Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil (Review)

Book cover for "Kabul Beauty School" by Deborah Rodriguez.Title: Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

Author: Deborah Rodriguez (with Kristin Ohlson)

Narrator: Bernadette Dunne

Publication Year: 2007

Pages: 320 (audio length: 8 hours 58 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

Most Westerners working in Afghanistan spend their time tucked inside a military compound or embassy. Not Deborah Rodriguez. Here, she tells the story of the beauty school she founded in the middle of Kabul and of the vibrant women who were her students.

When Rodriguez opened the Kabul Beauty School, she not only empowered her students with a new sense of autonomy but also made some of the closest friends of her life. Woven through the book are the stories of her students: the newlywed who must fake her virginity; the 12-year-old sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts; and a woman who pursues her training despite her Taliban husband’s constant beatings. They all bring their stories to the beauty school, where, along with Rodriguez herself, they learn the art of perms, friendship, and freedom.

Before you read this book, you need to get past the title. (Or, rather, the subtitle.)

“An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil” implies that this will be yet another book where some Western woman (or man) goes into the Middle East – or another Islamic country – and tries to tell the stories of Muslim woman, or to reveal their plight, implying that the women themselves are unable to do so. And my problem with this title was what kept me from actually reading this book for so long.

To be honest, though, once I got past the title, I was really able to get into the book. Yes, the author has a bit of a saviour complex, but it wasn’t necessarily directed at Muslim women; rather, she originally gets into “disaster relief training” long before she heads to Afghanistan, indeed long before it was even a possibility in her mind.

Also, although the book is called Kabul Beauty School and is thus ostensibly about the beauty school that she opens to “help” Afghani women learn/re-learn trade skills and open/re-open their own salons, this is not the only focus of the book. No. Indeed, for me, the most interesting parts of Rodriguez’s narrative were about her personal struggles with bureaucracies, her husband (and ex-husband, separately), and the experiences she has living as a foreigner in Afghanistan. Yes, the stories about the women she helped through the beauty school were interesting, but to be honest, they were more run-of-the-mill for this type of a book and were the areas where she carried the most Saviour (TM) baggage.

There is definitely more to the story of Afghanistan than Rodriguez’s beauty school, but this is an interesting look at the lives of a number of women trying to make things work after the fall of the Taliban. Dunne’s narration is spot-on and draws you into the story, and the book itself is fascinating. Do pick up Kabul Beauty School and give it a try – as an audiobook or in a more traditional format would both do.


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