Sunday, August 10, 2008

Was opening the "Kabul Beauty School" A truly unselfish act?

The book Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez is an engaging and insightful look into the lives of Afghan women. Debbie a hair stylist from Holland, Michigan travels to Afghanistan to assist with relief efforts after the Taliban was removed in 2001. Upon discovering she had no real skills to assist with the effort, she began cutting hair to keep busy. After talking to Afghan women, some of them former salon owners whose salons had been outlawed by the Taliban during the occupation, she discovers beauty salons are the only business a woman can control in Afghanistan without a man. Enthralled by the country and the people she met she returns to help open and run the Kabul Beauty School.

In the book, which is written as a memoir she writes about the lives of the women she meets. Afghanistan is a country where woman have no rights and can be killed for dishonoring their families. Marriages are arranged and it is commonplace for an Afghan man to take a second or even a third wife. Unfortunately, many Afghans still agree with the Taliban that beauty salons and any thing that make women stand out are an abomination; many believe beauty salons are fronts for prostitution. Debbie who likes to refer to herself as “Crazy Debbie” has just enough craziness to confront the obstacles the Afghans throw her way. She also picks up an afghan husband, “Sam” who in the book is portrayed as an ally in her mission.

After completing the book, I wanted to know more: Was Debbie still in Afghanistan? How were the women she wrote about fairing? Had their lives improved? Was the Beauty School still in operation? Was Debbie still running it? Was she still with Sam?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to discover things had not faired well. According to NPR and other on-line news sources when Debbie returned to Kabul after a book tour she discovered her husband, Haji Sher Mohammed (known in the book as Sam), had been sexually harassing the salon girls and was plotting to steal her money. She was forced to abandon the salon and flee Kabul after diplomats warned her she would be kidnapped if she stayed. The country was simply too dangerous for her now. More tragically, she may have endangered the lives of the women she wrote about. The book has caused outrage in Afghanistan, where websites have revealed the salon girls’ true identities. They have been denounced as prostitutes who have soiled the reputation of Afghan women. An American diplomatic source said Rodriguez was well meaning but “naive”. “It’s a bizarre feature of contemporary life that people can fly into Kabul, marry a warlord, set up a beauty parlor, get a movie deal and fly off to another life.

Perhaps the fictional character Joey in an episode from the sitcom “Friends” was correct when he set out to convince Phoebe there are no truly unselfish acts. Many sources claim Rodriguez wrote the book and actually opened the beauty school for selfish reasons. I can’t help but wonder why Rodriguez didn’t write her book as a fictional novel about Afghanistan women rather than a memoir.

The book is scheduled to be made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock as Rodriguez. Rodriguez apparently plans at some point in the future to give the women "a small part" of the book royalties, and 5% of the money from the movie being made. I hope so, but the money seems like such a small token after so much drama.

Enough said.

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