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Setting Up a Salon in a Land of Burkas

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Following the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, an army of professionals flooded the country to help in the rebuilding efforts. That included engineers, doctors, and educators. The group also included beauty consultants.

A new documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul tells the story. The film follows a group of western women as they attempt to set up a beauty school in the land where burkas are the norm.

NPR's Farai Chideya talked with the film's director, Liz Mermin.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

What struck me in a lot of ways about your film is the humor of it, and the fact that you have this incredibly serious issue of gender politics and war and struggle, filtered through beauty. How did you even come up with this topic?

Ms. LIZ MERMIN (Director, The Beauty Academy of Kabul): Well, I came across the story of the beauty school in the newspaper one day. And, I mean, it's never something I could have dreamt up on my own. It's one of those great, you know, truth is stranger than fiction moments.

And in the article, there was this detail that under the Taliban, women had been running salons outside of their homes. And so my immediate response had been totally dismissive. And then, when I found out that women were risking their lives, their family's lives, to run beauty salons under the Taliban, then I realized there had to be something more going on. And so, of course, I was dying to find that out.

CHIDEYA: It struck me that most of the women who were actually from Afghanistan, who were students, still wore a kind of loose head covering, and the women who had come back from the states, who had been born and raised in Afghanistan, they were bare to the world.

Ms. MERMIN: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: What do you think that symbolizes about the whole issue of beauty and autonomy and all those things?

Ms. MERMIN: Well, it was an interesting question. I mean, we went through it. We were all women on the crew, should we wear--cover our heads or not? You know, there's the feminist side of you that says no one's going to tell me what I should wear; but then there's the cultural sensitive side of you which says, I'm a guest in this country, these are the norms and I don't want to draw attention to myself or offend anyone.

So we all sort of wore, you know, headscarves on our heads. The teachers sort of started out wearing them out in public, but then kind of stopped. And I think that they felt, especially the Afghans, that, you know, this is my country and no one's going to tell me what to do.

But then, on the other side, there's the fear and that's what, you know, most of the women in the school, the students, you ask them, well, why were you wearing a burka? Well, we were terrified; we didn't want to take the risk of someone attacking us.

CHIDEYA: Let's listen to a little bit of the opening ceremony for the academy.

(Soundbite of movie “The Beauty Academy of Kabul”)

Unidentified Woman #1: Today, we're officially opening up the Beauty Academy for Afghan Women. We strongly believe, as I'm sure everyone else here does tonight, that education is the key to empowering people.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

CHIDEYA: How do you think that the Afghan men and the government, and there were some officials there, reacted to the opening of the school?

Ms. MERMIN: The opening of the school was a totally surreal scene. I mean, there's this line of men in suits and ties who come in and they're kind of looking around like, where the hell are we? And there was a lot of nervousness, you know. It was on the grounds of the women's ministry. So it was like they're opening a what? Why are they doing this? You know, there's this sort of discomfort and embarrassment, but they have their arms out for anything that people are willing to give them at this point, because they need so much.

CHIDEYA: Visually, I was struck by the difference between the images of women working on these mannequins and tweezing eyebrows and so on and men cocking guns. There were a lot of images of men with rifles, with pistols, communing around guns.

Ms. MERMIN: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Was that intentional? What did you mean to do by that?

Ms. MERMIN: Yeah, I mean, really--the gun--it's just amazing how quickly you get used to just seeing guns everywhere in Kabul, because they're just--I mean, you know, the place was just flooded with weapons for 20 years during civil wars and everyone has a guard who can afford to have a guard. And everyone who needs a job--you know, being a guard is one of the first jobs that comes along. And so, that's what they do in their spare time. They play with guns.

CHIDEYA: Take us forward to the present day. You went there in 2003, is that correct?

Ms. MERMIN: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Have you stayed in touch with any of the women, the teachers or the students?

Ms. MERMIN: I've stayed in touch with the teachers. The students are hard to stay in touch with because there's no Internet in their houses, there're no phones. I mean, you know, you have to be pretty well off to have any kind of modern communications in that city right now. The Americans, only one of them has returned, in fact, is still over there and that's Debbie(ph), who--anyone who's seen this film will remember is one of the big women from Michigan who...

CHIDEYA: She cracked me up.

Ms. MERMIN: She's…

(Soundbite of movie “The Beauty Academy of Kabul”)

CHIDEYA: Let's hear a little bit of Debbie giving instruction on one of her first days.

Ms. MERMIN: Okay.

DEBBIE: I want--you know what? 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!

CHIDEYA: She's no joke.

Ms. MERMIN: On the one hand, she's--there's something horrifying about the way she talks to the students, absolutely. She's sort of bossy and she's pushy and she says this is what you've got to do. But the thing that I loved about watching her with the students was they just, they roll their eyes, they laugh. I mean, when you see the film, you see they're nudging each other and they're just like--and finally one of them is like, look, you don't understand our lives. And she's big enough to say, okay, you're right, I'm learning. And you see her progress and you see how genuine she is.

I mean, she's wacky, but she really cares and that comes out and the students loved her. And where it really comes out is once the film was over, she actually stayed in Kabul…

CHIDEYA: That's amazing.

Ms. MERMIN: …and she's still there. And she's married to an Afghan man.

CHIDEYA: Really?

Ms. MERMIN: Yeah, it's kind of amazing.

CHIDEYA: And what do you think that your film has to say about the U.S. relationship to Afghanistan? We, obviously, after 9/11 rolled into the country and then, once the Iraq War started, we haven't paid that much attention to the country. What do we need to know about that country?

Ms. MERMIN: Well, I think that the worst sides of the school are a metaphor for a lot of U.S. foreign policy in a way. It's a bunch of good intentions and very little knowledge. You have this feeling of, you know, did these Americans--how much homework did they do? Did they know where they were going?

And this project was a project with a lot of great intentions. Everyone gets together and works really hard and does something great and then it just sort of falls apart. And it fell apart partly because, as you said, no one's paying attention to Afghanistan anymore. I mean, it needs--it needs support, it needs aid and a lot of aid is getting sucked up into big NGO's and, you know, just paying people to sort of be there and not do very much.

CHIDEYA: Liz Mermin, thank you.

Ms. MERMIN: Thank you, it's been fun.

CHIDEYA: Liz Mermin is the documentarian who wrote and directed, "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." And her film is coming out in different places across the country. You can find out more at

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.