid agencies, including PARSA, were finally permitted to hire female Afghan staff because male staff couldn't be in contact with women. The World Food Program got permission from senior Taliban officials to hire more women to survey widows' needs.
Hundreds of shrouded women desperate for work besieged the WFP office. A new Taliban edict banned international aid organizations, once again, from hiring women. MacMakin and her staff were jailed, her office was looted, and six months later the situation for women is one of confusion.
Some large aid organizations have been allowed to rehire women, and the Taliban have generally ignored home schools. But the situation for aid workers is likely to worsen again if the United Nations imposes new sanctions on the Taliban for refusing to expel terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
So what can outsiders do to help Afghan women?
The United Nations must keep pressing the Taliban to negotiate a broad peace with other Afghan factions which would remove the Taliban excuse that wartime conditions rule out schools for girls. And the Taliban should never be given Afghanistan's U.N. seat until the repression of women stops.
But it is also important for outsiders to fund humanitarian agencies that help educate and train Afghan women, so that they don't fall further behind each year that Taliban repression continues. For those interested, a good place to start is with PARSA: www.parsa-afghanistan.org or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.