Published: Jan. 3, 2010 By

[1] In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was quick to assimilate the terror attacks into a simplistic binary opposition of good and evil, absolving the U.S. of any foreign policy role in triggering the anger which prompted the attacks. As in the buildup to the first Gulf War in 1990, when Americans were asked to choose between two versions of masculinity, George Bush senior and the forces of good and Saddam Hussein and the forces of evil, we are haunted by colonial patterns of representation resurrected long after the death of formal colonialism, patterns which posit anti-American forces as the West’s civilizational other. The mainstream media trumpeted Orientalist pronouncements on the attacks and urged indiscriminate military retaliation. Without offering the public any proof that Osama Bin Laden bore direct responsibility for the World Trade Center and Pentagon strikes, the U.S. commenced its war on a nation-less concept, “terrorism,” by bombing targets within a nation, Afghanistan. This war was initially waged, according to the Bush administration, as a punitive measure, a kind of retributive justice, against those who planned the September 11 attacks, and as a preventive strike against future terrorist operations.

[2] Even as U.S. bombs destroyed Afghan hospitals, Afghan homes, and a U.N. land mine clearing office, the Bush administration insisted that its war was against “terrorism” and not against the Afghan people. As the military strikes continued and civilian casualties mounted (nearly 3,800 Afghans died between 7 October and 7 December 2001), the media began to suggest that U.S. policy was a form of “humanitarian intervention” designed to liberate Afghans from the brutal rule of the Taliban (BBC). Several themes dominated the claim to humanitarian intervention in articles published in the New York Times during this period: an emphasis on the danger of widespread famine and the construction of the U.S. as the purveyor of food aid; a foregrounding of the law and order problem in the region and the assertion of the U.S. as a model for democracy; and, most prominently, outrage over the horrifying status of women under the Taliban and the presentation of the U.S. as a liberator of Afghan women.

[3] Capitalizing on the sudden interest in Afghan women, the White House trotted out the heretofore reticent Laura Bush to deliver a national radio address on November 17, 2001. In her remarks, Mrs. Bush emphatically named misogyny to be a crucial aspect of the structure of terrorism, declaring that “The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.” And she credited the United States with helping to free Afghan women:

Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.

Significantly, Mrs. Bush’s interpretation of terrorism’s gendered contours included women’s right to wear cosmetics, along with more fundamental rights such as access to education and healthcare. “Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women,” she announced, “Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.”

[4] Mrs. Bush’s articulation of beauty consumer practices with resistance to a brutal form of patriarchy would become a leitmotif in mainstream American narratives about the condition of Afghan women. Ellen McLarney persuasively argues that Afghanistan provided “a fertile ground for the capitalist imagination: emancipation from the stranglehold of communist ideology on local and regional markets, emancipation from an oppressive religious regime, emancipation from ‘backward’ social and cultural practices, emancipation of the Muslim woman” (2-3). Together, McLarney notes, these “discourses of repression” coalesced around the figure of the Afghan woman, whose body functioned as a signifier of emancipation through the consumption of cosmetic and sartorial commodities associated with the new capitalist economy (3).

[5] On the same day that the First Lady aired her radio address, the State Department released its “Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women” and CNN televised Saira Shah’s Channel 4 documentary,Beneath the Veil, an undercover investigation of life for Afghan women under the Taliban, which the network had first broadcast in August 2001 without much reaction (McLarney 3). CNN’s subsequent airing of the film shortly following 9/11 attracted five and a half million viewers, earning it the distinction of being CNN’s most-viewed documentary (Ibid). The network replayed Beneath the Veil at least ten times that autumn, and Shah’s documentary helped establish beauty parlors as iconic sites of gendered resistance to Taliban rule.

[6] Two years after the First Lady’s radio address, conditions for Afghan women were still dismal: maternal mortality rates ranked among the worst in the world; deficiencies in healthcare and nutrition among women and children were common; violence, political intimidation, and attacks on women and girls were on the increase; and girls’ rights to education had been curtailed in areas which had experienced a surge in religious fundamentalism. Yet in the American imaginary the link between feminist empowerment and beauty parlors endured, inspiring a group of intrepid beauticians, mainly American but including one British woman, to open a beauty academy in Kabul in 2003. Their efforts are chronicled in Liz Mermin’s documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004). Recognizing that there is an emerging market for beauty products and services in Afghanistan and women stand to earn a good income from opening their own parlors, these American beauticians exhibit an evangelical zeal for teaching their skills to Afghan women.

[7] In this article, I analyze the American women’s construction of feminism in The Beauty Academy of Kabul as contingent on Afghan women’s embrace of American beauty standards and practices. Such a construction is not unique to the Afghan context, appearing before in media coverage of women and market reforms in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China during the 1980s and 1990s (Peiss 101). “Identified in socialist ideology as a corrupt bourgeois practice oppressive to women,” Kathy Peiss observes, “cosmetics-use then marked a turn away from totalitarianism to Western-style individualism and autonomy” (101). I am interested in what we might call “feminist neo-imperial individualism” in the film, an individualism which enables the white American and British beauticians to understand their work as a beautifying mission that will socially and economically empower Afghan women and compel their entry into modernity. Feminist neo-imperial individualism abstracts Afghan women as individual subjects from their larger familial and social contexts, universalizes a bourgeois form of feminism dedicated to capitalist empowerment, and conceives of modernity as rooted in American consumer practices. In several scenes of the film, the beauticians commend their Afghan students for refusing to dwell on the past, thus, presenting imperial modernity as an unusual mode of forgetting and the beautification process itself as a means of powdering over the terrible blemishes of the Taliban era and the history of U.S. covert actions in the region that contributed to the emergence of the Taliban.

