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Culture Divides, Beauty Unites in Kabul

It has been five years since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The political and cultural status of Afghan women has improved radically, especially in the cities. Change came slowly, with a lot of help from outsiders. A remarkable example was the work of western hairdressers who volunteered their time and talents in 2003 to teach their trade to women in the city of Kabul. In the process of improving others' appearances and self-esteem, the teachers also learned important lessons from their students.

Like the other five women of her group, Terri, a self-assured, decisive woman, had to assert her way into the male-dominated Afghan society to set up the Beauty School of Kabul.

Kabul's devastated infrastructure, its poor security, and the refusal of Afghan men to work for women hampered the volunteers' efforts to open the school on time, but the real heartache came during the selection process. Hundreds of Afghan women descended upon the tiny school, hoping to get one of the 20 seats available for students.

Sima Loudin Calkin, an Afghan-American hairdresser from Virginia, said, "I went back after almost 23 years. I could never believe I would be able to go back."

But first she had to face the haunting scars of war through the torn and tattered walls of Afghanistan's capital.

"It was very emotional," she said. "The country was the same … not the same … the people were different. The sadness. The devastation. Everything was burned and destroyed. And imagine, in 25 almost 30 years, if they didn't bomb it, they didn't fix it."

"A lot of us sit there and talk about Afghanistan, and I realize now, I didn't help with anything," she continued. "I feel so guilty."

Sima did help. She has lived in the United States for the past 20 years and speaks both English and Pashto fluently - so she could help both sides communicate. And that is no easy task.

Debbie, a hairdresser from Indiana, hit Kabul like a typhoon. She told her class, "You're stuck in a rut, guys. You're stuck in a hole of the past that you can't get out, and my God, before I leave here, you're getting out of the hole."

"It doesn't feel any different to me than being in Indiana," she said. "I just feel comfortable here, which means I'm absolutely out of my mind. You know what I mean, there are some places you feel at home and this is one of them."

The rest of the volunteers did not feel as comfortable as Debbie - or with Debbie for that matter. One of them is movie director Liz Mermin, who went to Kabul to film a documentary about the beauty school.

"I thought she was going to get us all killed,” she said. “She's there, she's big, she's loud, she's cracking jokes that are in some questionable taste, when you're surrounded by all these men, and yet, watching her negotiate Kabul was kind of fascinating."

While most Afghan men looked at the brash western women with mockery or loathing, Afghan women eagerly listened and learned, and applied the information in a way that would work in their culture.

One Afghan woman spoke through a translator, "She says that her husband is aggressive, her children are aggressive, when she goes home she has to cook, she has to clean and she has to give dinner."

Sheila, an American from Alexandria, Virginia, said, "Tell her she has to do meditation before she goes inside the door of her house." She has her own spa in Alexandria. Her specialties are meditation and spiritual healing.

"She says, how can this meditation help me? So, I said 'before you open the door, stop. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. You know this is me talking.' This is the naïve American speaking such horrors I can't imagine," Sheila said. "And who lives a life that's so difficult. And I'm telling her to breathe!"

Sheila spoke of one Afghan woman, "You see her always with a tie and a man's clothing," she said. "She was rebelling. She was saying I can do what men can do. That was her way. And she put the burqa over that."

For Liz Mermin the greatest victory of Afghan women is their economic emancipation.

"I think that for the woman to be able to go out and support the family is a great way to get over gender prejudice," she said. "Because as much as you want to control your wife, if you can't feed the family, pay for your home, then a lot of your dealings about women not working will fall away."

This newfound freedom, however, carries a heavy price.

Mermin said, "That same woman who's saying she makes ten times what her husband makes is also scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees and cooking the lunch and takes care of the kids while her husband is sort of chatting with us in the background."

Whether they are caring for their kids in a tiny Kabul apartment, cooking every night in a remote Afghan village, or fixing a friend's hair in the comfort of an American home, women are women no matter where they are.

Sheila said, "We all want the same things. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be attractive to our husbands, we want our children to respect us, we want basic things. We want a roof over our head. We want food in the stomach of our children. We want good education for them. There's really no difference what's going on here in Alexandria, Virginia and what's going on in Kabul in the midst of a family unit, a woman, a provider."

Looking back, most of these women feel their visit was a shocking but rewarding experience - one they would have never undertaken had they known the fierce challenges awaiting them. Still, as movie director Liz Mermin says, there is no better way for the west to learn about Afghanistan, its people, and its culture.

"If they have a chance to hear stories about the country that make them realize that Afghans aren't any different from us, it makes it much harder to see the headlines about the bomb going off somewhere or the Taliban coming back, or sectarian fighting and not feel a bit of a wrench,” she said. “I hope this is something that you would pay attention to instead of turning onto the next page."

Liz Mermin's documentary The Beauty School of Kabul, premiered recently in the United States.