Beauty and the burqa

Under the Taliban, Afghan women were forbidden from showing their faces. Now they're rediscovering the arts of make-up and hairdressing - with a little help from their American sisters
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Debbie Rodriguez, an American hairdresser sporting spiked marigold hair and an even brighter palette of cosmetics, is standing in front of a group of local women in Afghanistan, some of whom are wearing black headscarves. "All those who have make-up on, stand up," she demands, hands on hips. Only a handful budge. "You know what? You're stuck in a rut, guys! You're stuck in a hole of the past that you can't get out of, and, my God, before I leave here, you're getting out of the hole!" continues Rodriguez with the enthusiasm of a sergeant major.

Debbie Rodriguez, an American hairdresser sporting spiked marigold hair and an even brighter palette of cosmetics, is standing in front of a group of local women in Afghanistan, some of whom are wearing black headscarves. "All those who have make-up on, stand up," she demands, hands on hips. Only a handful budge. "You know what? You're stuck in a rut, guys! You're stuck in a hole of the past that you can't get out of, and, my God, before I leave here, you're getting out of the hole!" continues Rodriguez with the enthusiasm of a sergeant major.

The women are the first wave of students at a beauty academy staffed by a gaggle of American and Afghan-American hairdressers, who have come to Kabul to train them in how to create the latest Western looks for their clients. As armed guards patrol outside, one of the more plucky students stands up to counter Rodriguez. "In your country there's no fighting," she says. "You don't have to worry, you can talk back to your husbands. Women in Afghanistan aren't free like that; if we talk back twice, we'll get thrown out of the house."

Beauty Without Borders was set up last year in the grounds of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, with the help of Parsa (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan), an NGO. Funding and products were donated by the American beauty industry. Most of the staff - three American and three Afghan-American hairdressers, along with the director of the project, Patricia O'Connor, a British-born marketing consultant - volunteered their services. "We really wanted to help the women and empower them - give them a chance to build a better life for themselves and their families," says O'Connor. The resulting chaos and hilarity, and the tears shed by students when they were eventually awarded their graduation certificates, were caught on camera by the documentary-maker Liz Mermin. Her film is being screened on BBC2 this Saturday.

There were more than a few problems to iron out at the academy even before the students arrived. There was no hot running water; products from 50 manufacturers had to be shipped out during the Iraq war; the electrical equipment was incompatible with Afghanistan's power supply; and the mannequin heads on which the students were to practise got held up in China by the Sars epidemic.

Nor did the labourers working on the school building take too kindly to having pushy American women as their bosses. Noor Raghi, the academy's (male) manager, identified the problem: "They're basically used to men telling them what to do. And American women telling them to do things, and, of course, telling them to do things a different way, is not very enjoyable. They don't like it."

The 20 places on the first course were so oversubscribed that names had to be picked out of a hat. It is little wonder. Hairdressing is now one of the most lucrative professions for women in the capital. "Even women who were teachers and government workers before the war started are now doing hairdressing because it makes more money," says Liz. "There's a steady demand for it and you can do it from your home, so you don't have to worry about taking care of your children, they can be there with you."

Many of the students were already working secretly from home during the Taliban era. The new hairdos were hidden under a burqa until the clients got home.

One student, Fauzia, recalls: "The Taliban closed the salons, but people who knew me would come to my house in secret. My husband wasn't getting paid. We had four kids. We were very scared. My husband said never to mention hairdressing to him again. The Taliban were very strict. If your burqa showed any part of your arm, or part of your leg, they'd beat you. We just thought, 'How did this happen to us?' We didn't think they would ever leave."

Nafisa, who is married to her cousin and has five children, has run a private salon for seven years. "My husband is a little strict," she says. "He says, 'If you want a salon, fine, but work from the house.' Under the Taliban, women would get their hair and make-up done and wear the burqas. They would cover their faces and hide. Our work would be ruined." Some of her clients were married to Talibs. "Taliban wives would come, too. They wouldn't get make-up, they'd just get their hair done... without the men knowing."

Hanifa, who has two children and a home salon, recalls the Taliban at their worst. "I saw them cut off hands. And feet. I saw three women in burqas doused with gasoline and set on fire."

