by Jessica Mosby
– USA –
When thinking of Afghanistan, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by despair. Violence claimed over 6,000 lives in 2007 alone. The quality of life for women continues to decline as a result of continuing violence and the country’s shattered infrastructure. Good news about Afghanistan rarely makes the nightly news. However, after watching the documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul, which is widely available on DVD, I felt more hopeful about the future of Afghan women, because the film depicts a possible alternative to the oppression and poverty that characterize most women’s lives there.
The film is an extremely moving account of American women who created a vocational school for Afghan women. During the Taliban regime, Afghan women were forbidden to work, which led to especially dire situations for widows and their children. Most schools, particularly those for girls closed, due to unending violence and the Taliban’s misogynistic policies; just 14 percent of Afghan women are literate. With few skills and little education, a sustainable income is hard to come by. Hairdressing is a solid career for Afghan women because minimal training is needed and there is a consistent demand. All of the women who are featured in the film have at least informal training with their own hair, and a genuine love of the craft.
During an email correspondence with Director and Producer Liz Mermin, she said she first heard about the school in a newspaper article and, “It seemed like such a perfect documentary subject – offbeat, political, aesthetic, controversial.” She and an all-female crew—to put the Afghan women at ease—then traveled to Kabul in the summer of 2004 to film the school and its attendees for 10 weeks. The footage she shot there became the critically-acclaimed documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul.
Although hair and makeup may seem like a trivial documentary subject considering the daily struggle to survive, Mermin clearly articulates the importance of this seemingly insignificant career: “They’ve been through things we would find paralyzing,” she said, “but they don’t have the luxury of being paralyzed. And so somehow things that seem silly, like a good hair color or makeup, made a tremendous difference to them in their mood, for a few hours or a day — and that suddenly seemed very important. Mood is important…Life shouldn’t only be about surviving, even if you’re in a war-torn place, because that’s not much of a life. That’s one of the real tragedies of war: even if you live through it, your life is reduced to survival.”
The film profiles the first class of women to complete the three-month course. The turnout was so large on the first day of the school’s operation that names were randomly drawn. The women selected to enroll in the school still had to face daily challenges to even attend class. A few had to bring their children to class with them, and others attended the school all day only to go home and work in their home salon in the evening. Many illegally operated their home salons during the Taliban rule. Even the Taliban’s sexist laws and brutal enforcement didn’t stop women from patronizing salons, including the wives of Taliban officials.
The film is encouraging because it shows how women who, although they have been long-oppressed and live in a country in total ruins, are able to acquire a desirable and profitable skill that they enjoy. After seeing the film, I was so inspired I wanted to find out more about the school and the women who completed the class. I assumed that the publicity would have led to increased funding (Vogue magazine, Clairol, and M.A.C. cosmetics all contributed start-up funds) and that the school would be open and flourishing today.
During my correspondence with Mermin, I learned that the school is no longer open. The problems that led to the school’s closing are centered around Deborah Rodriguez, an American instructor featured in the film. After filming ended, Rodriguez began running the school and moved the school to a different location. She published a memoir about her experience at the school and her marriage to an Afghan man with a wife and seven children living in Saudi Arabia (she agreed to marry the man after knowing him for 20 days) in the bestseller Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. In the film Rodriguez demonstrates a feminist spirit: in one memorable scene she rebelliously drives around Kabul. Even though I admired Rodriguez’s spunk and energy, I could see how her strong personality might alienate people.
In her book, Rodriguez tells intimate details about the women she befriended and her role in running the school. Patricia O’Conner, Terri Grauel, and Sheila McGurk, the American women who were involved with founding the school and are also featured in the film, have accused Rodriquez of exaggerating her role in the school and of sensationalizing her experience. The Afghan women who shared their controversial experiences—such as an incident where Rodriguez helps a woman fake her virginity for her wedding—did not expect their stories to be available to an international audience. Even though Rodriguez did not use the women’s real names and the book was not published in Afghanistan, news of the book has reached Afghanistan and led to a backlash. In an interview with National Public Radio, some of the women said their families are now fleeing Afghanistan and other are frightened for their safety.
Women at the school told NPR that Rodriguez began to change, becoming distant and secretive, after receiving an $80,000 advance from Random House. Columbia Pictures optioned the film for over six-figures. Sandra Bullock is slated to star in the feature-film adaptation. The Afghan women whose stories made Rodriguez rich and famous claim that she promised to share a portion of her profits with them. Rodriguez has since separated from her husband and fled Afghanistan with no intention of returning; she told NPR that she plans to give the women and school a portion of book royalties and five percent of her film deal.
After Rodriguez left Afghanistan, her husband, who has familial connections to warlords, was supposed to take over the school. But the school was behind thousands of dollars in rent, and eventually closed. Mermin said that American and Afghan-American women who started the school and are featured in the film are now back in the U.S., “But [O’Conner, Grauel, and McGurk] have talked of trying to do similar things elsewhere. But it was a lot of work, and needed a lot of money, and they were all a bit worn down by it, I think.”
It is hard not to feel discouraged about the future of Afghanistan, particularly the daily lives of Afghan women. Mermin shares this feeling of pessimism: “Things are getting worse, not better.” The film, which is filled with optimism and humor in the face of adversity, is a sharp contrast to daily news reports—and is what drew me to it in the first place. So, it was with particular sadness that I learned of the school’s unfortunate fate.
The international community should help Afghanistan change its course. If the film made me realize anything, it’s that we should not give up on the Afghan people or further exploit their precarious existence. Mermin shares my sentiments: “It’s all very sad. But there are amazing people fighting to bring the country back, and we have to support them.”
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.