[8] Subscribing uncritically to the Bush administration’s gendered rationales for invading Afghanistan, the American beauticians understand their work as a form of feminist solidarity with Afghan women. Rather than directly criticize the do-good zeal and cultural ignorance of the beauticians, Mermin, who has a background in anthropology and cultural studies, eschews a heavy-handed approach in the film and forgoes the presence of an editorializing narrator (Stiles). She allows her subjects to speak for themselves and the audience to draw its own conclusions from her brilliant editing and juxtaposition of different scenes. Her documentary offers a subtle critique of feminist neo-imperial individualism by including scenes in the film which showcase challenges to the white American instructors by their Afghan-American colleagues and Afghan students. In this way, the documentary hints, to paraphrase Mermin, that the worst aspects of the school are a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy, combining many good intentions with very little knowledge (“Setting Up a Salon”).

[9] Before delving into the textual complexities of Mermin’s film, however, I want to consider the academic feminist response to the Bush administration’s use of the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention as the ideological grounds for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. This response rightly criticized the gendered rationales for the war and has proven influential in feminist scholarship, and yet it remains inadequate for understanding the complexities of this conflict. I then turn to Shah’s Beneath the Veil to explain how beauty parlors acquired their iconic status as sites of resistance to the Taliban and helped to motivate the American beauticians to open the Kabul academy. After a brief description of the origins of the beauty school, I analyze the complicated politics of The Beauty Academy of Kabul, focusing on the contradictory understandings of appearance, pedagogy, and gender roles expressed by the three primary groups profiled in the documentary: white American beauticians, their Afghan-American colleagues, and Afghan students. Although Mermin seeks to highlight the more grotesque aspects of the U.S. invasion, the reception of the documentary raises larger questions about the efficacy of culture for inserting counter-hegemonic narratives in the public sphere given that audiences create their own meanings of cultural texts and often miss the subtleties of the director’s critique.

The Academic Feminist Narrative: Brown Women as Objects of White Male Rescue

[10] Two essays, Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving” and Miriam Cooke’s “Saving Brown Women,” set the terms of the academic feminist response to the Bush administration’s invocation of humanitarian intervention targeted at Afghan women; numerous feminist scholars cite these essays and accept their formulation of U.S. foreign policy rationales as constructing brown women as objects of white male rescue. Both Abu-Lughod and Cooke invoke Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” as a tool to analyze the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention. In her 1988 essay, a foundational text in post-colonial studies, Spivak analyzes the difficulties of locating the gendered subaltern’s voice in the colonial archive. Examining nineteenth century debates about the abolition of sati (widow immolation), she observes that the British campaign “has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’” (297). Abu-Lughod’s and Cooke’s reworkings of Spivak signal important continuities in the gender dynamics of colonial rhetoric in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, between British imperialism in South Asia and U.S. interference in Afghanistan. In both cases, women have been perceived as an index of the natives’ civilizational maturity. To be sure, there are compelling reasons for understanding the gender politics of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan through Spivak’s paradigm. As an explanatory model, however, this paradigm suffers from three major limitations.

[11] Cooke succinctly delineates stages in the “gendered logic of empire” as manifest in the colonial rescue narrative: “(1) women have inalienable rights within universal civilization, (2) civilized men recognize and respect these rights, (3) uncivilized men systematically abrogate these rights, and (4) such men (the Taliban) thus belong to an alien (Islamic) system” (469). While Spivak’s original formulation of the colonial rescue narrative identifies it with British attempts to legislate against sati, this narrative would gain currency in the early twentieth century with the 1927 publication of Katherine Mayo’sMother India. An American, Mayo was a pro-imperialist feminist who had written in strong support of the U.S. imperial mission in the Philippines in her book, Isles of Fear. In Mother India, which was reprinted five times by the end of August 1927, Mayo attributed all of India’s “material and spiritual” problems—such as “poverty, sickness, ignorance, political minority, melancholy, ineffectiveness [and] a subconscious sense of inferiority”—on the Indian male’s “manner of getting into the world and his sex-life thenceforward” (22). Her book caused a sensation in Britain where conservatives mustered it as evidence to argue against Indian self-rule; editorials in the New Statesman and Nation alluded to the degraded status of Indian women and, hence, deemed the impulse to grant independence criminal (Bose 112). These debates figured colonialism as a form of gender uplift, as an intervention by British men which was necessary to save Indian women from hyper-sexualized Indian men.

[12] In their invocation of Spivak’s paradigm, Abu-Lughod and Cooke usefully foreground the remarkable resilience of colonial discourse vis-à-vis the ways in which the status of native women continues to serve as a justification for the civilizing mission. Yet the power of Spivak’s formulation in this context also might well be its most important limitation: by emphasizing discursive continuities between the two periods, we risk collapsing significant material differences between the two imperial regimes. Although both forms of imperialism rely on what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” the two are discontinuous in terms of their economic and territorial objectives, and the military means by which they secure their dominance (144). Where the old imperialism was partially motivated by the economic impulse to extract natural resources from the periphery in order to industrialize the metropole and to create captive markets in the colonies, the new imperialism seeks to control access to oil in order to direct the global economy in the near future and to integrate national economies into the neo-liberal world order (Harvey 19). Where the old imperialism was constituted by the direct military seizure and political domination of territory by the colonial power, the new imperialism does not strive for direct territorial control of the entire country but instead asserts dominion over discrete pockets of territory for the establishment of military bases. Where in the old imperialism, naval supremacy was an important aspect of materializing geopolitical power, in the new imperialism the air forces are a crucial part of realizing geopolitical dominance. This latter distinction perhaps accounts for the heavy toll that modern warfare takes on civilians. Eighty percent of the casualties of modern warfare, according to Amnesty International, are civilian, a fact obscured by the use of terms such as “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes” which imply the precise elimination of military targets with minimum “collateral damage” (29).

