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Afghanistan: Inside Kabul’s Safe Havens of Beauty

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Mina and her friend wait patiently as headscarfed assistants apply makeup.

Amid the hardships and uncertainties of life in Kabul these days, beauty salons, once banned by the Taliban, have re-emerged as sanctuaries for Afghan women. For many, the salon experience is therapeutic.

“Women suffer the worst psychological, emotional and mental effects of this war for many reasons, so starting with small achievable steps, like making them feel pretty, at least creates some positive energy and sets the stage to work on deeper issues,” said Rima Kohli, a Kabul-based researcher studying Afghan women’s emotions before and after a makeover.

Thursdays tend to be the busiest day at salons, which are found in just about every Kabul neighborhood. That’s because most weddings tend to be held on Thursdays. Nuptials these days can be a vehicle for the display of family wealth. Thus men and women alike tend to splurge on suits and gowns and all sorts of accoutrements imported from Dubai. And for women, there’s also a lot of attention paid to make-up and hairstyles.

On any given Thursday, salons hum with activity. It’s not unusual to see burqa-covered women alight from cars and duck behind doors plastered with photographs of comely brides. The salons are strictly out of bounds for the prying eyes of Afghan males.

Two male friends and I had negotiated a visit to photograph Mina, an Afghan woman in her late 30s as she prepared for a wedding she would attend that evening.

Mina is a single mother who lives in a ramshackle structure in West Kabul, an area heavily damaged during the civil warfare of the 1990s. On a normal day, she wakes up at 6 a.m., sends her children to school, then catches a crowded minibus that rattles its way to central Kabul. She walks for about 20 minutes along streets shimmering with traffic and dust before arriving at the Shar-i Naw District whose wide roads and semblance of tarmac hint at wealth. At a house rented by Iranians, she serves breakfast, cleans the floors and prepares lunch before returning home to look after her own children.

For Mina, attending a wedding offers a rare break from a dreary routine. The feast gives her an excuse to enter the glittering world of the beauty salon, even entertaining Cinderella-like daydreams. Inside, she relaxes at the sight of the pink walls and decorative plastic flowerpots. A little box containing varies shades of rouge lies next to the mirror that reflects Mina’s dress – a revealing, strappy green number studded with golden buttons and mock green emeralds. Her friend wears a fuchsia dress embedded with more yellow studs and topped off with glass diamonds, an imitation pearl ring and a golden-colored necklace. The stylists bustle about them, dabbing at their faces and drawing long brushes across their eyebrows.

Suddenly, there’s a commotion at the door. A group of neighborhood men have come to find out whether there’s any truth to a rumor that three men were spotted entering the beauty salon. We hide in a back room, clutching our cameras and hoping we will not have to hand over our memory cards, or, even worse, attacked for photographing Afghan women unveiled. The women pull on their headscarves and cluster around the men, protesting that there is no one there. After a few minutes, the men are convinced and leave. We pack up our gear and retreat through a back door, passing under an elaborate flower arrangement of a heart pierced by an arrow.

Though we will attend the same wedding as Mina that evening, the traditional segregation of the sexes at such events ensures we don’t catch even glimpse of each other.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist.

Afghanistan: Inside Kabul’s Safe Havens of Beauty

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