My mother, age 91, has had a standing appointment at her neighborhood beauty shop for as long as I can remember. She prefers a golden rinse. Her fingernails reflect a pink enamel that matches the blush on her cheeks. Red lipstick brings out her smile.
She doesn't have many visitors, but she likes looking pretty in the mirror: "The pampering lifts my spirits." My mother is a traditionalist in fashion and manners, but if she lived in Afghanistan, she would be a radical. Going to the beauty shop under the Taliban would be punishable by a severe beating, probably even at her advanced age. Even now a shampoo and a set in Kabul or Kandahar is an act of courage.
An early marker for freedom in Afghanistan is the return of the beauty shop. Curlers, perms, that special mousse and hair spray are not the universal symbols of liberation, and among the radical feminists in America, they were, in fact, once perverse symbols of female "enslavement." But where you stand always depends on whether you're sitting, even if under a hair dryer.
Under the Taliban, women gathered in secret in an underground (literally and figuratively) beauty shop in a basement apartment in a squalid section of Kabul. They gathered to gossip about fashion and cosmetics amid baskets of nail polish and carved hair curlers, making themselves attractive even though they walked home praying that whatever beauty was hidden beneath their burqas wouldn't be discovered.
"During the Taliban period, we had to be fashionable," Mehooba, a 41-year-old beautician with one name, tells Julian West in The Washington Times. "Even though we weren't seen, it was important to us. It helped keep our spirits alive."
Mehooba, who was trained as a beautician in Moscow, has taken her beauty parlor public since the Taliban left Kabul, but her operation is still considered a bit subversive. A Northern Alliance soldier and a cop (known as a former informer for the Taliban) knocked on her door the other day to ask her what foreign women were doing there.
Mehooba's customers still come and go shrouded in chadors, hoping to make no impression on the men they pass on the street. Women remain the usual suspects. Although some women now wear high heels, and a man can sometimes get a glimpse of shocking stocking beneath the chador, no woman would dare walk through the streets exposing the tunics and trousers they sometimes wear underneath.
Some Afghan women dare to hope that there will be real change in their lives now that two women are included in the interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai. But they recall, eerily, that the Taliban once promised them protection, too, and then barred them from working and from beauty shops.
In the debate among Islamic scholars over why the Middle East,
which once flourished as an open civilization, has suffered such political and economic failures in modern times, the treatment of women emerges as a major factor. Not all Islamic women live lives as dreary as those in Afghanistan, but oppression has become a fact of Islamic existence in a variety of ways. Saudi Arabia boasts of new tolerance for women by letting them have their own I.D. cards.
Women outnumber men at the university, but they still aren't allowed to drive. If they go into business, men must front for them, and they can't meet a man alone. Feminists in Egypt, where a man can have up to four wives (although only 3 percent of the men actually do), protested the story line of a popular soap opera portraying a rich, balding shop owner who had women fighting to be the fourth wife. How cute.
"The relegation of women to an inferior position in Muslim society ... deprives the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people and entrusts the other half's crucial early years of upbringing to illiterate and downtrodden mothers," writes Bernard Lewis, Princeton University professor and Middle Eastern scholar, in the Atlantic Monthly. Feminists argue that men and women raised in such a misogynist culture are likely to grow up either arrogant or submissive, and hardly fitted for a life in a free, open society.
It's arguable how much of the ill treatment of women stems from an interpretation, or misinterpretation, of the Koran, but it hardly seems a coincidence that in Muslim countries women are denied even a shred of the freedom they enjoy in the West. How women are treated in the future in the Muslim world may well determine the future of those societies - and how much trouble those countries cause our own. The beauty shop is merely a first step to freedom, but it's an important one.