Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

Years ago, when I taught high school, there was a teen girl from Pakistan in my US History class. She wasn't a great student. She and I didn't seem to click. Today I don't even remember her name. But, one day she mentioned that soon she would return to Pakistan to marry. Her Muslim girlfriends assured me that she wasn't kidding and they were worried for her as there was no way she was getting out of the marriage. "Her parents are strict," they would tell me. I only half believed or understood this talk at the time. After all, she was a very social and American acting teen with a boyfriend. She dressed western and in a way I would call provocative and what other students would term "slutty". How could parents of a girl like this be strict?

I've thought of that student many times as I've read books such as Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen. However, the memory of this former student haunted me as I read Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez (2007 Random House).

Rodriguez, a beautician from Michigan with a textured past as a twice divorced single mother finds herself in Afghanistan in 2005 working to establish a beauty school for Afghan women as a means to empower that nation's women as independent, thinking contributors to their society. None of the story is easy from Rodriguez's personal journey to the lives of the women she wishes to make a positive impact on. However, Rodriguez's experiences living in Afghanistan as an American woman are fascinating. She really does get "behind the veil" to learn what life is like for women in Afghan culture…what is difficult, what is impossible but better yet what is possible given the right attitude, the right friends and connections and a compassionate heart.

I have just a tiny bit of experience as a volunteer for a humanitarian organization that seeks to improve lives of vulnerable and cast off members of an Asian nation. Working with an in another culture and society is difficult to say the least. I appreciate that the author shared how difficult it is to learn a culture, successfully live in the culture and work to improve the lives within that culture all at the same time. It seems impossible the whole time until one looks back and sees the work that has been accomplished. It reminds me of a term that I learned working to improve the lives of orphans in China:"baby steps". Progress can be accomplished but at a much slower pace than what we westerners understand. Furthermore, we westerners can learn a thing or two by slowing down and understanding what does work in another culture. It can often be enlightening to us if we give it a chance!

School Library Journal has given a solid positive review of this book at for high school students and adults:

I think that older teens able to handle the descriptions of cultural differences related to marriage and sexual relations between western and Afghan culture could learn a lot from this book. Additionally, I found myself considering the advantages and power that have been afforded beauticians in my own culture that I had never give thought to before. Beauticians for generations have been independent business women that make decisions, bring home the bacon and often raise children in the midst of it all. Virginia's own Maggie Walker earned a kind of fame as an early beautician for the African American community in a similar way that Rodriguez seeks to do for Afghan women.

My Pakistani student from a decade ago was not Afghan….so I cannot know her experience from reading this book. I do have a broader understanding for what life as a woman in a Muslim culture entails thanks to Rodriguez's generous sharing of her experience in Kabul Beauty School.

Additional photos of Rodriguez's life in the Kabul Beauty School and Afghanistan can be found at her non-profit Oasis Rescue website:

The Kabul Beauty School is not without controversy….certainly controversial in Afghanistan where beauty shops are suspected of being "fronts" for brothels but also in the west where there are grumblings between the school's founders and the author of the book about who did what and when for the school. Despite the grumblings which can easily be found in Google searches, I felt that I learned a great deal from this book. It's a great read!

Rodriguez, D. (2007). Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. New York: Random House.

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