The hidden beauty parlour of Helmand

Make-up and fashion have become a form of resistance for many women in Afghanistan. Katrina Manson reports from Lashkar Gah
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The Independent Online

Pamela Anderson and Afghanistan's most dangerous, conservative province might not at first glance seem to have much in common. But step into a busy, cramped room in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, and there she is: blonde locks, wide darkly made-up eyes, and petulant pink lips smiling down from a large mirror.

The crinkly laminated poster of the Playboy model's face is not the only surprise in a room filled with hairspray, fake eyelashes and lipsticks. For this is a hidden beauty parlour in a land where women appear in public only when shrouded in full-length burkhas that obscure even their eyes. Tucked into a private home down a dusty dead-end alley, women are indulging in playing at dressing-up in the province in which the fight against the Taliban rages and where more than 90 British troops have lost their lives since the start of the Afghan war in 2001.

It's the night before Roya's wedding, a white dress hangs on the wall, and she is leaning back. Wearing light, flowing fabrics of red, blue, gold and purple dotted with sequins, three more giggling women pack into the parlour. With a rapid, practised hand, beauty therapist Malika spreads lashings of gaudy, garish bright blue eye-shadow over Roya's eyelids before painting a thick goo of glitzy red lipstick on her parted mouth. "It's a form of personal resistance," says a justice expert at the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), "and they're doing it with and for each other."

Outside is the gritty Afghan reality familiar in the West from the coverage of the war. In the hot and dusty streets, bearded labourers pour concrete into ditches, auto-rickshaws painted with love hearts weave and swerve through a town which was planned by the Americans in the 1950s as a suburban "Little America" in Afghanistan. Amid the shopping stalls and mobile fruit-carts, men sit smoking and chatting as they drink green tea on the pavements, breaking off for the odd bit of trade.

Women are not allowed to run their own shops in the bazaar, the main shopping area, or to shake hands with men. Indeed, they rarely leave their homes. "Although we'd like to, we're not allowed to have this shop outside," explains Malika, "because it would not be safe and in any case our family would not allow it. But we like to wear colourful clothes and we love different colours – in fact, we'd like more make-up and more colours." Her tiny home-based boutique, one of three in the battle-hardened town whose name means "army barracks", makes 5,000 Afghanis (£60) profit a month.

Older women can remember a time when they didn't have to wear the burkha outside the home, but for younger women, it is all they have ever known. They would not dream of walking the streets dressed as they are in the boutique, and the Pamela Anderson poster is unlikely ever to leave its spot on the mirror. The few women to be spotted in the town centre are hurrying so swiftly that their blue burkhas billow in the wind, so they resemble clouds in human form streaking through the town. The loose fabric swirls about them in the dusty lanes as they crane to see through the gauze that covers their eyes.

"I don't like to wear it. It's hard to see and it pinches my head so hard, it gives me a headache and sometimes I can't walk straight," says Nawida, who comes to the beauty parlour once a week to have her eyebrows threaded. "We dream of walking around like we are now. If the situation were better, I would stop wearing the burkha. But if everybody is wearing it I have to too."

The Taliban banned women from working outside the home, from laughing and from wearing high heels, and whipped women for failing to cover their ankles and cut off painted finger nails. The Taliban no longer runs Lashkar Gah, but women's lives remain very much constrained. Helmand's women do not ring in to radio shows hosted by men, male journalists cannot interview women and some believe women should not even listen to male voices on the radio.

"It's because of the war and the fighting that they think a woman should not listen to a man's voice – the people's minds have been changed in all aspects," says Mirwais Patsoon, a local entrepreneur who runs one of Helmand's three radio stations and has just launched a fourth: the first women's radio station in Helmand. Run by six young women Miskab – which means "smile" in the Pashtu language – broadcasts listeners' queries, records cooking shows, runs live music sessions and call-ins to discuss otherwise taboo issues, such as pregnancy, in an educational or health-related way. "I'm glad I do this job: it's an important one," says 19-year-old Roma Mahammedi, a talkshow hostess whose hair is covered in a scarf of pink polka dots as she sits at the microphone in a small sound booth lit by a red bulb. "We do not care about the Taliban and they don't mind us because this station is not for or against anyone. It's just nice for the women and they absolutely love it." The success of the station has surprised even its owner, who is still looking for advertisers to back the venture. "I did not previously believe that a woman could run a radio station, be a journalist and master all the technology, but right now they are doing it well," says Mr Patsoon. In an effort to give people throughout the province the opportunity to listen to radio shows, the PRT intends to install new transmitters to expand the area covered from 20 per cent to 85 per cent.

For the female DJs, however, a women-only radio show is still a sign of the limitations around them: Mahammedi would like to to work alongside male journalists and run a radio station with them. "The women of Helmand should be able to do everything," said Ghulam Nabi Hakka from the Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation. "But women are traditionally restricted, especially in Helmand province. They've not been given enough freedom. Our only hope is that they can get help so one day they can obtain an education, learn and solve their problems."

Many women throughout the province live in fear. Those who escape violent and sexually abusive husbands can be accused of crimes of immoral conduct and put in prison. But ironically, the handful of women in Lashkar Gah's prison, newly rebuilt by the PRT, often feel safer behind bars than outside in the province that international troops are trying to make safe. "Some are there because they are deemed to have committed a crime in running away," says the PRT's justice expert. "Their place of safety is prison – that's all we've got. There is no women's refuge. There's an urgent need for that sort of protection." General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has recently urged a shift in strategy to attempt to win over local people, whom he says make up 70 per cent of the Taliban. "We must redefine the fight. The objective is the will of the Afghan people," he told an audience in London at the start of the month. But for the international troops who have been given the mission of winning the hearts and minds of the population, it makes it increasingly hard to claim that people's lives are better under the current system.

The international coalition is making efforts to ensure girls go to school: 2 million girls now enrol in education, which was banned under the Taliban, and the UK's Department for International Development says it has helped 280,000 poor women increase their incomes. But women still have it hard. Nationwide, women activists, including journalists, councillors and teachers, have been assassinated, while militants sprayed acid in girls' faces on their way to school. President Hamid Karzai passed a law earlier this year that makes marital rape legal among Shia Muslims. Women in Helmand complain of physical violence by their husbands and of being forced to sell their daughters. Just three women from Helmand, a province of 1.44 million people, have made it to university. Some wonder aloud what impact the international troops, the fighting and the influx of foreign money are really having.

"I don't care whether it's the Taliban or the Government in charge," says Bibi Khan, a small, elderly sheep farmer, who is cloaked in reams of black cloth speckled with elegantly embroidered butterflies. "I'm an old woman so the Taliban aren't interested in me. I feel safe with them. I want peace and tranquillity." But even Bibi Khan, who lives in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah where there is not a single school in the district, is not entirely happy with the situation. "I wasn't allowed to go to school by my father when I was a girl," she says, "but I want my grandchildren to be educated."

Some names have been changed in this article on order to protect identities