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Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes behind the Veilby Kristin Ohlson
Author Q & A
In KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL you present the beauty salon as an inner sanctum for women in both the United States and Afghanistan. Aside from the absence of men, what creates this atmosphere and almost automatic sense of belonging?
I believe that beauty salons and beauty schools are sanctuaries for women everywhere in the world–in that sense, the Kabul Beauty School is no different. In every salon and school, the beauticians are there to take care of women. The customers let their hair down, quite literally! Lifelong friendships develop.
In Kabul, this feeling of closeness is enhanced by the greater culture’s exclusion of women. I nicknamed Afghanistan “manistan” because you always feel as if you’re surrounded by crowds of men. It’s painful to go out and see so few women on the streets. It’s a relief to get away from all that testosterone. The school provides a safe haven for my students and the women who work in my salon. We go through family crises, celebrations and hardships together.
Because I am a foreigner I bring up subjects that an Afghan teacher would not. We talk about birth control, joke about sex, our husbands, their lack of sensitivity and other taboo subjects. My girls love it-- they laugh and tease each other and get just as silly as any other women. This also creates a bond.
For the foreigners, the salon is also a sanctuary. We might have three customers receiving services at the same time: one could be earning $30,000 a month, another $2,000, and the third is volunteering and making little to nothing. But there are no differences here in Kabul. We suffer the same things. None of us has electricity, we can’t walk on the streets without being called names or stared at as if we have three heads, and it’s difficult for us to move from location to location because of increased security risks. All of us shake for days when there are riots or suicide bombers or rocket attacks. But once in the salon, we shake off the day’s dust, sit back to read an outdated magazine, drink tea and gossip. Plain and simple. We dish about who did what with whom and enjoy every minute. The salon is truly an oasis.
Women in Kabul fought hard to preserve some vestige of the salons and beauty culture in existence before the Taliban, going as far as to bury their tools. What do you think is the cause of this devotion?
Except for during the Taliban years, female beauty has always been treasured in Afghanistan. Beauticians have always had an important and honored role in enhancing beauty–especially during the parties and gatherings surrounding a wedding.
Paradoxically, I think this has to do with the lack of value that women have in this culture. There are huge celebrations when a baby boy is born. Hundreds of people come to the parents’ house and bring gifts to the family. But when a girl is born, the mother is often in tears for months. The family scolds her for not producing a son; if she continues to birth girls, her husband often takes another wife. Progressive families celebrate the birth of a girl, but the celebration is still very small compared to that for a boy. From birth on, a girl understands that she has very little value–until someone approaches her parents to arrange a marriage. Then, her value is demonstrated by the kind of dowry her family is offered. She will wear a lot of this dowry at her wedding parties, including the gold jewelry and fine clothes that the groom’s family has given her. If a girl isn’t draped in gold, then everyone assumes she isn’t worth much.
When you think about it, don’t we all do the very same thing? When a girl gets engaged in the States, she proudly shows off her diamond ring. It seems that no matter what side of the world you live on, we all get our social status from other people’s approval. But Afghan women don’t have a lot of opportunities to show off. Even though all the women in Afghanistan try to look like prom queens for engagement and wedding parties, there is even greater pressure on the bride. That’s her one big moment to display her worth–in front of all the important people in her world-- with her gold and her elaborate dress and her fancy hairstyle–the bigger the better--and her body weight in makeup. The more beautiful she is on this day, the more she shows that her husband and his family value her. This gives her status in the community. Beauticians are the handmaidens of this status–there are hours and hours of preparation in a salon before the bride goes to the party.
Beauticians also clung to the tools of their trade because they earned a good living–and they ran their own businesses without any interference by fathers or brothers or husbands. They hoped the Taliban were only a brief interruption of business! And, of course, they loved their salons–as I said before, salons were then and are still comfortable havens for women in Manistan.
Though you have often made the decision to stand up for what you believed was right in dangerous situations, you have also had to pick your battles. How do you decide when it is worth the risk to stick your neck out?
I hate to see people being victimized. I wish I could say that I picked my battles, but it was more often the case that my battles picked me. I didn’t stand up and make noise about some things when I should have and, sometimes, I made too much noise when I should have kept my mouth shut. But then there were the lucky times when my buttons were pushed, and I stood firm. My stubborn streak came shinning through, and a few battles were won.
