Adventures in Reading

Revisted Reviews: Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

When I first saw this book what immediately flitted through my mind was a squadron of Mary Kay-esque American women (in pink Jackie O’ lady suits) infiltrating Kabul and pushing western ideas and concepts on the women of Afghanistan. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Kabul Beauty School is an engaging tale of an American hairdresser in Afghanistan, originally with a care organization, who wants to help the women of Afghanistan help themselves.

During Taliban rule many things were banned and many shops were closed. Beauty salons, which apparently were everywhere throughout Kubal pre-Taliban, were also closed. However, beauty salons in Afghanistan are women only spaces where only women can work and only women can go. So in addition to being something of a safe space and a communal gathering area for women, beauty salons also offer women the chance to run and operate their own business. A business where any money earned is the woman’s and where men are absolutely forbidden to enter the premises. Not to mention that women who do enter the beauty field often experience an increase of 400% of their income (according to the book) compared to other jobs women may have.

Rodriguez finds herself in Kubal when the Taliban have been losing control. Sent over with doctors, dentists, midwives, and nurses she begins to wonder exactly why she, a hairdresser, has been sent. Eventually she visits one of the few salons remaining in the city (professional curiosity as she puts it) and Rodriguez decides that she can help and encourage these women to increase their business and to help other women in the community. This idea then escalates to opening a beauty school to not only help current salon owners but to train women to be able to get jobs and be competitive in this environment. Also, Rodriguez actually has an arranged marriage and marries a man in Kabul and continues to live there.

A lot of my concerns prior to reading the book I think are summed up by the subtitle, An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil and I was waiting for this horrible expose on conditions in Afghanistan. But it really wasn’t and Rodriguez spends the entire book getting to know the women and their experiences in Afghanistan. I think some of my favorite parts of the novel were when Rodriguez reflected on her own ineptness in this culture. For example, there’s a party where 20 or so Kubal salon owners are together (this is prior to the beauty school) and Rodriguez questions them in a group setting on what they do and do not know. In retrospect she admits this was culturally insultive (that she should have spoken with the women individually) and that by questioning the women like this it hurt their pride. It was all very much a learning process for her and I enjoyed that she had no problem saying: “I was wrong and I am trying to learn.”

Additionally, the Beauty School integrated as much of the culture of Afghanistan as it could. This ranged from smaller things such as the use of “threading” to “pluck” eyebrows and how to accurately apply kohl to the eyes to the traditional Afghanistan wedding practices. The book actually opens up during the preparation for a wedding and there’s a great deal of emphasis on tradition and allowing the women to be productive in their own way and in their own customs. Most importantly, eventually the school begins using Afghan women as teachers within the school. The school is closed at the end of the novel but roughly a hundred women in Kabul have been trained with a variety who can teach this trade to other women if not begin their own school.

This is not a research book and considering my limited knowledge of women in Afghanistan I pretty much had to accept everything at face value. It was an enjoyable and easy read but as someone lacking further knowledge there could be a multitude of inaccuracies that I would never know about.

Kabul Beauty School was a book that taught me a valuable lesson to be cautious with books dealing with culturally sensitive topics. I went into the book critical and by the end of the book was pretty confident about it. But once the book came out and media attention caught up with it, it did prove to have some problematic issues and certainly issues I had not considered during my reading.



…it did prove to have some problematic issues and certainly issues I had not considered during my reading.

Can you please elaborate on this?

Comment by Claire C. Cake

Claire C. Cake: Shortly after the book came out there was a lot of uproar that proceeds from the book were going directly back to Rodriguez and that the women she spoke of in her book, some on very intimate terms, had been “identified” and abused/killed for what Rodriguez had written. Kabul Beauty School was then, at least for awhile, set to become a movie, and Rodriguez met with quite a few charges of trying to make money off of the hardships of the women she portrayed.

Comment by bookchronicle

Oh dear.

Comment by Claire C. Cake

hello debbi, i read your book and I really liked it, i want to contact to u, i have some personal questions to you!!!
thank you

Comment by kamola

kamola: Just to clarify: I am not Rodriguez. I am merely a lover of books that read her memoir and commented on it.

Comment by bookchronicle

What is the current status of rodriguez, the school, the movie, and the students who may be in danger?

Comment by Shirley

Shirley: No idea. This is a “revisited review” from a book I read more than a year ago (I think). I read it shortly after it came out, felt relatively positive about the book, and very quickly after this a lot of bad press began showing up.

Comment by bookchronicle

Dear Dabbie,

I read your book, it’s so wonderfull and surprised me. Would you like to give me ur email. I really need your help. It’s about my future life.Thanks…

Comment by Sheliya

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