In 2003 a group of hairdressers from New York traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan to open a beauty school for women. Two of the hairdressers had fled Kabul more than twenty years before and wanted to return and volunteer their time and skills to their Afghan sisters; the others came from the U.K. and New York City. The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a warm, sometimes funny, fascinating, and revealing 75 minute film that documents this adventure in mutuality, empowerment, and solidarity. It opens in Los Angeles on April 28 at the Nuart.
The first group of hairdressers arrived in Kabul and rolled up their sleeves. They found a location and began the renovations. The laborers, that is, the men, had a difficult time taking orders from women for the most part. Nevertheless, the Academy opened and welcomed its first twenty students, selected by lottery from a crowd of applicants. The course would be three months long; many brought their children to class every day; some students would not be able to finish because of family duties that fell to them as the wife, mother, or daughter.
Though the students tell their stories about life under the Taliban with simplicity and grace, the terror of those days, and the chance that they might return, is evident. The teachers are amazed at the students’ lack of bitterness and at their joy in learning so that they can earn money – mostly from beauty shops they will create in their own homes. One student told of the clandestine beauty shop she did run from her home throughout the reign of the Taliban. She described the fear that even her husband felt when the Taliban would knock at the door and then have it turn out to be one of them bringing his wife to have her hair done.
What is remarkable about this film is what the New Yorker’s learned from the students. One of the teachers was brass and though good-hearted, she didn’t “get” the culture of the Afghan women at first. She tried to turn them into suffragettes of make-up and eye shadow, but the women were not interested in that; they were realistic about their possibilities and goals. When another teacher taught the women to meditate briefly every day in silence, the students laughed at first. But they caught on as the teachers communicated that beauty starts from the inside first of all. During a question and answer session, a student asked one of the teachers if she was married. She replied, “No.” “Do you plan on getting married?” “No; I live alone and I am happy as I am.” When the students went silent, the teacher asked “Don’t you have any more questions for me?” A student replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “No. You are not married and you don’t have children. You are … boring.” And everyone laughed.
In the United States, in first world countries, beauty is a commodity, a multi-billion-dollar industry. Striving for beauty can kill a woman because she can’t be thin enough. In Afghanistan, however, as the hairdressers from New York and the students of the beauty school of Kabul enriched one another’s lives, it becomes evident that being beautiful is about dignity.
The Beauty Academy of Kabul, both the film and the actual school, was made possible through an organization called “Beauty without Borders” and was directed by Liz Mermin.