Friday, December 18, 2009
The Kabul Beauty School
Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009
After languishing on the back burner for the better part of eight years, Afghanistan is once again the focus of the global war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the United States, is still at large, Iran is building nuclear weapons, and the threat-level in the United States remains a steady Code Orange. Ten months into his first term, President Obama, under the advice of military leaders and global security experts, plans to send 30,000 troops to this war-torn, God-forsaken place in an attempt to create a governable nation. For the sake of our national security and that of the rest of the civilized world, we must hope he succeeds. Meanwhile, if Deborah Rodriguez has her way, Afghani women will be making the country a more beautiful and economically independent place by using American hairstyling techniques. On the surface, this may seem like a silly idea; it is, however, anything but.
Afghanistan has a long history of occupation by foreigners beginning with Alexander the Great in 330 BC, who wrested the territory from the existing ancient civilization. This nation is located at the intersection of the great trade routes which linked Europe, China, Russia, India, and Africa for thousands of years. Across millennia, each cultural influence left its mark on Afghanistan, but the Persian and other Arabic invasions had the defining impact. Archaeological evidence suggests that the nation we now call Afghanistan has been occupied by humans for 50,000 years. During that entire time, the area has been at the epicenter of local and global power struggles, and so it remains. In the decades spanning the early 19th and 20th centuries, the expanding empires of Great Britain and Russia threatened to collide but were confronted by Persian armies once more seeking control of Afghanistan. The British and the Russians defeated the Persian forces and, as the turn of the century approached, negotiated a settlement which defined the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. Great Britain retained a high degree of control over Afghanistan until 1919, when the British, worn out from fighting wars on many fronts, ceded control to the Afghan king, Amanullah Khan.
Amanullah Khan reigned for ten years and sought many reforms, including compulsory elementary education. He began establishing diplomatic relationships with other nations and abolished the Muslim veil. The latter angered religious fundamentalists and Amanullah was forced to abdicate. From 1929 until 1973, the royal family retained power, but corruption plagued the monarchy. Meanwhile, economic hardship created social turmoil which the dysfunctional government could not control. In 1973 the Prime Minister, Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, staged a military coup d’état and ousted the monarchy. He established a Republican form of government and installed himself as Prime Minister and President. Unfortunately, President Khan’s government retained many of the totalitarian practices of the monarchy, leading to yet another revolution in 1978.
The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan lasted one year. President Nur Mohammad Taraki and his government moved quickly to modernize and solicited help from the Soviet Union for the building of infrastructure, in the amount of roughly $1.3 billion. The secular nature of the government reforms, including the banning of womens’ burquas and mens’ long beards, led to the rise of Muslim holy warriors, the Mujahidin. Growing instability in the region created an opportunity for the Soviet Union to take a strategic position and as a pre-emptive measure, President Jimmy Carter arranged for the covert funding and training of the Mujahidin through the Pakistan secret service organization. By 1979, the Afghani government was unable to maintain order causing the Soviet Union to invade Kabul in order to protect its interests. For the next nine years, the United States under the cover of the Mujahidin did battle with the Soviet Union-backed government. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia assisted in funding the resistance as a means of stemming the flow of communism. Osama bin Laden, himself, was one of the Saudis involved in supporting the Mujahidin. He quickly severed ties with that effort and went on to found Al-Qaida, a global Islamic effort to fight the Soviets. In other words, at that time Osama bin Laden was on our team. In 1989, the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, however they continued to fund the government while the United States and Saudi Arabia funded the Mujahidin.
In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union fractured, leaving Afghanistan without the support of a super-power. The Soviet-backed president, Mohammed Najibullah, remained in power until 1992, when he was overthrown by Mujahidin-backed political leaders. With the Soviets out of the way, long-simmering tribal tensions heated up and the nation was thrown into a state of civil war. A group of fundamentalist Muslim scholars and former Mujahidin fighters amassed sufficient power to gain control of most of Afghanistan, and so the Taliban was born. Only a small portion of the country, in a remote northeastern pocket, retained diplomatic recognition as the government of Afghanistan. The de facto Taliban government, remains in power to this day.
