Empowering Afghanistan's Women One Haircut at a Time
Women of Afghanistan continue to be the worst off in the world. A year ago, Afghanistan's government presented the Interim National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan during the March 8, 2006 International Women's Day Celebration in Kabul. The plan will be successful when the nation's women are empowered through education.
Visiting Kabul last March, I saw firsthand how education is empowering a handful of women one haircut at a time. It may seem frivolous in a war-torn, terror ridden country to be concerned with hairstyles, but a hairdresser is one of the few professions where cash gratuities are made.
Why is this important? Whether it is a husband, brother or father, the man in a woman's life controls her income. When a woman is generating cash gratuities, he does not know how much she is earning. Men of hairdressers have learned to be respectful towards them in order to have access to some of her income.
American Deborah Rodriguez is owner and matron of Oasis Salon. In a patriarchal country where women are expected to be demur, passive and most wear neutral colors of browns and blacks, the tall, vivacious redhead stands out. But Rodriguez disputes Afghan women's taste in fashion saying, "Afghan women are very gaudy," they are "the Queens of Bling." The "bling" is hidden under burquas.
Rodriguez ended up in Kabul through Ground Zero's disaster relief efforts. She was a Michigan hairdresser and felt the need to do something following the tragedy of Sept. 11. Rodriguez worked at Ground Zero and described it as a "traumatic experience."
Spring 2002, the team she worked closely with was deployed to Afghanistan and although she didn't have the medical experience needed, she joined them working in the laundry. Eventually, Westerners frustrated finding someone to give a decent haircut learned Rodriguez was a hairdresser. Afghans didn't have the knowledge or tools to cut Westerners' hair.
"I would come home from work and find sticky notes on my door requesting haircuts," she told me.
This gave Rodriguez the idea to train and educate young women through a beauty school. Soon, she and a handful of Westerners opened the Kabul Beauty School in August 2003. Today, Rodriguez administers the institute and owns the salon. The salon employees were once students and Rodriguez introduced me to some of them and their stories:
Azara: "A woman without a country," Rodriguez says. She is an Afghan who spent many years living in Iran. Iranians do not accept her because she is an Afghan and Afghans don't accept her because she speaks Farsi (spoken in Iran). She lives in Kabul with her two younger sisters. It is extremely rare for women to live without a male in Afghanistan.
Fareena: The first to graduate from the Kabul Beauty School and has the most progressive husband of the group. She "led a poor life in Karachi," but life is turning around. She's learning to drive.
Sherifa: Lived in Kabul during the Taliban and married for 12 years. Her father left the family without money. She was given away to a teacher and worked as a housekeeper. When Rodriguez met her, Sherifa was in a burqa and "a scared girl who has blossomed." Since graduation, she went from "being afraid of everything to being liberated. [She] has her own money. Money is power."
Powasha: Originally from northern Afghanistan, she is the soul breadwinner of the family. She was an abused woman, once a cleaning lady and "graduated at the top of the class."
Treena: Married during the Taliban and husband was "beaten causing mental disorders." Because of this, he can't work and the family went through difficult times. Treena is providing income and stability for the family, including the medication her husband needs. As Rodriguez said, "She has fallen in love again."
The women range in age from mid-twenties to late-thirties. With the assistance of Kristin Ohlson, Rodriguez has penned "Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil" about the school, students and her experiences in Afghanistan. It will be released in April 2007, published by Random House.
All students of the Kabul Beauty School are women because Afghan men are strictly forbidden in the Oasis Salon. This is because "Afghan men talk [gossip] too much." They would "ruin the school's reputation and make the women feel uncomfortable," Rodriguez said.
One hundred fifty women have been educated through the beauty school. Students are given a scholarship to attend the three-month certification, which costs $500. Upon graduation, they are given a "beauty school in a box," all the tools needed to begin their profession. In addition to the education, school attendees receive free transportation to and from the school and free meals.
Rodriguez lives in Kabul with her Afghan husband and compares living there to Manhattan. It is expensive and "money is an issue to keep the school going. It takes so many people to operate a secure environment," said Rodriguez. "Cook, driver, cleaner. There are always security issues."
While the women receive a percentage of the income generated from the salon, the rest partially funds the beauty school. The school also relies on donations from across the globe. An American salon once sponsored a student and Rodriguez hopes more salons will follow.
Students are trained in four basic cuts, color and permanent application, sanitation and sterilization, make-up application and up-do's. Advanced training includes massage therapy, facials, manicures and pedicures. Along the way, women learn English, too. Most clients are Westerners living and working in Kabul.
Rodriguez's new venture? The Cabul Coffee House which opened last year. She joked the difference between opening a coffee shop within the U.S. and in Afghanistan is, "Do you accept guns or not? If so, where do you store the arsenal?"
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Kabul Beauty School & Oasis Salon (oasisrescue.org)
Author's note: I traveled to Kabul with Global Exchange
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Published on 2/7/07