You are undoubtedly in love with your husband, Sam, yet throughout the book you make it clear that there is quite a significant language barrier between the two of you. How do you communicate in a way that allows you to stay emotionally connected and navigate the cultural differences that you run up against?
There are many days when I would say we don’t communicate at all. With time, I have learned what I would call “survivor Dari,” and he has learned English pretty well. When we combine my broken Dari and his broken English and some sign language, we do okay. The only thing I can compare it to is when your child is about two years old. Only you can understand what they are saying--it sound like gibberish to everyone else. It is pretty much the same for Sam and me. He often translates my Dari into Dari for Afghans, and I translate his English into English for the foreigners. One day I was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a mixed group of men and women, Afghans and foreigners. Sam looked at me and said politely, “Debbie your docon is open.” Translated into English, this would mean, “Your store is open.” I knew that he was saying, “Close your legs-- you are not sitting like a lady.” So we have come up with our own language.
Most of the time, we are navigating the cultural differences in the dark. I remember how difficult it was for Sam when a foreign male would greet me with a hug. Sam says that it still bothers him sometimes, but that he understands that this behavior is common among westerners. He told me when we first got married that it would be impossible for either of us to change overnight–“Slowly, slowly, we will learn and change.” And that is what we have done. We also know that my past is culturally unacceptable to him and his present is difficult for me. So we have decided to ignore these things. That makes our marriage very different from those in which partners want to know everything about each other.
You mention your distress upon learning that Sam had another wife and, later, that she was going to have another of his children. How have you reconciled the fact of your husband’s other marriage to your American upbringing? Though she is in a different country, does the existence of another wife impact your daily life?
Denial, denial, denial–this seems to be the best way to deal with it. There is no place in my American brain to put this other marriage. I have stopped asking about it, and he has stopped telling me anything. He understands that I could never accept it if she lived in Afghanistan–I could not be the traditional Afghan wife who makes way for another wife–so he would never put me in that situation. The culture here complicates this situation. Divorce is not an option for him: It would destroy his family and shame his name, and his children would suffer. It is very complicated. There are other foreign women here who are married to Afghan men and are in the same situation. We are an informal support group for each other.
It was difficult and embarrassing for me to even tell people that Sam had another wife. It took me a long time to talk about the last child; to this day, I don’t like to talk about him. It wasn’t until I wrote the book that I even spoke of it at all. I hesitated putting it in the book because my mom didn’t even know; she found out by reading my story. I kind of hoped she would skip that part.
You describe both your life in the United States and your life in Afghanistan. Many people feel that they have a hard time balancing work and home when work is only a one or two hour commute away. How do you stay connected to your family in the US? As a mother, how do you maintain your relationship with your sons in the US?
Thank God for the internet and telephones! We email and talk on the phone a lot. I’m very close to my mother and my kids; even though I don’t see them very often, I feel that they are always with me. Sometimes that’s not enough, though: I brought Zach to Kabul because I really felt he needed to be closer to me. Now, he is going to school in Northern Cyprus--just a short flight away.
I feel that my experience in Afghanistan has opened up a different world for my boys. For my mother, too–she left America for the first time ever to visit me in Afghanistan. And if I had not been in Afghanistan, I would have never thought about sending Zach to school in Northern Cyprus.
Its hard for any mother–even with what is considered a normal life-- to be without guilt. We all wonder if we’re good mothers. I struggle with this on a daily basis. I also battle the guilt that I was not in the States with my mother when my dad died, nor was I there when her house burned down. If I think about it too much, I would drown in guilt.
Your son Zach came to stay with you in Kabul for a while and became involved in your efforts to save Hama from her disastrous relationship with Ali. How did it feel to have your American and Afghan family lives collide in such a dramatic way? How did Hama’s inability to take the help offered to her affect you and Zach?
Zach is a bleeding heart, like me. So it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to help Hama. It is really hard to be in Afghanistan without being affected by the lives of the people here--it is as if you are caught in a tornado and can’t get out.
