Deborah Rodriguez has been as a
hairdresser since 1979. She spent five years teaching and
later directing the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern
beauty academy and training salon in Afghanistan. Rodriguez
also owned the Oasis Salon and the Cabul Coffee House. She
currently lives in California.
A Conversation with Deborah Rodriguez
Question: In KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL you present the
beauty salon as an inner sanctum for women in both the
United States and Afghanistan. Aside from the absence of
men, what creates this atmosphere and almost automatic sense
Deborah Rodriguez: I believe that beauty salons and
beauty schools are sanctuaries for women everywhere in the
world–in that sense, the Kabul Beauty School is no
different. In every salon and school, the beauticians are
there to take care of women. The customers let their hair
down, quite literally! Lifelong friendships develop.
In Kabul, this feeling of closeness is enhanced by the
greater culture’s exclusion of women. I nicknamed
Afghanistan “manistan” because you always feel as if you’re
surrounded by crowds of men. It’s painful to go out and see
so few women on the streets. It’s a relief to get away from
all that testosterone. The school provides a safe haven for
my students and the women who work in my salon. We go
through family crises, celebrations and hardships together.
Because I am a foreigner I bring up subjects that an Afghan
teacher would not. We talk about birth control, joke about
sex, our husbands, their lack of sensitivity and other taboo
subjects. My girls love it-- they laugh and tease each other
and get just as silly as any other women. This also creates
For the foreigners, the salon is also a sanctuary. We might
have three customers receiving services at the same time:
one could be earning $30,000 a month, another $2,000, and
the third is volunteering and making little to nothing. But
there are no differences here in Kabul. We suffer the same
things. None of us has electricity, we can’t walk on the
streets without being called names or stared at as if we
have three heads, and it’s difficult for us to move from
location to location because of increased security risks.
All of us shake for days when there are riots or suicide
bombers or rocket attacks. But once in the salon, we shake
off the day’s dust, sit back to read an outdated magazine,
drink tea and gossip. Plain and simple. We dish about who
did what with whom and enjoy every minute. The salon is
truly an oasis.
Question: Women in Kabul fought hard to preserve some
vestige of the salons and beauty culture in existence before
the Taliban, going as far as to bury their tools. What do
you think is the cause of this devotion?
DR: Except for during the Taliban years, female
beauty has always been treasured in Afghanistan. Beauticians
have always had an important and honored role in enhancing
beauty–especially during the parties and gatherings
surrounding a wedding.
Paradoxically, I think this has to do with the lack of value
that women have in this culture. There are huge celebrations
when a baby boy is born. Hundreds of people come to the
parents’ house and bring gifts to the family. But when a
girl is born, the mother is often in tears for months. The
family scolds her for not producing a son; if she continues
to birth girls, her husband often takes another wife.
Progressive families celebrate the birth of a girl, but the
celebration is still very small compared to that for a boy.
From birth on, a girl understands that she has very little
value–until someone approaches her parents to arrange a
marriage. Then, her value is demonstrated by the kind of
dowry her family is offered. She will wear a lot of this
dowry at her wedding parties, including the gold jewelry and
fine clothes that the groom’s family has given her. If a
girl isn’t draped in gold, then everyone assumes she isn’t
When you think about it, don’t we all do the very same
thing? When a girl gets engaged in the States, she proudly
shows off her diamond ring. It seems that no matter what
side of the world you live on, we all get our social status
from other people’s approval. But Afghan women don’t have a
lot of opportunities to show off. Even though all the women
in Afghanistan try to look like prom queens for engagement
and wedding parties, there is even greater pressure on the
bride. That’s her one big moment to display her worth–in
front of all the important people in her world-- with her
gold and her elaborate dress and her fancy hairstyle–the
bigger the better--and her body weight in makeup. The more
beautiful she is on this day, the more she shows that her
husband and his family value her. This gives her status in
the community. Beauticians are the handmaidens of this
status–there are hours and hours of preparation in a salon
before the bride goes to the party.
Beauticians also clung to the tools of their trade because
they earned a good living–and they ran their own businesses
without any interference by fathers or brothers or husbands.
They hoped the Taliban were only a brief interruption of
business! And, of course, they loved their salons–as I said
before, salons were then and are still comfortable havens
for women in Manistan.
Q: Though you have often made the decision to stand up
for what you believed was right in dangerous situations, you
have also had to pick your battles. How do you decide when
it is worth the risk to stick your neck out?
DR: I hate to see people being victimized. I wish I
could say that I picked my battles, but it was more often
the case that my battles picked me. I didn’t stand up and
make noise about some things when I should have and,
sometimes, I made too much noise when I should have kept my
mouth shut. But then there were the lucky times when my
buttons were pushed, and I stood firm. My stubborn streak
came shinning through, and a few battles were won.
When I had to flee Afghanistan, I was fleeing for my life
and that of my son Noah. Now I wonder if I should have taken
more risk and stayed. Should I have fought harder for what I
believed in and taken more chances? I ask myself what would
have happened if I had stayed. Should I have taken the
chance of being thrown in jail, killed or kidnapped or was
leaving the only thing I could do? I wish I knew if I did
the right thing by leaving. But to be honest with you I
don’t think I will ever know for sure.
