After the Taliban, the burka, fundamentalist oppression, endless war and the denial of their civil rights, is makeup what Afghanistan women need, really? Just some blush and mascara? The Western stylists in the documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul who volunteered and organized a kind of beauty humanitarian relief effort in 2003 to help Afghanistan women certainly think so. With donations from the American beauty industry, the international group of stylists traveled to Kabul to instruct Afghan women on how to support themselves with jobs in the beauty business.
Their belief in the power of meditation, healthy living, the right pair of scissors (donated by celebrity hairstylist Frederic Fekkai, no less) turns out to be both delusional and naive and as the film progresses, in many ways appropriate.
For these Afghan women whose difficult lives have been absent of even the smallest of pleasures, the tender attention of someone ministering to their hair and makeup feels like a wonderfully thoughtful gift.
Though beauty culture has been a contentious subject for American feminists, for these Afghanistan women makeup and styled hair represent an opportunity for female solidarity and a thumbed-nose to the lingering extremist culture of the Taliban. Even with the Taliban gone, the patriarchal culture they still live under seems to view women as society's workhorses. Women certainly are not considered autonomous enough to tend to, or pamper themselves when the duties of housekeeping, mothering and servitude beckon.
"Men and women should be equal!" says a woman, whose hair and makeup have just been done by an Afghan stylist, at the beginning of the film. She's fearful that when she returns home her uncle will object to her appearance.
Liz Mermin's wonderfully revealing film opens with a quick but telling montage of the cataclysm that has been Afghanistan's modern history: since 1973 an endless cycle of coups, assassinations, civil war, foreign occupation, fundamentalist oppression and millions of dead Iraqis during the nine-year Soviet occupation. What was once a progressive society is now a wasteland. Even more disturbing for registering the country's upheaval is Sima, the Afghan woman now living in Virginia who returns to teach at the academy after a 23-year absence. Sima drives through her former home aghast at the veritable ghost town of bombed-out buildings and ruined landscape and schoolwork taught in tents. She marvels at how the country has regressed by 100 years from the days of miniskirts and freedom.
"I feel so guilty," says Sima. "To listen to them, what they have gone through. And they are smiling. They are happy."
The Afghan women are shockingly resilient and compassionate. But the American and British stylists can be downright daft with their certainty that a cutting-edge haircut and two minutes of meditation really will heal the world. Noor, the male salon manager, describes the resentment of the local men when the Western stylists boss them around with impunity. The women seem to in no way adjust their behavior to the cultural realities of local gender roles or the country's history of foreign occupiers. When a feisty redhead stylist berates her Afghan students for not wearing makeup to class, one responds, "Women in Afghanistan are not free like that." Some of the American stylists are more than kooky; despite their sincere desire to help, they seem grossly ill informed about the culture and the people they are dealing with.
The Afghan women are nevertheless incredibly patient with their bossy, naive foreign visitors, patiently explaining why they are expected to serve their husbands without question. "If a woman not obey her husband, she is a whore," an Afghan woman responds, stopping one especially flaky stylist dead in her tracks.
The stylists are quintessentially American; optimistic and sure of their beliefs, asking their bizarre questions like, "Where do you see yourself in two years?" of women whose country has been defined by perpetual chaos for the past three decades. Like bulls in a china shop, the Westerners barrel in with their native enthusiasm and certainty in progress. This clash of two contrary modes of behavior is touching, annoying and revealing of both the American and the Afghan character.
The Beauty Academy of Kabul, like so many docs, takes its organizing principle of a beauty boot camp as an entry point into the culture through the women who constitute the country's hidden class. Students from the academy take the filmmakers into their homes and into the cramped, but bustling, camaraderie-filled home salons where they ply their trade.
Overcoming their huge cultural and experiential gaps, the women do come together in the rosy glow of that archetypal female gathering space, the beauty salon. It becomes clear that, to some extent, the Americans weren't wrong after all.
There probably was healing in all those tiny home salons packed with excited women, that in times of great hardship, the simple touch of another woman can go a long way toward countering the brutality of daily life.