Afghan oasis

Deborah Rodriguez's book, a high tale of determination, challenge, love and heartache, could easily be fiction. It is not. The Kabul Beauty School is the true story of an American woman who catapulted herself from Holland, Michigan to Kabul, Afghanistan. Rodriguez came to Afghanistan in 2002 with an American organisation that deals with emergency situations. At the introduction session, she said that she was a hairdresser, and was greeted by thunderous applause. Everyone, no matter where they are, needs haircuts, and Rodriguez realised that, despite her training in other forms of life-support work, it was her hairdressing skills that were more in demand.

Gregarious by nature, she soon turned her attention to getting to know Afghans who spoke some English. Out of these meetings and her own professional background was born the idea of a beauty school, which she launched upon leaving her job. (The first school was on the grounds of the Ministry of Women, which she had to vacate after one day finding herself and her supplies abruptly locked out.) Rodriguez developed close friendships with many Afghan women, who shared with her personal stories of the tyranny of the Taliban from which they had recently escaped. It is these stories that make up the crux of Rodriguez's book.

This writer, too, has spent time in Kabul over the past several years, and first visited Rodriguez's beauty parlour, Oasis, in April 2006. It took my friend and I forever to find the salon, as houses in Kabul have neither names nor numbers – for security reasons, it is said. Along the route, we called Rodriguez multiple times to make sure we were headed the right way. After we finally arrived, as my friend got a haircut, I sipped some tea and looked around, taking in the atmosphere. Rodriguez herself was well built, wore slacks and a blouse, and had wild red hair. Her presence and charisma were striking, her energy infectious. During her cigarette break, we were treated to parts of her story, much of which can now be found in her book.

There were about six Afghan women who spoke some English, and who were engaged in various tasks around the salon – cleaning, sweeping hair off the floor, answering the phone. The salon looked and felt like something out of an Arabian Nights set. Egyptian heliographs were painted across the walls, in bright colours. These, I discovered later upon reading Rodriquez's book, were painted by an American friend who had come for a visit.

The Kabul Beauty School also recounts the many hoops that the author was forced to jump through in order to get her beauty-care courses started, funded and continued. The courses were advertised, and women currently practising or those who could set up new businesses were given preference. The courses ran for about 10 days, as many women came from the provinces and could not leave their families for more than that period. Rodriguez's courses were considered both unique and desirable, as most women who owned beauty parlours offered services that they had learned from living in Pakistan or Iran. Many used traditional beauty techniques, while Rodriguez offered modern methods. But most importantly, her courses – offering a complete package of how to make women look good – were the first ever of their kind to be offered in Afghanistan.

Digging in

There was a mixed reaction to Rodriguez's school. While the women were grateful, government bureaucrats were often irritated by her zeal and stubbornness. There were also some who thought that she was leading women astray, and these individuals found their own ways of dealing with her – through threats and creating assorted obstacles. Many husbands of the trainees felt threatened, often accompanying them to the school with the children.

An article that came out earlier this year mentioned the description at the beginning of The Kabul Beauty School of Rodriguez helping a bride to fake her virginity on her wedding night, by providing her with a blood-stained handkerchief. Should this not be the bride's mother's role? the article's author questioned. I just smiled. There are so many roles for women (as for men) in Afghanistan that it can get tiring. In most traditional societies that are in the process of transition, these roles are shifting quickly. Yet both Afghans and non-Afghans have a hard time with this: What to cling to? What to let go? What to support or oppose?

Rodriguez had little patience for such questioning. She dealt resolutely with men and women, ministries and bureaucracies, hoodlums, louts and the broad spectrum of Kabul society. In so doing, she accomplished some pretty unconventional things. First and foremost, she married an Afghan, to become his second wife. (The first wife, with seven children, lived in Saudi Arabia.) Yet while Rodriguez did a lot to blend in, she also held on dearly to what she believed in, much of which came from her upbringing. Choosing to focus on setting up a beauty school, Rodriguez opted to work with women much of the time. She loved them, got cross with them, cried with them, danced with them and came to hear of their most intimate stories – from violence to sex.

Rodriguez became outraged about what she discovered and experienced in Afghanistan. But slowly she learned and adapted, often at a high cost to herself and others around her. Working in post-conflict countries is not easy, and Afghanistan had its own particular challenges – conservative, Islamic, cut off for years from the outside world, and with little or no infrastructure. She did not know Pashto or Dari, nor did many know English. And being a woman often made things doubly difficult.

Rodriguez ends her book in May 2006, just after riots flared up and curfews were imposed in Kabul. The women who had studied and graduated from her school had gone their various ways – some to new lives, and others back to the old ones (albeit as changed and economically independent women, with newfound, marketable skills). Following publication, there have been some whisperings (both quiet and open) that Rodriguez betrayed, even endangered, the women of the beauty school, who could now be targeted by conservative elements. In addition, there are rumours that she went back on promises of getting her students out of the country. And, was she going to share the profits of her book with the women whose stories she told?

Whatever the answers to these questions, a very particular type of help was exactly what Rodriguez offered those women who came through her school. Indeed, the reality of Afghan women is that their situation can only be changed by themselves – but perhaps with a bit of help from time to time from the Debbie Rodriguezes of the world, by starting where the women already are, building on their strengths, and teaching them the ability to hang in there. Eventually, Rodriguez left Afghanistan, as have many others. People from developed countries grow up and work in environments that are significantly more organised and transparent than in Afghanistan, and Rodriguez eventually tired of what she was forced to confront. In fact, her contribution reflects a microcosm of what development and reconstruction in Afghanistan is about in general: too much, too soon, and in too much of a hurry.

Working in Afghanistan requires immense patience, and digging in one's heels. Change will take time. Decades of oppression from inside and outside the country have left a deep impression on Afghan women and men, in different ways. They have suffered separately, but also collectively. Rodriguez offered friendship and a modicum of freedom to a group of women, within the confines of Afghan society. This is the element that makes The Kabul Beauty School ring true. The book not only reads well, but is highly descriptive of a country and a people of which Rodriguez was, briefly, privileged to be part. And that, no one can take away from her. Just as no one can take away from those Afghan women what they got from Rodriguez.

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