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A$1m bad hair day in Kabul

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Dean Nelson
July 15, 2007
From The Sunday Times (UK)

Debbie Rodriguez tells how her Afghan beauty salon turned from Hollywood dream to a nightmare

Debbie Rodriquez is tucking into muffins and sipping coffee in one of Delhi’s smart hotel patisseries. She’s laughing loudly, turning heads and drawing stares from onlookers who can’t quite place the tanned brassy woman in her plunging smock top, scarlet toenails and jangling silver bling.

She may be a 46-year-old hairdresser from Michigan but she’s also the author of The Kabul Beauty School, the publishing sensation that made the New York Times top 10 bestseller list in April. Her true story has now been sold to Hollywood for $1m (£490,000).

The Kabul Beauty School charts Rodriguez’s flight from an abusive marriage to a violent preacher in Michigan to Kabul, where she volunteered to help rebuild the country after American and British forces toppled the Taliban.

As a hairdresser, she wasn’t top of the list of what war-ravaged Afghanistan needed most – the only things she could repair were split ends, bad home haircuts, spiny fingernails and overgrown undergrowth – but they turned out to be highly sought after skills in Kabul where the Taliban had banned beauty treatments as “unIslamic”. So with two other westerners she set up the Kabul Beauty School, taught students to transform the city’s women from ghosts in black burqas to Brazilian-waxed goddesses and married an Afghan warlord after a three-week romance. “I guess I have a problem with impulsivity,” she explains.

Her Midwest warmth and ditzy charm created a unique male-free zone where Afghan women, foreign diplomats and aid workers talked freely, and the newly trained salon girls felt able to lift the veil over the violent relationships, sexual abuse and domestic slavery endured by women throughout Afghanistan. Rodriguez tells how one of the girls had been married off by her father at 10 years old to settle a debt, while another girl revealed her father had sold her as a job lot with her mother and sisters to an older uncle. They disclosed rapes and strategies for avoiding sex with their husbands – Islamic custom dictates that men must shower after intercourse, so they often “forgot” to bring home water.

As they learnt the unIslamic arts of bikini waxing, perming and colouring they grew in confidence and began to believe they could become independent providers and buy a bigger stake in their own lives.

Today just under 200 women have passed out as qualified stylists and beauticians, but it’s unlikely Rodriguez will ever see any of them again. At the moment of her greatest triumph, as she returned to Kabul with a million-dollar Hollywood deal in her bag, she was confronted with the corruption, greed and terror Afghans have lived with for decades, but from which she had thus far been shielded.

She had just come back from Los Angeles where she had met Miss Congeniality star Sandra Bullock and Mrs Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, as rivals to play her in the film – she says she prefers Bullock because she was “so funny” – and was buzzing with excitement when the life she had built in Afghanistan was suddenly reduced to rubble. She learnt her husband was a violent cheat and the country she believed was emerging from the dark days of Taliban repression was in fact riddled with corruption and ruled by gangsters.

Until then Rodriguez had felt protected by her husband. Haji Sher Mohammad, 16 years her junior, was a veteran of the Northern Alliance army that opposed the Taliban and was close to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the notorious Uzbek warlord accused of massacring Taliban prisoners who suffocated after being locked in sealed truck containers. He later became Dostum’s official adviser, but when they met, Sher was the only boss of a small construction firm – and he made her laugh.

Neither spoke the other’s language and they courted using friends as translators. She agreed to marry him on a whim, despite the fact that he was already married with seven children, after he told her western-style dating was unacceptable in Afghanistan.

Over time he learnt English, she picked up Dari and he became more comfortable with her public displays of affection. “Americans are touchy and affectionate, but he freaked out over it at first,” she said.

Despite her husband’s connections, she always felt safe with him and affectionately called him “Fred Flintstone with a rocket launcher”.

The first sign things were not well came shortly before she left for her book tour in April. She had given her husband her $30,000 “emergency fund” to invest in the salon building, but later discovered he’d used it to buy his own carpet factory. “I didn’t have time to fight then,” she said.

But as she was returning from her triumphant US tour with her son Noah she was given a sharp reminder she was coming home to trouble. Her husband called her during her stop-over in Dubai and told her government figures were saying her book had insulted Islam and were preparing a legal case against her.

“He said: ‘You have one month to get out or they will arrest you. We should take some of your money and buy a house in Dubai. If it’s in both our names I can work there.’ I was so scared to go back in [to Kabul],” she said.

When Rodriguez did arrive back in May her salon girls and other friends told her that her husband was involved in a plot to seize her Hollywood windfall and her son would be kidnapped to extort the money. “I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t,” she said.

Her girls told her that while she was away, a group of well-dressed Afghan women had arrived in a black SUV with armed guards. They had pushed their way into the salon, accusing them of bringing shame on the country.

The women, who the girls believed to be government officials, were waving proof copies of the British edition of her book (published by Hodder & Stoughton), and pointing at photographs showing some of the girls with their heads uncovered. They told the girls they knew who they were and that they would pay for bringing shame on Afghan women.

Rodriguez’s husband deepened her sense of panic when he said he’d been given a copy of the book by someone in Afghan intelligence and hinted that powerful figures would have to be appeased for the problem to go away. “He was saying this can all go away Debbie if we just bribe this person.”

At the end of her first day back at work a friend told her Sher had sexually harassed one of the girls in the salon and another said he had been blackmailing them with a video of them dancing at an all-girl party. He had found it on her computer and said he would show it to their families and tell them they had been giving massages to American soldiers if they revealed his plotting to Rodriguez, she said.

When she confronted him he stormed into the salon with his gun bulging in his pocket. “He denied it all and was shouting at the girls. He wanted to kill Zara because he knew she had told me about it. I realised I didn’t know who he was,” she said.

A customer called in a private security firm that warned Rodriguez to leave the country immediately. In 10 minutes she had packed five years of her life into two suitcases and made her escape, leaving behind her salon girls and what she’d once believed was a happy life. She moved to San Francisco where she is planning to study Arabic at college, but today is in Delhi working on her new project: rescuing the five salon girls she believes are still in grave danger.

Two are still working in the salon, which is now controlled by her estranged husband, another is in a safe house and two have managed to leave the country. Rodriguez is staying in Delhi with Zara, the girl who exposed her husband’s plotting, and who recently arrived from Kabul after a security firm helped to organise her escape.

Rodriguez feels “completely lost” in her new life, she says, and frets that her success has been at her salon girls’ expense. She fears she has inadvertently made their troubled lives worse, and says she won’t rest until they are safe and settled outside of Afghanistan.

“I thought Afghanistan was moving forward – I saw hope for the women and the country – I thought I could make a life there,” she said.

“Now I see they still don’t want women to have a voice and the women are still vulnerable. Strange women scream at them for not covering their heads, they’re scared to death of their husbands, fathers and brothers. It’s the same as it was under the Taliban. I can’t believe that after five years of so-called freedom that these girls are still running.”

It’s not the feelgood story Columbia has paid the big bucks for, but it is the real story of Afghanistan. Rodriguez is hoping her epilogue will make it to the big screen.

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Written by afghandevnews

July 15, 2007 at 2:54 am

Posted in Women's Rights

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