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.