Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Changing the Face of Afghan Beauty

Renowned beauty specialists have thrown their weight behind a plan to bring Kabul’s salon workers up to the latest fashions.
By Parween Talwasa

Though many women are still reluctant to throw off the all-encompassing burqa, it’s what's going on behind the veil that is causing a stir in Kabul.


For local NGO Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support in Afghanistan, PARSA, has enlisted the help of some of the leading names in international fashion and cosmetics to transform the face of Afghan beauty.


Traditionally, it has been almost impossible for an Afghan woman to wear make-up and fashionable clothing. The mujahedin condemned it as “un-Islamic” – and the situation went from bad to worse when the brutal Taleban seized power in 1996.


The student militia drove what few beauticians and hairdressers there were underground. As a result, few of those that continue to work are professionally-trained - but all that is about to change.


PARSA’s Mary MacMakin - an American aid worker who is dedicating her life to supporting Afghan women, particularly those widowed during a quarter century of conflict – has launched an ambitious project to build a well-equipped modern beauty parlour within the compound of the Ministry of Womens' Affairs in Kabul.


International fashion bible Vogue and the leading cosmetics firm Estee Lauder have each donated 25,000 US dollars to help fund the project, while a number of other companies such as Revlon have also pledged their support.


The project is not just about helping Afghan women make the most of their natural beauty. PARSA is designing its courses to ensure that they learn as much about balancing the books as they do about applying mascara.


Each course will run from between two and four months, and will also cover business skills to teach the women how to provide for their families and boost their own confidence.


The latest techniques and styles will be taught by a series of international trainers – the majority of which are exiled Afghan women who learned their trade in cities such as New York.


Project worker Noor Ahmad told IWPR, "When the courses begin, we will try to give priority to those women who are already running beauty parlours in the capital.


“After training them, we will then throw the courses open to interested women across Kabul."


The Sitara Beauty Shop in Kabul is already packed with customers day and night, and its owner Hamida believes the new training programme will boost interest further. "This is a very good chance for us, and will help us to learn more skills in the fields of beauty and fashion," she said.


MacMakin told IWPR that work on the new centre should be completed by the beginning of 2003, and that the courses should be up and running by February of that year.


PARSA is now concentrating on recruiting more project leaders, as well as fundraising in America to ensure the centre has the best possible start.


It is a far cry from the dehumanising experiences Afghan women suffered during the Taleban era and the decades of war.


A worker in the capital’s Homaira Beauty Shop, who did not want to give her name, told IWPR, "I have been working in this field for 27 years, and practised my skills secretly from my home when the student militia were in power.


"After they were driven from Kabul, I was able to come back into the open and return to working from a shop. Today, we want to stand alongside all the women of the world, and have access to the latest beauty techniques and fashions.”


Parween Talwasa is an independent journalist in Kabul