Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
Published by Random House
In 2001, just after the fall of the Taliban, Deborah Rodriguez traveled to Afghanistan with a group of aid workers. While she felt inadequate to help in comparison to those she was with – doctors, nurses, therapists, etc. – she soon figured out that being a skilled hairdresser was a gift that she could and should share with the Afghan women. So not only did she start doing the women’s hair, she opened her own beauty school so that she could train women to open their own salons, helping their families and potentially propelling them financially in this society that is so closed to the idea of women achieving financial freedom. In Kabul Beauty School, Rodriguez details the time she spent in Kabul, getting close to the women there, attending weddings, making friends, and even getting married herself.
This memoir is a fascinating look into a part of society in Afghanistan that most people won’t ever get to learn about or especially experience for themselves. Because women in Afghanistan are kept so closed off from society, inside the beauty school that Rodriguez started, they were able to relax and be themselves and talk between each other – no men allowed. Of course, the fact that men aren’t allowed to be around for these conversations is another topic for discussion, but Rodgriguez doesn’t get much into the politics or religious beliefs of the government or people of Afghanistan. I’m sure she could write an entire second book just about those things. This one, however, is about her experience there and most specifically the people she met, befriended, and fell in love with who shaped her time in Afghanistan.
I feel like Rodriguez exposed me to a lot of information about Afghanistan society and I really appreciate what I learned in her memoir. I loved how she got so close with many of these women and formed real friendships with them. Her heart broke for the atrocities some of them faced and she was joyous when good things happened to them – marrying a decent man, becoming a more proficient hairdresser, or simply getting along with a mother-in-law. I have to admit that the culture Rodriguez detailed here was difficult for me to comprehend and wrap my brain around. These women have very few rights – they aren’t even seen as people, really, by the men that control them. It wasn’t easy for me to digest but I feel that Rodriguez did a great job explaining that, showing it, but bringing to the forefront the humanity of these women and showing how they are just regular people trying to create happy and healthy lives for themselves and their families.
A few things about the book made it difficult for me to love. For one, I felt that the structure was a bit all over the place and wasn’t organized as effectively as I would have liked. Additionally, at one point in the book Rodriguez gets married to an Afghan who already has a wife and kids living in another country. This baffled me and I don’t feel that she explained exactly why she made this choice. Whether she was in love with the man or if it was a matter of convenience (since it’s so hard for women in Afghanistan to do/say anything without a man around) was never clear. I felt that she could have explained that whole situation a LOT better.
I listened to the book on audio and the narrator, Bernadette Dunne, did a nice job. There wasn’t anything special or fancy about her narration but she held my attention and kept me tuned into the story she was telling the entire time.
Overall I enjoyed Kabul Beauty School even though I did have a few slight qualms about it. I think it’s hugely important that we learn about other cultures, especially ones as closed as this one, so I appreciate greatly what Rodriguez did here. If you’re open to new experiences and ideas, and want to learn about what life is like in a completely different part of the world from your own, definitely pick up Kabul Beauty School.