[13] Recognizing the differences between the old and new imperialisms enables us to explore the U.S.’s geostrategic and economic aims in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. The Bush administration’s ideological justification of the invasion as a rescue mission for Afghan women aside, there appear to be three objectives in U.S. foreign policy. The administration hoped to stabilize this region and check the growth of Islamic militancy in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Another objective is the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia to further erode the influence of Russia in the region and to curb the potential challenge of a strong China. And the final objective seems to be that the U.S. is attempting to secure control over the access to considerable oil and gas reserves in Central Asia, energy reserves that are crucial to the growing economies of Asia in the next fifty years.

[14] The use of Spivak’s paradigm in the context of Afghanistan has a second limitation insofar as it constructs the United States in racially monolithic terms and the U.S. military as a masculine institution under the sign of “white men.” Although “whites” constitute the majority population of the U.S. by a large margin, comprising about 74.1% of the total population, the other 25.9% of the population consists of “Black and African American,” “American Indian and Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” and biracial individuals (Census Fact Sheet). (The U.S. Census, along with the U.S. Department of Defense asks respondents a separate question regarding their “Hispanic” identity; according to the Census, 14.7% of the general population identifies as Hispanic). With the exception of Asians and Hispanics who are under-represented in the armed services, these groups participate in the U.S. military at levels comparable to their numbers in the general population (Office of the Undersecretary of Defense). Spivak’s formulation, in this instance, obscures the racial complexity of the U.S. general population and the U.S. military, which also includes non-citizen enlistees from the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, India, and Germany among other countries (Wides). Moreover, it figures the military subject as male and elides women’s participation in the U.S. armed forces where they constitute about 20% of the services (Women in the US Military).

[15] A third limitation of Spivak’s paradigm is that it homogenizes important ethnic differences in Afghanistan under the signifier of the “brown subject,” differences that are crucial to understanding gender in the region. In Afghanistan, “ethnicity itself,” as Elaheh Rostami-Povey cautions, “is complex and variously defined by language, religion, descent, region and profession” (Afghan Women 4). Because Afghanistan has not had a systematic census in decades, precise demographic figures are unavailable; the CIA estimates the ethnic breakdown of the population to be: “Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%” with 4% of the population constituted by other ethnicities such as Kirghiz, Wakhi, Farsiwan, Nuristani, Brahui, Qizilbash, Kabuli, and Jat. Although Afghan women shoulder the burden of maintaining the family’s respectability and social standing by adhering to gender codes associated with shame and honor, the standards for acceptable female conduct and male attitudes toward the correct treatment of women vary widely among different ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups, such as the majority Pushtun, conform to traditional customary practices such as purdah (female seclusion) and veiling more strictly than other groups, though it is important to acknowledge that there are regional differences among them, with those in the southern provinces adhering to more conservative gender norms than the Pushtun in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan who tend to value female education (Rostami-Povey Afghan Women 23). Other ethnic groups have functioning canons that espouse equality, justice, and education, and encourage both men and women to engage in community service. The Hazara, for example, have traditionally encouraged girls to gain an education and women to pursue professional careers in teaching, healthcare, and the civil services (Schultheis). Differences regarding attitudes toward women among ethnic groups are further complicated by the diverse interpretation of women’s rights among reformists, Islamicists, and ultraconservatives.

[16] The Bush administration’s cynical exploitation of the condition of Afghan women as a justification for military intervention also implicitly promoted a gendered version of American exceptionalism that posits American women as the paradigm of saved women, clothing them in the garb of rights-possessing subjects who enjoy a high-social status unprecedented in the world. In actuality, the U.S. ranks 106 in the United Nations’ Gender-Related Development Index as a percentage of the Human Development Index, behind Bahrain and Gambia, and it is sixty-eighth in terms of the life expectancy at birth of females, a standing on par with Bolivia and Fiji. While the academic feminist narrative of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan provides a valuable heuristic to criticize this form of American exceptionalism and to focus attention on the discursive continuities between different imperial regimes, it elides important material distinctions between the two imperial formations, constructs the U.S. as unambiguously “white” and male, and too easily racializes ethnicity in Afghanistan as “brown.”

The Beauty Parlor as an Iconic Site of Resistance

[17] Continually aired on CNN following 9/11, Saira Shah’s documentary Beneath the Veil helped establish beauty parlors as iconic sites of feminist resistance to the Taliban. A British journalist of Afghan origin, Shah journeys to the region to discover what life is like under the Taliban. The title of the documentary “Beneath the Veil” both references Shah’s literal donning of a burkha to gain an insider’s knowledge of the Taliban and acts as a metaphor for “Afghanistan’s veil of terror” against women. Her journey is at once “personal and perilous”: framed as a quest for paternal origins, Shah describes growing up hearing stories of her father’s homeland, “a place called Paghman,” comprised of “gardens and fountains, a kind of Eden” only to discover rubble and ruin where pleasure gardens once bloomed. In contrast to her father’s memories of a pre-lapsarian paradise, she finds destitute women and children, scenes of Taliban massacres and executions, girls traumatized by rape, derelict hospitals, and clandestine girls’ schools and beauty parlors.

[18] To her credit, Shah tries to present a complex view of Afghan women that acknowledges the extreme oppression of their circumstances by a theocratic state even as it emphasizes their agency. The documentary depicts women’s agency in collective terms, centered on the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose members transform the veil into a weapon against the Taliban by hiding cameras under their burkhas to shoot secret footage of executions and of women forced to beg for their livelihoods. Perhaps unavoidably, this footage also has an alienating effect on viewers. Shahira Fahmy writes of the ways in which media images of completely-covered Afghan women militate against the establishment of an affective relationship between the viewer and the photographic subjects in the absence of visible facial expressions (107). The RAWA footage, which is incorporated in Shah’s film, unintentionally creates a social distance between the viewer and Afghan women by positioning them as completely-shrouded, faceless victims of Taliban brutality. Other scenes in the documentary picture Afghan women more actively: marching in RAWA-organized demonstrations, teaching in underground schools, and operating secret beauty parlors.

