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American hairdresser Debbie Rodriguez hugs a student beautician at the Kabul Beauty School in a file photo from 2004.
The book Kabul Beauty School has given millions of readers a window on the lives of women in Afghanistan. But it has also exposed the women to risks. And they are upset with author Deborah Rodriguez, who has since left the country.
Kabul Beauty School deals with some of the strictest taboos in Afghan society. In it, Rodriguez describes how she helped one of her students fake her virginity on her wedding night. And she writes of how some of her students were forced into loveless marriages, one of them when she was barely 14.
Although the book isn't available in Afghanistan, word of it has leaked out there.
The book, currently No. 28 on The New York Times bestseller list, made an overnight sensation of Rodriguez, a flamboyant beautician from Michigan, when it was published by Random House in April. The book is also slated to become a movie, with Sandra Bullock playing the lead.
But back in Afghanistan, the subjects of her book say Rodriguez and her newfound fame have put their lives in danger. They say they've seen none of the money or help to get them out of Afghanistan that Rodriguez promised them in exchange for having their stories appear in the book.
Tuesday, two Afghan women with a copy of the book arrived in an unmarked car with armed guards and burst into the beauty school. There, they threatened the girls, saying they would pay for defaming Afghanistan.
And the landlord is threatening to seize the school's building for non-payment of thousands of dollars in rent.
As for Rodriguez, she left Afghanistan in mid-May, after selling her share of a coffee house that she bought with proceeds from the book.
Rodriguez says that she knows the women are angry and terrified — but that they should realize that things take time. She also claims the girls misunderstood what she promised them.
She says she plans to give the girls a small part of the royalties from the book, along with 5 percent of her earnings from the movie Sony Pictures is planning.
"I never, never in a million years would abandon them," Rodriguez said. "I had to leave, but I can do more good for them here." She says she has no plans to return to Afghanistan.
Rodriguez says she should not have even gone back to the country in mid-May, noting that her Afghan husband, under local law, could have denied Rodriguez permission to leave Afghanistan.
But she did go back. She says that three days later, Western security men she would not identify whisked her and her son away and put them on a flight out of the country.
As for the women in the book, a Michigan lawmaker says he has asked the State Department to look into their situation. But the U.S. embassy in Kabul says it doesn't issue visas to Afghans, except for official visits.
At least one of the girls from the school has made an escape plan. One, who is called "Topekai" in the book, says her husband, who read the book, is moving their family to Pakistan.
The others — whose husbands are unaware of the book — say they don't know what to do.
The woman called "Baseera" in Rodriguez's book says it may not matter. She is convinced someone will kill her.