In the early 2000s, hairdresser Deborah Rodriguez joined a humanitarian effort in Afghanistan to provide educational and medical services after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She focused her aid on women seeking autonomy, the harsh treatment under the Taliban having stifled them for years. Through her observations, her relationships, and the stories she heard from others, Rodriguez reveals the role and strength of the women who lived through war and terrorism in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Just peering out her window or strolling down the dirt roads, Rodriguez understood the positions women held in post-Taliban Afghanistan. When she first visited Afghanistan in May 2002 with a group of volunteers from the non-profit Care for All Foundation, it struck her that few women roamed the streets, even on busy streets. To a woman who joined her Kabul Beauty School, Rodriguez remarked, “‘I’m starting to think of this place as Manistan, not Afghanistan’” (140).
Rodriguez witnessed and experienced the greater legal merit of men over women in Afghanistan. In one family that she visited, the women not only had to cover their heads outside, but also inside (130). During their governance, the Taliban mandated that all women wear the burqa, or risk beatings and public floggings. Through stringent laws against women, the Taliban forced women to wear that which she should decide to use herself.
In her years in Kabul, Rodriguez met many women at her beauty salon, school, and in prison who had suffered beatings for the slightest infraction, while men could bend the law much more easily. At the mandai market, a large bazaar in Kabul, she felt the inequality herself when a “big, ugly man…reached out and grabbed [her]” again and again, despite her punching him in the face and yelling at the top of her lungs (167). According to her friend Roshanna, strangers touching women happened often at the bazaar.
One woman Rodriguez met, the wife of a Talib, best reflects the impact the Taliban had on women in the social sphere. Nahida, though only twenty-one years old, had a “middle-aged demeanor…as if something had completed stripped her youth from her “ (153). Even after their fall, the memories of the Taliban continued to affect Afghan women .
Her friendships with the young Afghan women taught Rodriguez much about the female experience in that country. At the orientation for the first class of the Kabul Beauty School, where Rodriguez explained her hopes for the school and interviewed prospective students, “some thirty women filed into the house”, defying the post-Taliban culture in hopes of acquiring skills to better their circumstances (83). Some had babies and children to raise, and others had husbands who discouraged the education and employment of women. Rodriguez likened them to flowers that “had been stunted and stepped on – but still, never broken” (102).
The relationships with women who had endured so much awed Rodriguez, and she avows through her memoir and in the acknowledgements the debt she owes to the woman of Afghanistan for giving her the strength to break from an abusive household in the States and courage to begin the beauty school in Kabul. In the safe space of the salon, where men were not allowed to enter, the women truly demonstrated how the Taliban had not stifled them, but not destroyed them. There, in a place only for them, the women could gossip, laugh, and just have fun.
Nothing expresses the experiences of Afghan women than their own stories, and Rodriguez gathered many from the women she met. Her first friend in Afghanistan, Roshanna, came from a family that had provided her opportunities to learn English and computer skills and work at an international company. However, the rise of the Taliban threatened her safety, and her family tried to marry her. After marriage, her husband divorced her. Because people assumed that a divorced women had a defect or was not a virgin, men where Roshanna worked would “take every opportunity to push her into dark corners and grope her in a way that they would never treat ‘nice’ girls” (13).
Another woman, a maid named Shaz, looked fifty but was in fact twenty-five, had lost her first, beloved husband to the Taliban. She married another man who divorced her because she did not bear any children, and then another. Telling her story to Rodriguez, Shaz feared that her third husband would divorce her too, for she had not conceived with him either (171).
Moreover, unfair perceptions of women and the freedom the law lent men placed women in situations much worse than Roshanna’s and Baseera’s. Once, Rodriguez visited Kabul Welayat, the women’s prison in Kabul, and heard story after tragic story about women who had tried to make their own lives or who were imprisoned by no fault of their own. One woman was jailed because someone had raped her and her husband had killed the man, yet she had a longer term (107).
Every women Rodriguez met had lives scarred by the oppression of Taliban rule. Some, like the women in prison, had no option but to surrender, but many, such as Roshanna and Baseera, would not let their past define their futures. They “standing strong through wars and forced marriages and so many different forms of confinement” would not let the legacy of the Taliban suppress them forever. The accounts of Kabul Beauty School attests to this.
This article is adapted from an essay I wrote in February of 2018.