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From burkas to perms: ‘The Beauty Academy of Kabul’

By | 2018-01-16T03:18:54-05:00 April 20th, 2006|Entertainment|
Film documents transformation of post-war Afghan women

DETROIT – Can a war-torn country be saved – one permanent at a time?
That’s the million-dollar question posed by “The Beauty Academy of Kabul,” a fascinating documentary about war, women and civilization that can be seen April 23-24 at the Detroit Film Theatre. And for the women of Afghanistan, the answer just might be a surprising “yes.”
Kabul in the early 1970s was a modern country in which women smoked, held jobs, wore current fashions, danced and even participated in beauty contests. But a series of coups that began in 1973 led to the destabilization of the country, and in 1980, to an invasion by its Soviet neighbors. For nine years Islamic militants – aided by the United States – bravely defended their country until – after more than 2 million Afghans were killed – the Soviets finally withdrew.
The fighting didn’t stop, however, as rival factions within the country battled for control. The Taliban eventually came out on top, and a shell-shocked, bombed-out country was immediately pushed farther back into the Stone Age: girls’ schools were closed, women were forced out of the workplace and a severe form of dress was instituted.
The Taliban was in control, and fear ruled.
But never doubt the power of women – nor the need to feel good about yourself during even the toughest of times!
Despite the threat of severe punishment, some brave Afghan women continued to cut hair and have their hair cut without the knowledge or permission of their husbands. And hidden by their burkas, makeup was occasional worn for special occasions. Even the wives of Taliban leaders were known to frequent the secret, home-based salons of Kabul.
Supplies were scare, of course, and the styles remained stuck in the past, but that didn’t matter: The women of Afghanistan were determined to have even a sliver of normalcy in their lives, despite the fear of discovery.
It wasn’t until 2001 – when the Taliban was booted from power – that life began to improve for Afghan women, thanks in part to a story in Vogue that caught the attention of America’s beauty industry. It wasn’t long before Beauty Without Borders was formed and Kabul’s first post-Taliban beauty school was being readied.
So how did the Afghan women respond? By turning out by the hundreds to apply for the 20 openings in the first three-month class.
The men, however, viewed the school with suspicion and angst. Still fueled by the Taliban’s teachings, they feared America’s influence on their wives and daughters. And the skills and financial independence it offered Afghan women frightened them.
As the film traces the students’ educational journey, it become quite clear how determined they are to succeed. Some bring their children with them to class, while others immediately excel at their studies. But the ravages of war are also apparent, as are the cultural differences between our two societies.
“Beauty is a part of every culture,” marketing consultant and the school’s first executive director, Patricia O’Connor, says, and after viewing “The Beauty Academy of Kabul,” it’s quite believable that Afghanistan can surely be saved – one haircut at a time.

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