[19] In spite of the range of resistance represented in the documentary, the beauty parlor clearly impresses Shah as the most radical form of defiance. Even though she identifies studying and teaching as the “riskiest activity” for women and girls, she proclaims the clandestine beauty parlor as “the most subversive place of all.”

Excluded from every part of society, but some women are still holding on to their dignity. I was led past overflowing sewers, through what were once luxury apartment blocks. My destination: the most subversive place of all. I have been invited to a secret beauty parlor. If they are caught, these women will be imprisoned, but they still paint the faces they can never show in public.

Shah’s designation of the beauty parlor as “the most subversive place” seems overblown for two reasons: first, beauty parlors enabled the economic empowerment of women at the individual rather than collective level; second, the major focus of resistance efforts by women’s groups and organizations such as the Women’s Association of Afghanistan in this period centered on operating underground schools for girls and women (Rostami-Povey Passive Victims 269). Rostami-Povey reveals that in Kabul itself, 2,000 girls and women “were awarded certificates for the skills they had acquired under the Taliban years in women’s secret schools” (Afghanistan 40). Immediately after Shah’s astonishing claim, the film cuts to a beautician explaining: “This is a form of resistance. We are defying the Taliban.” As footage of women’s blurred faces applying nail polish and lipstick is projected on the screen, Shah editorializes: “Women trying to keep life normal in a world gone completely mad. That was the image RAWA left me with.” The comparatively longer footage as well as the amount of commentary devoted in the documentary to the beauty parlor relative to the clandestine school renders it as the iconic site of feminist resistance to the Taliban. The visual image of women applying cosmetics together with Shah’s pronouncements on normative women’s activities in an insane world and her reference to RAWA reinforce the link between consuming beauty products and challenging the Taliban.

[20] I do not wish to be dismissive of the beauty parlor as an actual site for feminist resistance, but merely want to remark on the inordinate importance Shah assigns to it in comparison to other forms of collective and less class-based resistance such as the demonstration and the clandestine school represented in the film. As Paula Black notes, “The practices and discourses which intersect in the [beauty] salon are varied and complex” (2). In Afghanistan where many beauty salons are located in homes, they occupy a liminal area between the private and public spheres. Closed off from men and providing an intimate space for women to gather in the private sphere, the beauty parlor is shaped nevertheless by public forces in the wider world around it. Cynthia Enloe cautions against the assumption that feminized spaces such as beauty parlors are not political. “For many women, especially in a time of foreign military occupation, governmental flux, masculinized rivalries, and increasing sexual violence,” she writes, “a feminized space may be the most secure political place for them to trade analyses and strategies” (296). For instance, in the Nimo Beauty Salon in Iraq, women discuss the electoral strength and weakness of male clerics, the intentions of U.S. armed forces, abductions and assaults against women, and the escalation of lawlessness following the fall of Saddam Hussein (294). While it is a truism that beauty standards and practices encode attitudes related to gender, race and ethnicity, social identities, class, and citizenship, beauty parlors also provide the occasion for conversations about these topics among women, rendering such spaces into de facto political forums.

[21] At least one of the American beauticians, Debbie Turner, featured in Mermin’s Beauty Academy of Kabul admits being “especially struck by the footage of the Taliban executing women in Kabul’s Ghazi sports stadium” (Rodriguez 64). Beneath the Veil’s knitting together of images of victimized Afghan women with the beauty parlor as an iconic site of resistance crafted a receptive environment for the Bush administration’s gendered rationales for the U.S. intervention and, in turn, inspired American women to conceive of the beauty school as the means of salvation for Afghan women.

Face Cream Feminism: Beauty Without Borders and Afghan Women’s Empowerment

[22] The idea to open a beauty academy in Kabul originated in 2002 with Mary MacMakin, a long time resident of Afghanistan and founder of a vocational training program in cottage industries for Afghan war widows. MacMakin consulted with Terri Grauel, a beautician who had been hired by Vogue to style MacMakin’s hair for a photo shoot, and together they approached beauty industry officials for contributions to jumpstart the enterprise (Halbfinger). Paul Mitchell, Vogue, and Estée Lauder responded generously, giving beauty products and cash donations. Commenting on Vogue’s $25,000 donation to the project, editor in chief Anna Wintour identifies the goals of this venture: “The beauty industry is incredibly philanthropic. But here we could be helpful not only with financial support, but through teaching and with product. Through the school, we could not only help women in Afghanistan to look and feel better but also to give them employment” (qtd. by Halbfinger). The pedagogical mission of the beauty academy exports U.S. beauty practices and western commodities, thus cultivating a new market for beauty products, and also capitalist ideology that conjoins female appearance and economic uplift as empowerment for Afghan women.

[23] These efforts are given a humanitarian makeover in the venture’s name, Beauty Without Borders, which trades on the public’s awareness of the heroic efforts of Doctors Without Borders to provide medical aid in conflict zones and organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Architects Without Borders which contribute their professional expertise to social justice efforts around the world. The mission statement of Beauty Without Borders foregrounds the commercial aspects of the enterprise:

Our mission is to provide women in Afghanistan with access to a comprehensive educational program that teaches both the Art and Commerce of beauty. The program teaches women the skills needed to work in an array of beauty-related businesses: salons, distributorships, bookkeeping, and beauty education. Graduates of our program will learn the skills they need to create a brighter, self-reliant future for themselves and their families. We believe in helping Afghan women build a bridge from where they are not to where they want to go. The beauty industry provides an income for millions of people throughout the world and Afghanistan is no exception.