September 11, 2001. The United States experienced the first attack on the mainland since the Japanese submarine attacks of World War II. The person responsible for the 2001 plot, Osama bin Laden, easily identified by intelligence, went into hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban refused to hand him over to the United States for prosecution, and our nation rallied behind the second President Bush’s decision to go to war in retaliation.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the river of history, life went on in embattled Afghanistan. Aid agencies and charitable organizations, hoping to provide relief to innocent and long-suffering Afghani citizens recruited hundreds of volunteers, one of whom was a hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez, who all but abandoned her children in her search for meaning in her own life. After a few months of wondering what she was doing there, given that she had no relevant skills or training, Ms. Rodriguez started cutting hair for other volunteers, and an idea took hold. What Afghani women needed, imagined Ms. Rodriguez, was a beauty school, giving them marketable skills and a measure of independence. The Kabul Beauty School is the first-person account of how Ms. Rodriguez defied the odds and the Taliban’s strangle-hold on social life in Afghanistan and created a school of, by, and for women.
While qualitatively different, this book reminded me of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson’s memoir of his efforts to build schools for girls in Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan. Both Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Mortenson understood that teaching valuable skills was much more helpful than providing handouts. They also understood that overt opposition to the Taliban would only hurt those they wished to help, and that was their critical key to success.
Afghani women currently must be covered from head to toe when in public or in the presence of men, or risk a violent attack. The beauty school became a refuge for these women; a place where they could shed their veils and have some fun. In the course of setting up the school and teaching the basics of hair cutting and coloring, Ms. Rodriguez learned some very sad facts about her new friends. Many were in abusive marriages and were subject to the will of their cruel husbands and capricious mothers-in-law. If not for rampant unemployment on the part of their men, the students in the Kabul Beauty School would never have graced its doors. Just the same, the women resorted to slipping money into their husbands pockets in order to maintain the pretence that the men were the breadwinners.
The Kabul Beauty School is an imperfect book, written by a tremendously flawed and complicated person. In spite of this, it is an important book for Americans to read. Many of us assume that under every burqua is several thousand dollars worth of designer clothing and accessories. In the oil-rich nations on the Arabian peninsula, that may be true for women of privileged circumstances. Afghanistan, however, is a wasteland, economic and otherwise. Food is scarce and luxuries are scarcer. Even the Taliban rulers live more like nomads than princes. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are far more important than any notion of democracy, the rule of law, or amassing wealth; and religious fundamentalism is a way of life. Just the same, like most women, Afghani women cherish their femininity and express it to the greatest extent possible, even if hidden behind impenetrable veils. Another assumption I have heard about Muslim women is that they choose the veil and submit to the wearing of it freely. I wonder. If wearing a veil is a mark of decency in your culture, and failure to wear one brands you as a “woman of a certain profession” who wouldn’t wear a veil? On the other hand, I do not doubt that there are women who, if given the choice free of consequence, would continue to cover up, in the same way that some American women decline to wear revealing clothes even though many around them do.
Of all the problems plaguing Afghanistan, the burqua seems more symbolic than substantive. It would be nice if that country could come out of this current military incursion with a government which met the needs of the people and afforded women the choice of whether or not to cover up. Given its history, however, Afghanistan will have a hard time balancing the competing interests of the various cultures and religious factions which endlessly fight to defend the honor of their ancestors and belief systems. Deborah Rodriguez and Greg Mortenson understood, intuitively, that economic independence on an individual level was far more likely to spread peace than any large-scale program, military or otherwise.
In his speech at West Point, President Obama appeared to struggle as he maintained his characteristic equilibrium: not revisiting the past even though it created the chaotic present; asking Americans to sacrifice more lives and treasure with no guarantee of success; maintaining America’s stature as a world power while battling crippling debt levels at home. I hope that Mrs. Obama reads The Kabul Beauty School and talks to her husband about it over dinner. As critical as military action is in that region, promoting economic independence on an individual level is what will usher in Afghanistan’s long-awaited and desperately needed golden age. All it will take is one person to give up Osama bin Laden.