A Beauty School in Kabul

In a country where women are usually veiled from head-to-toe, a Michigan woman found a way to make a difference. She helped run a beauty school in Afghanistan and shares her story.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, protests in Turkey. But now - a beauty school in Afghanistan?

Now, building a beauty salon is probably not the first thing most of us would think to do if we travel to Afghanistan. But that's what hairdresser Deborah Rodriguez did when she traveled there in 2002. She chronicles her adventures in a memoir called "Kabul Beauty School."

Now, we talked with Ms. Rodriguez before report surfaced that some of her book may be inaccurate. But Random House stands by Ms. Rodriguez, and she joined us from her home in Michigan to tell us her story.

Ms. DEBORAH RODRIGUEZ (Author, "Kabul Beauty School"): I'm a hairdresser by trade and I took a couple of weeks off and went to Chicago and took the (unintelligible) leave training. And I wound up training, and 9/11 happened and I was deployed out to Ground Zero, and I worked with the firefighters there. And the same team then went to Afghanistan.

And I was begging a place on the team. And it was doctors and nurses and I says, please, take me with - and they said, but you're a hairdresser. I says, I know. And they says, well, we, you know, we're medical. I said, yeah, but you didn't look at your hair.

And so I wound up actually begging a spot on the team, and I went to Afghanistan.

MARTIN: So did you really intend to go and offer, you know, beauty services to just to the relief workers? Was that the plan?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: No. Actually, I was - you know, I figured there would be something for me to do. I wound up doing laundry, actually. But then, when people found out that I was a hairdresser, that's when it just got crazy. That's when I found out that I was actually, kind of, needed in that country. Sticky notes were on my door every night. I'd come home to them. And I wound up doing hair.

So that's when I started investigating the entire situation for hairdressing and was shocked when I went into a salon. It's about the size of a bathroom with a broken mirror, and the woman who was using scissors the size of hedge clippers and rolling perms with sticks and rubber bands. So I just spent the day with them, and I was haunted by these women, and I couldn't get them out of me. I had a hard time sleeping, and I knew that I couldn't turn my back on them.

MARTIN: How did you start, then, working with the Afghan women?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, so when I came back from Afghanistan, you know, I knew I had to do something. And so it was at that time I actually just got a bottle of Paul Mitchell shampoo and saw this 800 number, and their biggest mistake was, you know, leave a detailed message. And I went into this whole spiel and basically asked them if they would be willing to help me. And John Paul DeJoria, the owner of Paul Mitchell, called up and says, Deb, what are you doing? And I told him. And so that's how my end of it started.

But then as a couple of months went by, I teamed up with a group of women from New York who were also on the same track, and we merged together as a team. And that was the first class we started then.

MARTIN: How did you actually start working with the Afghan women themselves? How did that come about?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, it really didn't on the first trip. But it was - when I started hearing their horror stories about I can't get a good haircut, I had to drive 12 hours through the Khyber Pass to get foils - so then we started investigating the salons.

MARTIN: You know, some people might hear this and think, okay, come on, you're here to save lives and, you know, minister to the wounded. Why do you care whether you can get a perm or not? Why did it - why was it so important?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I was haunted by these women, and I've been watching, you know, like everybody else, how they would take the woman to the stadium and shoot her and just the oppression that these women had been under. And I myself was in my own abusive marriage. And I knew my skill as a hairdresser. I could hide money; he never understood how much money I had, and I knew that I could go anywhere and get a job.

And so I thought if this could free me, this could possibly free them. And then once I got understanding the culture just a little bit more, the beauty industry is huge in that country. The women are immaculate. They are so well groomed that it's not like we're pushing our Western standards on them. You know, we're kind of casual compared to them. And if you think about it as time went on I started understanding the system a little bit better. Men are not allowed in these salons. If they're even doing hair in their home, a man is not allowed into that room. So these women are in complete control of that environment. So it gives them that one space in their life that they have control over. They're in control of their money. They're in control of their environment. A man cannot take that job away from them.

