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February 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 04, 2005

Letter from Kabul Letter from Kabul (February 04, 2005)

Adventure begins with snow, and life above a beauty school

By Rosemary Stasek

I live above a beauty parlor. In Afghanistan, that is the social equivalent of living above a brothel. I think it's great -- the company is just as entertaining and the customers don't keep you up all night.

I just arrived a week ago to begin my new adventure as the logistics manager of the Kabul Beauty School and Oasis Salon. Even though this is my fifth trip to Afghanistan, this one is completely different.

The most obvious difference is that I've always been here during warm weather, and this time I arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. Folks in Kabul aren't used to a lot of snow so I had a huge advantage during the snowball fight my first night here.

A deeper difference is coming to terms with the fact that I won't be coming home for a while. I have to learn to do the day-to-day stuff that comes with living here versus just visiting.

First lesson: how to stoke a wood stove so that the fire lasts the whole night instead of burning out around 2 a.m. and then having to spend the rest of the night sleeping in my coat. Every piece of wood I put in there I pray didn't come from a heritage tree.

The Kabul Beauty School is a three-month program to teach women to become Western-trained beauticians. Job opportunities for women here are almost non-existent. Thus, being a beautician is a fantastic skill because the women can either work in a public salon or have a small private shop in their own home depending on how conservative their families are.

Beauty parlors here have a troubled reputation; the Taliban closed all of them claiming they were simply fronts for prostitution. (In reality, that's the Chinese restaurants.) In a culture where women are generally confined to their homes, salons are one of the few places where women can gather. It provides not only an economic lifeline but a social and psychological one as well.

The next class is just starting, and 15 women have been chosen from 150 applicants. The students were chosen to represent a diversity of the community based on age, ethnicity, socio-economic standing and educational ability. One of the goals of the school is to help break down some of the social and ethnic barriers and become a model of a professional Western work environment.

Ideally, there would be 25 students in the class but there were only enough training supplies for 15. Getting equipment and supplies here is an expensive and lengthy proposition. Part of my job will be to see that the school has the money and shipping ability to get what it needs.

The Oasis Salon is just that, an oasis of calm and beauty in the midst of a tough, dirty city. The salon is run in a strictly Western style at hefty Western prices serving mostly the international community here. The two main goals are to generate profits to fund the beauty school and to give beauty school graduates on-the-job training before they open their own salons.

People have criticized the school, saying that Afghan women have bigger problems than how they look. The average salary for an educated person here is $30 to $40 per month as a teacher or government official. The women can make 10 times that in a salon. But this is ultimately about economic empowerment -- not lipstick and nail polish.
Rosemary Stasek is a former Mountain View mayor. Her column will appear once a month in the Voice during her stay in Kabul. More about her project and trips to Afghanistan can be found at

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