While the mission statement describes the commercial side of the venture in terms of production, distribution, and accounting, cosmetic industry executives elsewhere emphasize the consumption angle, suggesting that “the beauty school could not be judged a success if it did not create a demand for American cosmetics before too long” (Halbfinger). Such an assessment is underwritten by the assumption that U.S. beauty standards have a universal appeal and need not be adjusted or jettisoned for actually existing cosmetic tastes in other national contexts, an assumption that the white instructors of the Kabul beauty school project initially share.

Feminist Neo-Imperial Individualism’s Ugly Face

[24] Mermin’s skillful editing of The Beauty Academy of Kabulillustrates the political nature of the beauty parlor as a forum for women to share their experiences under patriarchy, and as a contested space where competing notions of beauty, gender, and women’s social roles often collide. The six Kabul Beauty Academy instructors are divided into three teams of beauticians that pair a white American teacher with an Afghan-American one, who also acts as a translator and teaches beauty techniques. Overseen by Patricia O’Connor, a British-born marketing consultant, each pair teaches a month of the three-month course, and then returns to the United States. The project itself is housed on the grounds of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Not surprisingly, the two groups of women exhibit varying degrees of knowledge and cultural sensitivity to their Afghan students. The white American instructors espouse a version of feminist neo-imperial individualism, an ideology that individuates Afghan women from their larger social networks, promotes feminism through capitalist enterprise, and projects America-style consumption as evidence of cultural modernity. In contrast, the Afghan-American instructors, who establish an immediate and moving rapport with their multi-generational students, at times seem nonplussed by their white American colleagues and frequently challenge the ethnocentric tendencies of the latter. The Afghan students mostly respond to their instructors’ ignorance of their situations with good cheer, exhibit amusement at the white American women’s “New Age” injunctions, and express a sophisticated understanding of gender as historically constructed.

[25] One of the earliest scenes of the documentary illustrates how the white American beauticians extract the Afghan female subject from her larger social milieu and figure her qua individualist. Standing in front of a handmade poster that has four bullet items, Grauel lectures the students about the importance of individual wellness. The poster reads:

1) Healthy Body & Mind
2) Rest and Relaxation
3) Enough sleep: 6-8 hours
4) Exercise: Look good, feel good, and work better

Her professional background as a Vogue stylist is telling insofar as the list echoes a familiar theme in many U.S. women’s magazines that routinely feature articles on individual wellness. These wellness regimes are predicated on middle and upper-class ideas about leisure and health, presupposing that readers can afford the time to exercise, meditate, and get enough sleep; yet these presuppositions are foreign to the realities of many overworked and underpaid American women and are equally alien to many women around the world. Grauel clearly has little knowledge of the quotidian experiences or cultural references of the Afghan women, who are represented throughout the film as embedded in family networks, and are juggling an unrelenting schedule of childcare, housework, beauty school, eldercare, along with responsibilities to their extended families, all of which leave little time for leisure of the sort envisioned in the individual wellness regime. As the students listen politely, Grauel earnestly cautions them that too much sleep “is a sign of depression” and that they might “want to speak to a professional” if they are getting too much rest. In a country where psychological services are not readily available and where cultural biases against counseling prevail, such advice at best exemplifies well-meaning naiveté.

[26] Grauel’s earnestness and manners help compensate for her lack of knowledge and render her more agreeable than her colleague, Sheila McGurk, whose overbearing personality and evangelical zeal for meditation also abstract the students from their social contexts. We first see her as she enters the school and announces, “I hope they’re ready for me. It’s going to be a little different!” After arranging the students in a circle, she begins imparting meditation techniques:

We all have so many things in our mind. We are so busy in our lives. It’s good to try to rest the mind for a few minutes so we can be very focused on the work we have today. So please breathe here, the center of the woman. In. Out. Simple. Close eyes. No talking. When you find your life very busy, very troubled take two minutes and practice the breathing and you will find that you will be more calm. And more important, you’ll be at peace with yourself because we are touching women all day. We are not just cutting their hair. We’re not just perming their hair. We are healing them. We’re making themselves feel better about themselves inside. You are going to play a very important role in healing this city.

In this soliloquy, humanitarian intervention becomes the beautifying mission. By increasing the self-esteem of individual Afghan women, McGurk maintains, beauticians provide an important form of spiritual aid which will eventually “heal” Kabul. With eyes closed and her breathing deliberate, she models the technique while most of the students keep their eyes open, stifle their laughter, and sport ironic smiles at her instruction and example. That McGurk fails to comprehend the domestic challenges facing her students becomes apparent through Mermin’s editing in a later scene when one Afghan woman complains about her overly-aggressive husband and children, and the inordinate amount of cooking and cleaning demanded of her at home. McGurk blithely advises that “she should do a meditation before she goes in the door of her house.” How meditation will alleviate domestic abuse and exploitation she does not explain.

[27] The third white American stylist, Turner, expresses a version of feminist neo-imperial individualism less focused on individual well being and more on how her students’ cosmetic choices will have an impact on beauty trends in Afghanistan. Of the three beauticians, she most explicitly connects modernity to cosmetic consumption. With her short, spiky, bright red hair and colorful makeup, Turner literally embodies artifice and cosmetic consumption, practices that she urges on her Afghan students. She tells them:

I want to say something to you guys about being a hairdresser ok. There needs to be something special about you that makes you different than the woman who is the secretary or you know office worker. You can’t have fuzzy perms and bad hair color and bad haircuts. It is your job as hair dressers, the most progressive hair dressers in Afghanistan to set the new trend for new hairstyles, new hair color. It is your responsibility. You’re the first class. If you guys don’t do it how can Afghanistan change and get into a more modern type look? How will Afghanistan change if you guys don’t change?

