Subjects of 'Kabul Beauty School' Face New Risks The real-life subjects of a book about how Afghanistan women cope with their country's restrictive taboos say the book's success has exposed them to a variety of risks. They also claim that Deborah Rodriguez, the author of Kabul Beauty School, broke a promise that she would help them.
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Subjects of 'Kabul Beauty School' Face New Risks

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Subjects of 'Kabul Beauty School' Face New Risks

Subjects of 'Kabul Beauty School' Face New Risks

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The book "Kabul Beauty School" has given readers around the world a window on the lives of women in Afghanistan. It's currently number 28 on the New York Times bestseller list.

But for the women in the book, it has created a lot of trouble, even danger, and they're upset with author Deborah Rodriguez, who has since left the country. "Kabul Beauty School" deals with a number of taboos in Afghan society. For instance, the author helped one of her students fake her virginity on her wedding night. Although the book is not available in Afghanistan, word of it has leaked out there.

We have a report from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson who's in Kabul, and who happens to be one of the beauty school's customers.

TOPEKAI (Teacher, Kabul Beauty School): (Speaking Foreign Language)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: An Afghan teacher at the Kabul Beauty School tries to cheer up her young proteges. Finish your curls and tomorrow I'll teach you to apply colors, she tells them with a smile.

TOPEKAI: (Speaking Foreign Language)

SARHADDI NELSON: But the students sense their mentor is faking it; her eyes give her away. They are still red and swollen from her latest meltdown. She's called Topekai. That's not her real name but one given to her in a book that has turned her life upside down. A bestseller by her American mentor and confidant, Deborah Rodriguez.

TOPEKAI: (Through translator) I'm no longer safe. My family is in danger.

SARHADDI NELSON: The girls say they feel unsafe because some of their pictures from the book, as well as Western interviews with Rodriguez, have found their way onto Afghan television. They fear a backlash in this conservative Islamic society, especially from Afghan men who might kill the girls for daring to talk about their personal lives in public. Baseera, another pseudonym in the book, says she's so scared she can't sleep. She adds she was less scared when the Taliban burst into her home years ago and destroyed a secret salon she ran inside.

BASEERA: (Through translator) Our future is unclear. We don't know anybody. We don't speak English. My family doesn't know that I'm in the book. If they find out, it will be very bad for me.

MEENA(ph): Don't cry, please. It's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARHADDI NELSON: But Meena, as Baseera's friend is called in the book, can't stop her own tears. Soon, all three are crying.

MEENA: (Speaking Foreign Language)

SARHADDI NELSON: Meena and the others say they feel used. They agreed to tell their stories to Rodriguez to give Americans an insight into the lives of Afghan women. They knew telling those stories carried risk. But the risk came a lot sooner than any of them, including Rodriguez, anticipated and she is no longer here to help them. There had been threatening phone calls, and last Tuesday, two women in an unmarked car with armed guards came to the school and told the girls they'd pay for maligning Afghan culture.

They carried a copy of the book that featured pictures of the salon girls without headscarves. The girls say they were promised such pictures would never be published. Back in California, Rodriguez says that's untrue, but she agrees the girls are in danger.

Ms. DEBORAH RODRIGUEZ (Author, "Kabul Beauty School"): I've been with these girls for five years. These are like my kids, like my sisters. And, you know, it's so hard for me to be here knowing that they're going through this. But I sent out emails to absolutely everybody I could think of. Like we need to do something absolutely right now, we don't have time to waste. And we got my congressman on board. And so, I really believe that they're going to be able to work this out.

SARHADDI NELSON: But the girls no longer trust her. They say she's made too many promises. The promises, they add, keep changing. So did their mentor, the girls say, after she received an $80,000 advance from Random House. They claim she grew more distant, secretive. They never got a penny. When Rodriguez went on her book tour, the girls feared she'd never come back. She did come back last month. Meena recalls their last meeting.

MEENA: (Through translator) We cried. We told her, you're the boss, when you leave like this, what are we supposed to do?

SARHADDI NELSON: Rodriguez says she knows the women are angry and terrified, but they should realize 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. That and 5 percent of her earnings from the movie Sony Pictures is planning.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I never, never in a million years would abandon them. I had to leave but I can do them more good here.

SARHADDI NELSON: She has no plans to return to Afghanistan. Rodriguez says she shouldn't have even gone back in mid-May. Her Afghan husband, under local law, could have denied Rodriguez permission to leave Afghanistan, but she did go back. She says 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. Her husband, Sher(ph), claims he would have never kept his American wife here against her will.

SHER (Deborah Rodriguez's Husband): (Speaking Foreign Language)

SARHADDI NELSON: He says the way Rodriguez left was insulting. He also says he plans to take over the beauty school, but a man running a beauty school is not likely to be tolerated in a society where the sexes are strictly segregated. And most of the salon's Western clients know Rodriguez is gone and are no longer coming. On top of that, the landlord is threatening to take back the property.

As for the women in the book, a Michigan congressman 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 here except for official visits. At least one of the girls has made an escape plan. Topekai 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. Baseera says it may not matter. She is convinced someone will kill her.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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