And they can be the same women they were before the training as a hairdresser. They could be the mother of 12 and have two children nursing at the same time and still be hairdressers.

MARTIN: Were women allowed to get their hair done under the Taliban?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: It was a little dangerous. My one girl - Baseera(ph) in the book - she was telling me about how she had put a sign on her door that said she was a tailor. And so people would come in and all of the women knew that this was a beauty salon. But, you know, it was a female tailor, and so that's the way she snuck around it.

MARTIN: Tell me some of the things that women there like to do as part of their beauty rituals.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, the thing that I noticed that was, kind of, the most unusual is their eyebrows and hair removal. Like, they take all the hair off their face in a horribly painful method called threading. And you almost had to see it, to even get how that works. But they do this - that is just something that is they do every week.

MARTIN: What do you mean, using like you use thread instead of a - tweezers?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: You know, like, we do waxing. They do threading. They take all the hair off their face. And their eyebrows are just so groomed. I'm, like, I looked at mine today thinking, oh, my girls would just kill me if they saw my eyebrows.

And, you know, on top of that, their hair. You know, they might not be what we could consider the most trendy, but they will use the products that they have. They were using henna at that time. So everybody had henna. Then when the colors started coming into the country, they'd all want that red-violet hair. And, you know, they were getting these frizzy perms.

MARTIN: Who is all this primping and prettifying for? Is it for the husbands, or is it for the other women?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, they - you know, they have all these parties, which are all, you know, the men on one side and the women on the other. They really glam up for those. And then, you know, they have - I don't know if I can say this on radio - but, like, Thursday night is, like, the sex night. And so the women will doll up for Thursday night for their husbands.

MARTIN: Every Thursday, that is, like, the designated…

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: It's like the whole country.

MARTIN: Really? How come?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I know. I thought that was so weird.

MARTIN: Why? Is that the night before - because the night before Friday prayers, this - the worship day?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Because Friday is like our Sunday. So it's like Saturday night.

MARTIN: Oh. You also got married yourself.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I did, and that's why I needed to be filled in.

MARTIN: So how did that come about?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, I say I have this - my evil girlfriend. She decided that I must be married. She thought this was the funniest thing, and, of course, it was kind of all in joking. We need to get you a husband, Debbie, and I'm thinking, I just got rid of one. You know, I just really don't need another one. And they were just, you know, it was always a big joke because everybody was either married or had a boyfriend, and I was by myself. It was just me.

And so, one day, she comes running into my room. Debbie, Debbie, we found you a husband. We found you a husband. Put something sexy on. And I'm - I looked at her, I'm like, ah yeah, which sexy burka do you want me to wear, the blue one or the white one? And you know, the next thing I know, I'm loaded up in this car. And I'm at this restaurant with, you know, this guy and all of our friends. And everything is being said in Farsi and they're joking, oh, look at - now, you have a wife and this is your husband. And they're going ah, and then they're bargaining over me for camels and, you know.

MARTIN: Did you think they were serious, or did you think it was a joke?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: No. I thought they were joking. If you'd seen that, you would think we're rip-roaring drunk, but we weren't, and it was just they were having too much fun at my expense, actually. And, you know, we started just all hanging out, and it got to be a problem that dating - there is no dating. I mean - and his family is very, very conservative, and he was so nervous that his family was going to, you know, find out, and they're going to have this huge problem. And, you know, me dating him would completely ruin my reputation in the Afghan world.

So I had to be really careful. And so 20 days went by, and it was like, what do you do? And I says, well, okay. And honestly, not really knowing what I was getting into, I married him. And we've been married now almost four years. And it was tough going in the beginning, but…

MARTIN: Do you love him?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I do. We didn't know each other in the beginning, so I didn't love him then. But yeah, and he's - he was a really good match for me. I had picked bad husbands. My friends did a really good job.

MARTIN: And how are you wearing your hair now?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, I got it long and red now. Yeah, I have hair extensions, so I changed it. I buy my hair every four months - new ones.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Sounds good. Deborah Rodriguez. She is the author of "Kabul Beauty School," and she joined us from Holland, Michigan. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much. This was great.

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