One of the hairdressing teachers, Sima Calkin, an Afghan who returned to Kabul after 23 years in America, is devastated by the state of the city. "So much has changed since I've been gone. It was a modern city, very modern for the place it was. I was going to university and we worked in the offices wearing miniskirts, getting our hair fixed. If you imagine Afghanistan from 20 years ago, they've gone back maybe more than 100 years." She found it hard to forgive herself for leaving. "I realise now that I didn't do anything. I didn't help with anything. I feel so guilty."

There are tears from the students when Sima leaves at the end of her teaching stint. More are shed when her replacement, Shaima Ali, also an Afghan-American, tells them her story: "I left Afghanistan 22 years ago, after my husband was killed," she says. "I have two daughters and was one- month pregnant at the time. I asked to see the body to confirm that it was him, but the government wouldn't open the grave. After I left, whenever there was anything on the news about fighting in Afghanistan, I would search for his face."

Quite what the students make of some of the teachers' attitudes is not clear. On one occasion, Debbie Rodriguez announces: "You know, there are settlers and there are pioneers. I'm a pioneer and if nobody else, no other women are gonna drive in this country, I will." Heading for a car, she cries: "Ready girls, rock and roll."

Though Mermin is herself American, some of the teachers' antics that she caught on film made her wince. "There were definitely times when I was cringing," she admits. "Such as when they're lecturing them about how they have to change and be bolder. There were times when they said, 'Don't let your children come near you when you're working, this is your time and you have to be focused on your work', and, 'You should be using this equipment instead of that equipment'. They didn't realise that they didn't have any choice.

"Of course their children were going to be there, and of course they didn't have the equipment - they were being taught how to shampoo and condition, and they don't even have sinks in any of those salons, or hairdryers. This 'go in and do it right' American professionalism was, at times, completely inappropriate. On the other hand, I do think that the students really sensed that it might have been based on a naive misunderstanding and a respect for the standards of the field - they all take hairdressing very seriously."

Nevertheless, the academy certainly had the ability to change lives. The cachet of Nazira, who lives in a high-rise Soviet-era apartment complex, where every tenement block has two or three in-house hair salons, soared when word got around that she was attending an American beauty school. While her husband makes 1,700 dinars a month, she can now earn up to 3,000 just for doing one bride's hair.

But there is an unlikely heroine to this story - the gung-ho, flame-haired Rodriguez. When, after three months, the students graduated and the camera crew left, the academy floundered. The first course was its last. "We just didn't have the resources to continue," says Patricia. "The goal had always been to have a programme where we could bring over really good- quality teachers every few months. The resources just weren't there." According to Sima Calkin, the women's ministry took exception to suggestions that the women should wear make-up and abandon their scarves, as well as to the media attention and the men coming in and out.

But last April, Rodriguez, now married to an Afghan, set up her own venture in the city under the name Vocational Training Beauty School for Afghan Women, with the backing of Parsa. In the morning, it operates as a beauty school, in the afternoon a salon. Six former students are now trainee teachers and also work in the salon. One of them, Treena, 25, says: "I feel like I am a real hairdresser. The Afghans that are hairdressers are never really trained. I didn't want to be one of them. I wanted to be a real hairdresser. I wanted to learn the styles that I see on TV. Afghans who haven't graduated from the school only charge $1 a haircut, but graduates from the school are paid $2-$3.

"I have learnt how to do massages, facials, pedicures and manicures. I make more money than all the members of my family. This has been the best thing for me and my family."

The experience seems also to have been the best thing for her boss. "They say that people who come to Afghanistan are either missionaries, mercenaries, misfits or the broken-hearted. I'm not sure whether it's true, but no one denies it," says Rodriguez, who is still running the school. "I had great pain for the women of Afghanistan. I had been in a very abusive marriage and I know what it is like not to be able to leave the house. When I heard about the women here, I had to do something. I had felt so hopeless myself for such a long time, I couldn't turn my back on these women. Sometimes, helping others is a good way to heal yourself. This country has been abused for 25 years. We all need healing, and I got my healing here."

'Storyville: The Beauty Academy of Kabul' is on BBC 2 on Saturday at 11pm

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