Foreigners here have a catch phrase to describe the world we grew up in, with its very different set of rules and expectations: we talk about how people do things “in the real world.” Would Zach have offered to marry an abused girl to get her away from her abusive boyfriend “in the real world?” I don’t think so. The situation with Hama was very hard. So many tears were shed for this little girl. I wanted more then anything to see her freed from her captor, but nothing helped. I will never forget the look on Zach’s face when he saw that she had been beaten because of his efforts to save her. The cruel reality of this hit him hard. I knew then it was time for him to leave Afghanistan.
The women you work with in Kabul appear to be interested in the beauty of hair, makeup, and dress largely for themselves as women and not for the pleasure of men, who are rarely allowed to see them made up. How does this relate to the way American women perceive personal beauty and the very public manner in which they often display it? What are the similarities between your Afghan customers and your American customers? The differences?
All women want to be beautiful. That is the bottom line.
In the United States, women dress to attract the male and impress the female. In contrast, for Afghan women there is no necessity to attract men because marriages are arranged and the mingling of men and women is forbidden. Consequently, Afghan women dress for themselves, to impress other women, and to show their financial status. In Afghanistan a beautiful woman is worth her weight in gold.
Americans appreciate beauty in all colors: Oprah Winfrey, Christie Brinkley, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, and Lucy Liu. Here, a woman would be committing fashion suicide if she showed up at the big party wearing the same dress as another guest. Americans love to think outside the box as far fashion and hair and are always striving to have the newest look, latest fashion and the trendiest haircut. Where do we get our influence? Fashion magazines, movies, actors, musicians all create what we perceive as beautiful and fashionable.
One of the few influences on fashion and makeup in Afghanistan is the women who are portrayed in the Indian Bollywood movies. These actresses have long dark thick hair, pale skin, curvaceous bodies, dark large almond-shaped eyes, perfectly-groomed dark eyebrows and huge false eyelashes. There is enough “bling” in their dresses that the average American would need sunglasses to take in the whole fashion experience. Afghan women all strive for this same look. Applying the makeup for a bride is much the same as making color copies. Individuality is not as important as having “the right look”.
In the U. S., we spend hundreds of dollars on tanning creams, sun beds, and vacations to bake ourselves to a dark golden tan. In contrast, very white pale skin is what is culturally preferred for Afghan women. Having dark skin is considered a terrible fate, even though the typical Afghan has dark skin, darker eyes, and dark hair. All too often, I have heard women say about their soon to be daughter in law not “what a nice personality” she has, but “what beautiful light skin” she has. Full-figured, feminine women are the ideal, not the tall, skinny, child-like women worshipped by Americans.
Unlike in the U.S., where we have as many avenues to make ourselves as beautiful as we can afford (cosmetic surgeries, Botox, hair extensions), in Afghanistan you get what you get. If an Afghan woman is not blessed with thick beautiful hair, pale skin, and a curvy figure there is not much she can do about it.
How are your friendships with women in Afghanistan different than with women at home in the US?
Sometimes, I feel that my friendships with Afghan women are a bit unbalanced. I always feel pressured to fix everything because I am American–and the truth is, I often have access to resources that they don’t. This makes me uncomfortable, but the sweetness of their friendship is such a treasure. They could never tell me anything bad. When I ask, “Do you think I look fat in this outfit?” and their response is always, “No, Debbie you look so beautiful!” When I know I look like a giant pumpkin. My friends in the States would tell me I look like a giant pumpkin.
You write that in your “darkest moments” you wonder if your decision to help Roshanna fake her virginity on her wedding night was any help to her in the long run (258). While you certainly impact the lives of the individual women you teach, do you think that it is possible for outsiders to effect change in Afghanistan or does that change have to come naturally from within the culture itself? How is it possible for women to help these changes happen from within when they have so little political standing?
Education is the key to all change. Getting the girls back in school will make a huge difference. Afghan women are tough, and with education for ALL the Afghan people, I feel the country will advance. It might not advance in the pace and the way westerners want it to, but it is not our country. I feel that outsiders can make a positive change, but we are just here to help them get back on their feet. The real change will happen within each person, and then some day the country will find some sort of balance. This is an old culture; things have happened in a certain way for a long time for a reason.
From the Hardcover edition.
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