Cosmetic consumption, according to Turner, helps individualize the women by making them “different” than other women in the public sphere. Skillful perms and good haircuts not only advertize the beautician’s professional talents, but they become harbingers of modernity and progress by heralding a New Look for Afghan women. Significantly, Turner establishes a connection between individual cosmetic consumption, agency, and the national good by asserting that Afghanistan’s national progress rests on the consumer behavior of individual Afghan women and their willingness to embrace hairstyling and cosmetic novelty. Whether the students accept Turner’s construction of progress and modernity seems doubtful. Several students spiritedly challenge her advice, pointing out that makeup can ruin skin, “mascara looks funny,” and they face familial prohibitions against using cosmetics.

[28] Though she describes herself in the settler colonial language of a “pioneer,” Turner, unlike her white American cohorts, is genuinely enchanted with Afghanistan and gains more cultural sensitivity to her students as the documentary progresses. The only one of the three white instructors to appreciate that the Afghan women do not like being gawked at by curious men through the large windows of the academy, she orders curtains to afford them privacy. Her instructions are countermanded by O’Connor, who seems irritated at Turner’s initiative, and who elsewhere in the documentary likens Afghanistan to “hell,” mentioning that after a week in the country she is “losing [her] mind.” Ironically, by the film’s end, Turner ignores her own prescriptions for adopting “modern” hairstyles and being part of the Afghan beauty vanguard. Either through feminist solidarity, some kind of Orientalist fantasy, or both, she undergoes an Afghan makeover. Acquiring an elaborate coiffure worthy of the Bollywood starlets who are so popular in the country, Turner attends the graduation ceremony of the academy in a dazzling gown that would not be out-of-place at a Kabul wedding.

Pedagogy, Afghan-American Style

[29] The documentary focuses less on the three Afghan-American instructors, Sima Calkin, Shaima Ali, and Anisa Azimi, than on their white counterparts, and Azimi barely figures in the film. Nonetheless, it is evident that they have a different pedagogical approach than the others, forgoing the smug sermonizing and impersonal teaching style in favor of establishing affective and personal ties with their students based on a shared understanding of Afghan culture and history. Mermin contextualizes Calkin’s past through footage of an extended family picnic in the remnants of the family compound outside Kabul and of her visit to her old school that, to her delight, she discovers has been reopened by the UN, which holds classes under tents as the building gets reconstructed. In several scenes, Calkin is represented brushing her students’ hair as she reminisces with them about her childhood in much the same way that a mother would to her daughter in a domestic scenario that will be familiar to many viewers from the region. She often refers to the students in kinship terms, noting that they could be her “daughters” or her “sisters.” And she frequently expresses respect for their enormous courage in staying in Afghanistan during the civil war and under the Taliban instead of going into exile as she herself did. In the scene prior to her departure, Calkin wipes away tears as she tells her students, “You have a special place in my heart because my first time [back] in Afghanistan was spent with all of you.”

[30] Like Calkin, Ali has spent a considerable amount of time in exile in the U.S. Although both women understand the beauty academy to be a means of economic empowerment for Afghan women, neither expresses feminist neo-imperial individualism in the terms established by their white colleagues. Rather they perceive their work as part of a larger project of nation building: beauticians can contribute to the rebuilding of the country, but they do not occupy a privileged status as the feminist vanguard nor do beauty practices constitute the best signifier of women’s emancipation. Neither stylists nor beauty practices are even mentioned by Ali in her address to the students.

I was one month pregnant when my husband was killed. I asked to see the body to confirm that it was him but the government wouldn’t open the grave. Now it’s been twenty-three years. Whenever there was anything on the news about fighting in Afghanistan, I would search for his face. Life goes on. Truthfully, I never wanted to see Afghanistan again because all I left here was unhappiness. But we have to have persistence. This country is ruined, and if we don’t fix it, no one will. The foreigners will come and go, for better or worse, for their profit or loss. You’re a sacrificial generation. We sacrifice ourselves so that our children can have better lives. And hopefully they will.

Given the large percentage of Afghan widows in the general population, Ali’s experience is not unusual and would be familiar to her students. (According to Carol Riphenburg one source estimates that there are 40,000 widows in Kabul itself). As she speaks, tears stream down several of their faces and others listen gravely. Although she emigrated to the U.S. after her husband’s murder, her professional itinerary is similar to many of her students. Before the civil war, Ali worked for Planned Parenthood in Afghanistan and later became a hairdresser to support her two daughters (Gross). Similarly, many professional Afghan women, including doctors, teachers, and civil servants, made a career shift and began to operate clandestine salons out of their homes to supplement their family incomes after being pushed out of the workplace by the Taliban (Pearlman 2). The first class of the Kabul Academy was selected on the basis of its experience working in the beauty industry: several women operated clandestine parlors during the Taliban regime and at least one of the students admits that her earlier professional dreams consisted of becoming a doctor. The shared experiences among the women is evidenced in Ali’s pronoun usage: the first person plural “we” supplants her use of the first person singular “I” in the course of her narrative, underscoring her close identification with the students and her recognition that nation building is a collective endeavor.

[31] All three of the Afghan-American instructors act as cultural translators and attempt to educate their white American colleagues about differential beauty norms and about the limits of appropriate social address. In an early scene, Calkin responds to Grauel’s complaints that the students favor small, tight perms over the looser, wavier look popular in the U.S. She explains that “everyone uses small curlers because everyone wants their perm to be real tight and to last a year,” presumably alluding to how the cost of such services in relation to discretionary income affects the frequency of getting permanents. When Grauel persists in arguing for American-style perms, Calkin impatiently interrupts her by asking, “Did you hear what they said? There’s a saying that someone who’s riding a horse doesn’t know how the guy who’s walking feels.” In another scene, Azimi flatly refuses to translate Turner’s scolding of her students for their reluctance to embrace a more “modern” look. “You know what?” Turner says, “You’re stuck in a rut guys. You’re stuck in a hole of the past that you can’t get out and my God before I leave you’re getting out of the hole!” With quiet dignity, Azimi states: “No, I won’t say that.” Her refusal is a subtle rebuke, implying that Turner has exceeded the limits of acceptable decorum.

