In 2003, almost two years after the fall of the Taliban, a small group of mostly American women calling themselves "Beauty without Borders" established a free beauty school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The school was set up for two main reasons: a) to teach Afghan women a lucrative and socially acceptable trade and b) because the American founders were dismayed by the current beauty regimes of Afghan women. Thank goodness they couldn't see the "beauty regime" I had implemented prior to my trip to the theater.
[i]The Beauty Academy of Kabul[/i] is centered mostly on the goings on in the school, but far more interesting is a series of profiles of the students themselves. These women are amazingly resilient and not at all bitter about their years of oppression, which continues to this day, even post-Taliban. They simply accept things as they are and take their happiness where they can find it, which is pretty much everywhere. One girl even manages to giggle her way through a tale of having seen other women getting their hands and feet chopped off for wearing nail polish in public.
In contrast to the Afghan women, who I found to be quite admirable, the American women made me want to hide under my seat from embarrassment. One brash mid-westerner walks in and starts chastising the students for not wearing enough makeup. As if wearing mascara is one of the great privileges of "freedom" which they're now obligated to participate in. Right up there with voting. Our troops fought hard to win you this freedom, so dadgummit, you'd better start painting your faces, you little ingrates you!
The other teachers aren't quite so obnoxious but their new-agey American perspectives stand in sharp contrast to those of the down-to-earth Afghan women. One teacher tells the camera that beauticians are "healers" and that the new trainees would be "healing" the other Afghan women one haircut at a time. Another advises one of the students who complains of an abusive husband to do a brief meditation before she walks in the front door each evening. The same one tells the class that if they find themselves sleeping more than eight hours per night, they should "seek professional help" because it may be a sign of depression. Thats a fine piece of advice for a group of women living in a bombed-out city who can scarcely afford to feed their families.
Despite the somewhat frivolous nature of a beauty school in a recent war zone, it turns out to be incredibly popular. So many women line up on the school's opening day for a spot in the first class that the instructors have to implement a lottery system to select the first group of students. Most of the students have some previous experience doing hair; some secretly styled hair in their homes during the rule of the Taliban.
Hairdressers in Afghanistan make a relatively large amount of money compared to other professions. Though most women aren't allowed to work, it's hard for husbands to complain about their wives working when the wives earn more than they do. And since it's part of the Afghan culture for women to get all gussied up for weddings, beauty salons always have a steady flow of business even though they're a luxury that few women can normally afford.
Although the cultural insensitivity of the teachers made me cringe at times, I still found this movie worthwhile and almost inspirational. We've all heard about the horrible things that happened to women under the reign of the Taliban and yet here are the survivors laughing and learning a trade and getting on with their lives the best they can. Yay for the indefatigable nature of the human spirit. With that and the proper perming technique, Afghanistan will be back on its feet in no time.