Kabul, Afghanistan – In feminist thought, beauty parlours are hardly synonymous with women’s empowerment. But most Afghan women don’t have the luxury of worrying about such principles: A job is a job, and it’s a crucial step forward for Kabul’s beauticians.
Soraya has been battling to stay self-employed for years. A motherly, smiling lady, it’s hard to imagine how she defied Taliban fighters even after they smashed up her parlour in 1996.
So she took her work underground. Women would sneak into her house during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, determined to look their best as brides.
“They came secretly, and at that time wedding cars were decorated with flowers,” she said. “If the cars were decorated, then the Taliban would attack them. If the Taliban found out then they would close our house.”
Owning a business was, of course, out the question for women at the time. In 2001, as foreign forces pushed the Taliban from power, Soraya officially set up shop again. Now she owns a large, well-known parlour in the city centre. She employs six women in what are crucial and rare jobs for females in a state where they are still often shielded from the workplace.
When foreigners are here, our business is good. We are free and happy. If they leave we are concerned about what will happen to us in 2014.
Soraya’s case shows how beauty parlours can provide an important transition for women from homes, to the workplace, to commercial ownership. These women could inspire others to move into professions and entrepreneurship themselves.
But that mobilisation of labour could soon be in danger. When asked about what will happen to her and her staff in 2014 when international forces leave, the women in the parlour put down their makeup brushes and break into chatter. They are all worried about Afghanistan slipping back into the ultra-conservative rule they remember.
“If the American and foreign armies go, what will happen to us?” asked Soraya. “Will the Taliban come back? We are worried about this. When foreigners are here, our business is good. We are free and happy. If they leave we are concerned about what will happen to us in 2014.”
She speaks to a chorus of nods around the parlour. But hoping foreign forces will stay is a rare opinion in Afghanistan these days. When asked, most Afghans say they are worried about what happens next for the country, but want foreign armies to leave all the same.
From Soraya’s doorstep, at least five other parlours can be seen on the same street. Thin curtains hang over doorways and blow in the wind, next to windows blocked out by posters of glamorous models.
This provides just enough privacy for the women inside, both customers and staff. There are few workplaces in Afghanistan where only women are allowed in the door.
Nabila’s parlour across the road also employs six women. She fears for their future after foreign forces leave. “We started this business after the Taliban – we were hopeful the future would be bright and the country would peaceful,” she shouts over the sound of blow dryers. “But now we have lost hope because of 2014.”
The departure is on every woman’s mind in this shop, too. They can see the country’s political structure is vulnerable to the kind of corruption, democratic failure, and conflict that could lead the Taliban to influence again. Next year, Afghanistan will hold presidential elections, and with the Taliban opening an office in Qatar, there have been widespread rumours of the hardline group’s political intentions.
Not everyone is pessimistic, though. Mohmoda Sonia Eqbal, a businesswoman, said the gains Afghan women have made will not soon be taken away.
“We are dealing with a different people now,” she said. “In the past 10 years, access to education, information and even telephones means we are facing a very informed population.”
“In the past 10 years access to education, information and even telephones means we are facing a very informed population.“
– Mohmoda Sonia Eqbal, businesswoman
But, she stressed, the gains that women have made still need to be safeguarded. “We have to make sure that we do everything we can to have mechanisms in place to prevent gains in women’s rights being undermined in the future.”
Those mechanisms will be largely up to President Hamid Karzai’s successor upon taking office next year. The political transition, however, will also have to encompass the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and armed opposition groups such as the Taliban. The latter’s likelihood of welcoming women into the political process is low.
For the women of Kabul’s beauty parlours, simply being able to work is a far higher priority than taking part in peace talks. If the situation worsens, some women may choose to leave Afghanistan for countries where they can work.
Soraya says she is ready to flee the country if politics turn back time in her city. For now, however, business is booming and the wedding party sitting next to her needs to have the curlers taken out of their hair. So it’s back to work.