[32] Such moments of cultural discord provide teaching opportunities for the Afghan-American women to instruct the white Americans about indigenous social and aesthetic norms. At the same time, they highlight the ideological and pedagogical differences between the two groups of women; where the white Americans are guided by feminist neo-imperial individualism, the Afghan-American women’s interactions with their students are based on an empathetic understanding of Afghan realities and a genuine respect for what their students have endured over decades of political instability and violence.

Home Beauty Salons and the Private Public Sphere

[33] Including footage of three home beauty salons, the documentary’s juxtaposition of the beauty academy and the home salons enables viewers to evaluate the significance of the physical differences between these spaces and to appreciate the political nature of the home salons. Footage of the home parlors shows the large gap between the beauty school curriculum and the material realities of the Afghan women’s working conditions. Much of the Kabul Beauty Academy curriculum involves techniques that require electricity and running water such as blow-drying hair and giving shampoos, two amenities that the home salons generally lack (Pearlman). The physical contrast between the beauty school and the home salons also embodies differences in beauty standards: where the beauty school features a picture of Greta Garbo, in all her understated elegance, and a few other white women, the home salons display pictures of glamorous Afghan, Iranian, and South Asian women and a few Bollywood posters for films like Dil to Pagal Hai(The Heart is Crazy) and Gangaajal (Ganges Water). The pictorial contrast demonstrates different attitudes towards makeup use between Afghan and American women with the former preferring stylized make-up over the natural look popular with the American beauticians, Turner notwithstanding. In addition to illustrating different attitudes towards makeup use, the footage in the home salons acts as a reminder that Afghan women have longstanding beauty practices of their own; for instance, several girls request “boy cuts,” a staple haircut in the region, and the preferred method for removing facial hair is threading.

[34] Although the beauty school is the site of contestations over cultural understandings of gender roles and beauty practices between the instructors and students, very few of the scenes shot in the school, apart from Ali’s speech, are explicitly related to formal politics. Revelations of the Afghan women’s experiences under the Taliban, however, are narrated by the students in their homes, either inside or near their home beauty parlors. Sitting in the joint-family courtyard outside her home salon, one student, the daughter of a doctor, describes her background:

I was born in Kabul. Life was good. When the fighting started and houses were bombed, life got worse. Three months after the Taliban came, I got married and went to Pakistan. When the Taliban left we came back, along with America… We’re happy the Americans took Afghanistan and the Taliban left. We couldn’t wear nail polish. We had to wear socks. I saw them cut off hands. And feet. I saw three women in burkhas doused with gasoline and set on fire. I think we’ve done enough [of the interview]. Enough.

The horror of her memories seems to overcome the Afghan woman and she terminates the interview with a smile that is at once polite, firm, and sorrowful. Another student, filmed in her sitting room, explains how women would seek their services: “Under the Taliban, women would get their hair and makeup done and wear their burkhas. They would cover their faces and hide. Our work would be ruined.” Her daughter interjects: “We’d get scared whenever a man knocked at the door and said he was a Talib. Usually, he’d just be bringing his wife in for a perm.” “Yes,” her mother agrees, “they’d just get their hair done. Yes, of course, they did. But secretly, without the men knowing.”

[35] Earlier I mentioned that the Afghan women, unlike the American women, understand gender as historically contingent and recognize that the rights espoused by their instructors are not easily imported into Afghanistan. In response to Turner’s exhortations for change, for example, one student retorts: “In your country there’s no fighting. You don’t worry. You can talk back to your husbands. Women in Afghanistan aren’t free like that. If we talk back twice we’re thrown out of the house.” Significantly, her comments regarding the relative lack of freedoms accorded to Afghan women are prefaced with the observation regarding the absence of war in the United States, implying that dissimilar political circumstances can account for the different status of women in these countries. Another student, interviewed in her home salon, responds to McGurk’s vapid and quintessentially American query about “where she sees herself in two years?” by noting, “No one can say what will happen because the Taliban still exist. There is still some fighting. Everyone is wondering when we can be sure that it’s peaceful. When will we truly be at peace….” McGurk lapses into silence and seems depressed at the response, not realizing that her question itself smoothes over the shaky foundation of the U.S. occupation, the shadows of the Taliban, and the wrinkles of corruption that characterize Hamid Karzai’s administration.

[36] Mermin’s skillful editing represents the home beauty parlors as highly-politicized spaces relative to the beauty school. One effect of this representation is to undo the opposition between public and private spheres by showing how the home is informed by public events and political forces, rendering it a private public sphere. The footage of the home salons also deconstructs the Kabul Beauty Academy’s imperial pedagogy by making visible Afghan beauty practices and the gap between the beauty curriculum and actually existing Afghan cosmetic and hairstyling traditions.


[37] An evaluation of the efforts of the Kabul Beauty Academy leads to a mixed verdict. To be sure, the graduates of the program realize a substantial increase in their income; one student reports that while her husband earns 1,700 Afghanis a month, she can make 3,000 Afghanis from a single bridal client alone. As women’s earning power increases, they often gain a higher status in the family, though this might not translate into any reduction in women’s household responsibilities and domestic workload. But whatever advantages accrue to the overall improvement of the condition of Afghan women in society at large through this venture, they are dependent on individual entrepreneurs. While it is difficult to press against the claim that women’s economic empowerment benefits society as a whole, the social value which accumulates from women taking up other professions such as those in healthcare, engineering, the civil services, and teaching is much greater insofar as these professions aid people and contribute to Afghanistan’s infrastructure.

