SMC Review: ‘The Kabul Beauty School’ by Deborah Rodriguez

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This book was a recommendation from Twitter, by @debb_rod which I picked up from @littlebookcafe – I had intended to add it to my Amazon Wishlist, but to my delight there was an offer on, so I picked it up for less than £2 and thanks to the magic of 4G I had it on my tablet that same day during my lunch break at work.

Putting it down to go back to work was heartbreaking, this book is exactly my sort of thing. Combining true life stories, feminine strength, history and politics, along with some excellent yarns, hilarious tales and moments that made me want to sob. Just two days later, I’m finished with it and yet I’m also really not. This is a book that I will have to read more than once. 

In a nutshell, the book tells the story of Deb Rodriguez, who opened a beauty school and later also a salon in Kabul to train the women of Afghanistan in beauty therapy and hair dressing. Many of whom had worked as hair dressers and beauticians before the Taliban assumed control of the country and forced them out of their jobs and into burkas.

Afghanistan and its history are subjects which hold a considerable amount of my fascination, especially with regards to how women have fared living in the country over the last twenty years. Long before 9/11 sent political and emotional earthquakes through the western world, The Sunday Times Magazine ran an expose on life in Afghanistan with significant focus on the conditions that women were living in. Page after glossy page of pictures of the rubble, the desolation, with a centre page of two women trapped in their burkas hurrying home through a broken street to make it back to their dwellings before curfew.

(A brief bit of research has suggested that this might have been the article written by Jan Goodwin, which can be read here) 

My heart broke for them, because deep down I knew, even in my optimistic mid teen years, that nothing would be done to stop their appalling treatment. It was the first serious eye opener for me that Feminism as a movement and a world wide ideal still had significant work to do and no clear starting place. The whole situation was a gigantic mess far beyond the interests of the western world to sort out. 

A couple of years later, watching the news late on September the 11th 2001, I heard a newscaster speculating that Osama Bin Ladin was hiding in Afghanistan. My heart jumped – the first positive feeling I had experienced all day. Now the armies of the west were going to have to go in. Perhaps they weren’t going for the women’s sake alone – but they were going and now something would have to be done and things would change. There would be a chance that these women could emerge from the hell they were living in. 

Reading the Kabul Beauty School thirteen years later gave me that same sort of hope and optimism for the women of Afghanistan, because it turns out I wasn’t their only sad and frustrated wannabe champion – they had Deb Rodriguez, who was chock full of the right combination of grit, determination, outrage and willingness to help and care about them.

The secret charm of Deb’s story is that she herself isn’t perfect – she freely admits to all of the cultural and political mistakes she has made along her journey into the heart of this extraordinary culture – that of the women of Afghanistan. Her mistakes are laid bare for us to see, to show the gulf between our own ideals and those of the women of Afghanistan, to remind us that while we may have heard much about Afghanistan in the news during the last 10-15 years, we have not heard anything approaching the full story. In fact, we’ve heard far less than half of it. Deb remains willing to learn and reflect throughout her own journey, which is yet another reminder to us that we need to be flexible in our views and understanding of other cultures as well. 

The story takes place within one of the very few female centric safe spaces for women in Afghanistan – a beauty salon. Men are not allowed to enter these spaces as the women do not strictly observe the Islamic codes of dress required around men who are not related or married to them. Through this book, we enter a space when women are allowed to freely express themselves, to engage in feminine relationships with their friends, colleagues, clients and sisters, to control their own lives and to engage in their own ideas of beauty, creativity and self expression. We see everything that has endured and survived behind the impositions made upon them by the Taliban.

There is a tendency to simplify Afghanistan’s cultural capital in the western world. When it is discussed it is always given two coats of gloss – that of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism and that of a male centric view. The Afghan women’s oppression under the Taliban regime and the dangers they still live through are always footnoted in the conversation, always in relation to the Islamic fundamentalism which lead to it and the men who have enforced it. They have become a tragedy which can be reduced to statistics, perhaps because in being forced into their Burkas for so long they have been stripped of their identities, their faces have been hidden from view and their stories have gone unheard. We proclaim what happened to them to be a tragedy, but we have not really given due consideration to what that tragedy involved and what it destroyed, and most importantly what it failed to destroy. They have become a consequence of these aspects and little has been done to show the wonders of their own world, the feminine world of Afghanistan, to the Western world. 

Deb has been able to walk straight into the centre of that world and share her experiences of learning about it, becoming part of it and resisting some aspects of it in ‘The Kabul Beauty School’. The style of the delivery reminds me somewhat of Jenny Worth’s wonderful autobiographical sketches of the East End of London in ‘Call The Midwife’ – the beauty salon is as much a female centric space as the delivery rooms where the midwives of Nonatus House brought new live into the world. These stories focus not just on the hardships of life that the women have overcome, but the humour, strength and dignity with which they have done so.

We see the downsides as well to the stories as well, and Deb unstinting in her descriptions of women who experience, among other things, the grip of an opium addiction, the horrors of child abuse, domestic violence, rape and the horrors of many years of war. This is not a read for the faint hearted, but it is a read which will reward perseverance. I for one did not have the heart to give up on the story, especially since other women had endured it while I was only experiencing it third hand. 

The reward this read delivers comes from hope for the futures of these women and the revelation of the riches of their private lives and worlds. The dazzling colour and texture of their clothes, their makeup, their hairstyles and decorations and the variety within their appearances and innate beauty are described in rich and lavish language, bringing to life the strength and endurance, not to mention the depth, of the culture of these women.

The west might still exhibit tendencies toward thinking of the women of Afghanistan as crushed by their experiences, dominated, being little more than adjuncts to their men, bereft of any form of luxuries or modes of self expression. They would be wrong. 

Beauty and pride in appearance might be seen as a triviality by some western women and a chore by others, but to these women, learning about how to create and maintain beauty in someone’s appearance it is a first step towards a more stable independence. It opens the doorway to one of the few independent and successful careers a woman in Afghanistan can experience. 

I have written my fair share about how the beauty industry in the western world has become poisonous and toxic to our self esteem as women. This book has lead to me revising my opinions about how it can be a positive, both within other cultures and within my own. It’s not often that a book puts such a large kink into my thinking. But I am so glad that this one did. 

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