Q: You are undoubtedly in love with your husband, Sam,
yet throughout the book you make it clear that there is
quite a significant language barrier between the two of you.
How do you communicate in a way that allows you to stay
emotionally connected and navigate the cultural differences
that you run up against?
DR: There are many days when I would say we don’t
communicate at all. With time, I have learned what I would
call “survivor Dari,” and he has learned English pretty
well. When we combine my broken Dari and his broken English
and some sign language, we do okay. The only thing I can
compare it to is when your child is about two years old.
Only you can understand what they are saying--it sound like
gibberish to everyone else. It is pretty much the same for
Sam and me. He often translates my Dari into Dari for
Afghans, and I translate his English into English for the
foreigners. One day I was sitting cross-legged on the floor
with a mixed group of men and women, Afghans and foreigners.
Sam looked at me and said politely, “Debbie your docon is
open.” Translated into English, this would mean, “Your store
is open.” I knew that he was saying, “Close your legs-- you
are not sitting like a lady.” So we have come up with our
Most of the time, we are navigating the cultural differences
in the dark. I remember how difficult it was for Sam when a
foreign male would greet me with a hug. Sam says that it
still bothers him sometimes, but that he understands that
this behavior is common among westerners. He told me when we
first got married that it would be impossible for either of
us to change overnight–“Slowly, slowly, we will learn and
change.” And that is what we have done. We also know that my
past is culturally unacceptable to him and his present is
difficult for me. So we have decided to ignore these things.
That makes our marriage very different from those in which
partners want to know everything about each other.
Since I fled Kabul, Sam and I have only spoken on the phone.
This has really put stress on our relationship. He doesn’t
read English so emails are out of the question, so it is
just the phone. And for any one who has tried to talk on a
phone while the reception is going in and out and you’re
missing half of what’s being said you will understand how it
is for us.
Q: You mention your distress upon learning that Sam had
another wife and, later, that she was going to have another
of his children. How have you reconciled the fact of your
husband’s other marriage to your American upbringing? Though
she is in a different country, does the existence of another
wife impact your daily life?
DR: Denial, denial, denial–this seems to be the best
way to deal with it. There is no place in my American brain
to put this other marriage. I have stopped asking about it,
and he has stopped telling me anything. He understands that
I could never accept it if she lived in Afghanistan–I could
not be the traditional Afghan wife who makes way for another
wife–so he would never put me in that situation. The culture
here complicates this situation. Divorce is not an option
for him: It would destroy his family and shame his name, and
his children would suffer. It is very complicated. There are
other foreign women here who are married to Afghan men and
are in the same situation. We are an informal support group
for each other.
It was difficult and embarrassing for me to even tell people
that Sam had another wife. It took me a long time to talk
about the last child; to this day, I don’t like to talk
about him. It wasn’t until I wrote the book that I even
spoke of it at all. I hesitated putting it in the book
because my mom didn’t even know; she found out by reading my
story. I kind of hoped she would skip that part.
Q: You describe both your life in the United States and
your life in Afghanistan. Many people feel that they have a
hard time balancing work and home when work is only a one or
two hour commute away. How do you stay connected to your
family in the US? As a mother, how do you maintain your
relationship with your sons in the US?
DR: Thank God for the internet and telephones! We
email and talk on the phone a lot. I’m very close to my
mother and my kids; even though I don’t see them very often,
I feel that they are always with me. Sometimes that’s not
enough, though: I brought Zach to Kabul because I really
felt he needed to be closer to me. Now, he is going to
school in Northern Cyprus--just a short flight away.
I feel that my experience in Afghanistan has opened up a
different world for my boys. For my mother, too–she left
America for the first time ever to visit me in Afghanistan.
And if I had not been in Afghanistan, I would have never
thought about sending Zach to school in Northern Cyprus.
Its hard for any mother–even with what is considered a
normal life-- to be without guilt. We all wonder if we’re
good mothers. I struggle with this on a daily basis. I also
battle the guilt that I was not in the States with my mother
when my dad died, nor was I there when her house burned
down. If I think about it too much, I would drown in guilt.
Q: Your son Zach came to stay with you in Kabul for a
while and became involved in your efforts to save Hama from
her disastrous relationship with Ali. How did it feel to
have your American and Afghan family lives collide in such a
dramatic way? How did Hama’s inability to take the help
offered to her affect you and Zach?
DR: Zach is a bleeding heart, like me. So it didn’t
surprise me that he wanted to help Hama. It is really hard
to be in Afghanistan without being affected by the lives of
the people here--it is as if you are caught in a tornado and
can’t get out.
Foreigners here have a catch phrase to describe the world we
grew up in, with its very different set of rules and
expectations: we talk about how people do things “in the
real world.” Would Zach have offered to marry an abused girl
to get her away from her abusive boyfriend “in the real
world?” I don’t think so. The situation with Hama was very
hard. So many tears were shed for this little girl. I wanted
more then anything to see her freed from her captor, but
nothing helped. I will never forget the look on Zach’s face
when he saw that she had been beaten because of his efforts
to save her. The cruel reality of this hit him hard. I knew
then it was time for him to leave Afghanistan.