[38] In spite of the documentary’s subtle critique of the Kabul beauty school, an informal survey of the postings on the Internet Movie Database indicates that most viewers consider the American beauticians’ efforts to be a positive development and admire the efforts of the instructors. One viewer gushes: “This film was a real surprise with its stunning digital photography and a really important self-esteem message. These women really do benefit from being beautiful, even if it is UNDER the burka.” Another viewer remarks on the superior attitude of the American beauticians, but applauds their efforts: “Some American women seemed slightly condescending to their Afghan students, but the filmmakers seemed sort of condescending to the Americans, who after all, were hairdressers, not sociologists, and who were spending their time and money, not to mention risking their lives to bring a little normalcy back to a country that hasn’t been ‘normal’ for a very long time.” After cringing at the scene of “the hippy-dippy woman in John Lennon glasses telling an Afghan woman she needs to meditate and practice deep breathing before going home to slave for her strict, demanding husband and in-laws,” a third reviewer concludes, “Even so, I admired the instructors for taking on this project and bringing so much obvious joy to women whose lives seem to have held so little; and admired the students even more for their dogged determination to complete the training despite the demands of family and the lack of such seemingly ordinary things as driver’s licenses.” Several other reviews understand the beauticians’ mission as an arm of U.S. foreign policy and humanitarian intervention. A fourth reviewer comments, “compared to bombs and guns, it is refreshing to witness U.S. attacks employing more benign weapons like hair curlers and eyeliner.” Whereas this reviewer uses the trope of weapons to characterize the professional tools of the trade, another enlists the more positive image of a peace-keeping mission. The film, s/he observes, “presents a story about building bridges between cultures and introducing peace to a war torn country with something as basic as scissors and a make-up brush.”

[39] Together these reviews illustrate that The Beauty Academy of Kabul is what Gillian Whitlock terms a “soft weapon.” In her insightful analysis of life narratives, Whitlock explains that life narratives can both “personalize and humanize categories of people whose experiences are frequently unseen and unheard” and can be “easily co-opted into propaganda.” She issues the important reminder that propaganda in modern, democratic societies is “a careful manipulation of opinion and emotion in the public sphere and a management of information in the engineering of consent” rather than “a violent and coercive imposition of ideas” (3). Although Mermin sought to challenge the Bush administration’s rationales for the invasion, the reception of her documentary indicates that this critical aspect of the film is lost on viewers, who are more apt to conclude that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, whether enacted by the military or materialized through mascara, are having a positive impact and helping to uplift Afghan women. These reviews testify to the resilience and ideological strength of neo-liberal empowerment narratives for women which have become entangled in the post 9/11 discourses of the U.S. national security state.

[40] Since the release of the film, the beauty academy has closed. Turner assumed charge of the venture, and moved its location to a building in her home compound. She describes her experiences in a “memoir,” Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, published under the name of Deborah Rodriguez. Receiving an $80,000 advance from Random House for the memoir, which Columbia Pictures also optioned, Turner embarked on a tour in the U.S. to publicize her book. The memoir has generated controversy among Turner’s fellow instructors, who accuse her of magnifying her role in the venture and sensationalizing her experiences (Ellin). More troubling are charges by her students that the book has endangered their lives. Though the book has not been published in Afghanistan, portions of interviews with Turner have aired on Afghan television and pictures of the women in the salon without head scarves have circulated in the country. The beauty academy received threatening phone calls and a visit from two women in an unmarked car with armed guards who ominously admonished the women for “maligning Afghan culture” (“Subjects of Kabul School”). Shortly after the end of her book tour, Turner, to her students’ bewilderment, abruptly left Afghanistan and announced her intention of not returning. Thousands of dollars in debt for rent, the school eventually closed and several of the women are now leaving Afghanistan with their families out of fear for their safety.

[41] It is difficult to avoid reading the ignoble demise of the Kabul Beauty Academy as a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan. With a great deal of fanfare, good intentions, and little actual knowledge of the local culture in spite of decades of meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, American soldiers and experts descended on Afghan soil. How long and deep the U.S. commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan proves to be, and with what consequences for Afghans, remains to be seen. Given the ephemeral nature of the beauty school’s tenure, Ali’s observation in the film is remarkably prescient: “This country is ruined, and if we don’t fix it, no one will. The foreigners will come and go, for better or worse, for their profit or loss.” We know that the condition of Afghan women outside urban pockets of the country has not improved considerably under the American occupation. The most recent United Nations’ Human Development Index [HDI] in 2007, which scores countries based on their literacy rates, life expectancy at birth, and standard of living, places Afghanistan at 174 out of 178 countries surveyed. According to the HDI, only 12% of Afghan women are literate, and they still have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world (IRIN). Amnesty International reports alarmingly that “Afghan women and girls still face widespread discrimination from all segments of society, domestic violence, abduction and rape by armed individuals, trafficking, forced marriages, including ever younger child marriages, and being traded in settlement of disputes and debts” (AI, Afghanistan: Women Human Rights Defenders). The recent passage of the Shia Personal Status Law, in March 2009, has the potential to further erode the condition of women by its tacit acceptance of child marriage, the bestowal of the guardianship of children to fathers and grandfathers, the requirement that women dress up, wear make up, or have sex on their husbands’ demand, and the necessity that women secure their spouses’ permission to leave their homes (UN Report of the Secretary General). Such indicators wash away the cosmetic cover up for occupation embodied in the justification of U.S. intervention as a rescue mission for Afghan women.


I am grateful to Laila Amine, Patrick Brantlinger, Denise Cruz, Anne Delgado, Karen Dillon, Tanisha Ford, Ann Kibbey, Karma Lochrie, and Radhika Parameswaran, and the two anonymous reviewers from Genders for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay. All errors are, of course, mine.

Works Cited