Q: The women you work with in Kabul appear to be
interested in the beauty of hair, makeup, and dress largely
for themselves as women and not for the pleasure of men, who
are rarely allowed to see them made up. How does this relate
to the way American women perceive personal beauty and the
very public manner in which they often display it? What are
the similarities between your Afghan customers and your
American customers? The differences?
DR: All women want to be beautiful. That is the
In the United States, women dress to attract the male and
impress the female. In contrast, for Afghan women there is
no necessity to attract men because marriages are arranged
and the mingling of men and women is forbidden.
Consequently, Afghan women dress for themselves, to impress
other women, and to show their financial status. In
Afghanistan a beautiful woman is worth her weight in gold.
Americans appreciate beauty in all colors: Oprah Winfrey,
Christie Brinkley, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, and Lucy
Liu. Here, a woman would be committing fashion suicide if
she showed up at the big party wearing the same dress as
another guest. Americans love to think outside the box as
far fashion and hair and are always striving to have the
newest look, latest fashion and the trendiest haircut. Where
do we get our influence? Fashion magazines, movies, actors,
musicians all create what we perceive as beautiful and
One of the few influences on fashion and makeup in
Afghanistan is the women who are portrayed in the Indian
Bollywood movies. These actresses have long dark thick hair,
pale skin, curvaceous bodies, dark large almond-shaped eyes,
perfectly-groomed dark eyebrows and huge false eyelashes.
There is enough “bling” in their dresses that the average
American would need sunglasses to take in the whole fashion
experience. Afghan women all strive for this same look.
Applying the makeup for a bride is much the same as making
color copies. Individuality is not as important as having
“the right look”.
In the U. S., we spend hundreds of dollars on tanning
creams, sun beds, and vacations to bake ourselves to a dark
golden tan. In contrast, very white pale skin is what is
culturally preferred for Afghan women. Having dark skin is
considered a terrible fate, even though the typical Afghan
has dark skin, darker eyes, and dark hair. All too often, I
have heard women say about their soon to be daughter in law
not “what a nice personality” she has, but “what beautiful
light skin” she has. Full-figured, feminine women are the
ideal, not the tall, skinny, child-like women worshipped by
Unlike in the U.S., where we have as many avenues to make
ourselves as beautiful as we can afford (cosmetic surgeries,
Botox, hair extensions), in Afghanistan you get what you
get. If an Afghan woman is not blessed with thick beautiful
hair, pale skin, and a curvy figure there is not much she
can do about it.
Q: How are your friendships with women in Afghanistan
different than with women at home in the US?
DR: Sometimes, I feel that my friendships with Afghan
women are a bit unbalanced. I always feel pressured to fix
everything because I am American–and the truth is, I often
have access to resources that they don’t. This makes me
uncomfortable, but the sweetness of their friendship is such
a treasure. They could never tell me anything bad. When I
ask, “Do you think I look fat in this outfit?” and their
response is always, “No, Debbie you look so beautiful!” When
I know I look like a giant pumpkin. My friends in the States
would tell me I look like a giant pumpkin.
Q: You write that in your “darkest moments” you wonder if
your decision to help Roshanna fake her virginity on her
wedding night was any help to her in the long run (258).
While you certainly impact the lives of the individual women
you teach, do you think that it is possible for outsiders to
effect change in Afghanistan or does that change have to
come naturally from within the culture itself? How is it
possible for women to help these changes happen from within
when they have so little political standing?
DR: Education is the key to all change. Getting the
girls back in school will make a huge difference. Afghan
women are tough, and with education for ALL the Afghan
people, I feel the country will advance. It might not
advance in the pace and the way westerners want it to, but
it is not our country. I feel that outsiders can make a
positive change, but we are just here to help them get back
on their feet. The real change will happen within each
person, and then some day the country will find some sort of
balance. This is an old culture; things have happened in a
certain way for a long time for a reason.
Q: The culture shock you experienced while adjusting to
life in Afghanistan figures prominently in Kabul Beauty
School. Was it difficult to readjust to life in the United
States when you returned for a month to tour and speak about
the book? Were there any particular aspects of American life
that resulted in “reverse” culture shock?
DR: One of the things that made me laugh was seeing a
Hummer in LA or Manhattan. I kept saying to myself, now why
do they need this car? The roads are paved and they don’t
have holes the size of Texas. Electricity and hot water were
really nice to have at a flip of a switch or turn of a
handle. I had almost forgotten what that felt like. And ice
cubes, a true luxury!
I was struck by the sense that people just don’t have time
for each other. They are always so busy with work and other
activities that there isn’t a lot of free time for just
dropping by someone’s house. Kabul is a tight knit community
of expats. We are all going through the same thing at the
same time whether it’s that day’s security concern or power
outage — all the daily inconveniences of living there.
Despite all those difficulties, there is always time for
spending time with your friends — something that makes life
in Kabul very different than that in the US.
The saying don’t sweat the small stuff can really sum it up.
In the US a lot of small things become huge problems. Living
in a war zone makes you understand what a real problem is.
Photography by Chad Hunt