Monday, November 14, 2011

Beauty Without Borders

When I first read of a bomb on October 26 that injured 12 people at a cosmetics store in Peshawar, Pakistan, I didn’t think much of it. Rather, I thought of it as much as I think of any number of bombings one might read about in a day: Awful, I think to myself, perhaps briefly trying to picture what it is like to be doing your shopping and suddenly hear a bomb nearby. Depending on the severity of the injuries, the number of deaths, the profile of the area—or, more frankly, my mood—I may feel a shot of anything from anger to sadness. It is almost always fleeting.

But several days later, when the bombing came up again at Central Asia Online, that fleeting sadness stayed. Nobody was killed in the explosion, though the shop was destroyed, so at first glance it seemed odd that this bombing was getting attention beyond the perfunctory notice I’d read originally. The piece was the hook for a focus on the resilience of area shoppers and the growth of the Pakistan beauty industry, but what struck me was what never was explicitly written but what was implied with this sentence: “This is the first time that a cosmetics shop has been targeted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where CD shops have frequently been targeted by militants who consider music to be in opposition to their version of Islam.” In other words, the store was not targeted because it was a store in a busy market. It was targeted because it sold makeup.

There’s much to say about Islam and makeup (Nahida at The Fatal Feminist writes frequently and fluently on the topic), but beyond pointing out that this is the work of extremists who happen to be Muslim, not the dictates of Islam, that’s not really what I’m getting at here. What I am getting at is this: It is very easy for western feminists to pit beauty talk and body politics in opposition to women’s issues that are literally life-and-death. Reproductive rights, sure, but also issues affecting women of the Middle East and Central Asia—girls’ education, extraordinary violence against women, honor killings, divorce and marriage laws that strip women of power, etc. Even once beauty and appearance became legitimized as a feminist issue in the west, it’s still often taken seriously only when coupled with the idea that the beauty myth is designed to replace eroding patriarchal structures so that women will stay in our place. What’s not necessarily taken as seriously is the idea that women who are at risk for the honor killings we rightfully prioritize as more important than our western beauty talk might want to wear eyeshadow too. And if the bombing of October 26 becomes a trend, they could pay with their lives.

To talk of beauty is to talk of women’s lives. Appearance is a brush stroke even in the lives of women whose challenges are greater than I could ever imagine from my middle-class American perch; remember, Anne Frank packed curlers. If we do not pay attention to those brush strokes, at best we may miss out on details that illuminate truths of the lives we believe we’re trying to make better. At worst, we overlook the fact that something as simple as going to a cosmetics shop in a Peshawar bazaar can be dangerous, but that women will do it anyway, because those brush strokes matter.

I’m wary of saying too much here, because I haven’t talked to women living in highly unstable countries about beauty, and I don’t want to either try to speak for them or assume that I know better. Especially because in one of the higher-profile acknowledgments that women in politically shaky environments still care about beauty reflected exactly that. In the 2004 documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul, we trail the first graduating class of Beauty Without Borders, a now-defunct cosmetology school run by Americans who were training Afghan women to be hairstylists and makeup artists. There’s since been plenty of controversy over the school; one of the instructors, Debbie Rodriguez, published a memoir that other instructors claim misrepresented both the school and her role in it. Far worse was the retaliation that came to some of the students after the book was released; though all names were changed, Rodriguez writes of various acts the local women engaged in, and recounts how she helped a student fake her virginity for her wedding night. At least two of the women were forced to flee the country.

The fallout from the book is tragic, but it doesn’t make me wince like I did when hearing one of the instructors say to the students of their donated beauty toolkits: "Some of you are getting frustrated with your scissors. Frédéric Fekkai actually donated these scissors, and they’re very good scissors. They are much much better than what you’ve been using," as if what makes a pair of shears "good" is who donated it, not how the user experiences it. At another point, we see a fired-up Rodriguez attempt to rally the students—who have just explained that they don’t wear makeup every day because they believe it will ruin their skin—by saying she’s going to take them out of their “rut” because they’re in a “hole.” The translator looks at her with dismay, silently refusing to translate the words, though it was probably too late to not have the message come across clearly: You poor, poor women. Let us, with our Frédéric Fekkai scissors, help you. Only Sheila McGurk, a Virginia-based instructor who gently questions what the students mean when they say they’re “having trouble” with their husbands, seems to grasp that she can’t apply her ideas of western liberation to the women she’s teaching to cut hair, even as she seems humbly unsure of what ideas she can apply. And what she comes up with may be a shade naive, but as someone who has gotten teary in the hairstylist's chair, I know there's truth in it: “You’re not just cutting their hair,” McGurk advises her students of their future clients. “You’re healing them, inside.”

The documentary—which is definitely worth a viewing, and which is streaming on Netflix—is at its best when we get to hear from the students, most of whom already have years of experience under their belt. We meet Hanifa, who operates a salon out of the one room allotted to her family, separating the work space from the living quarters with curtains. In the same breath in which she mentions not being able to wear nail polish under the Taliban, she talks of witnessing the Taliban cut off people’s hands and feet. Fauzia, another hairdresser operating out of her home, was ordered by her husband not to stop styling hair, but to never mention it to him—presumably because the less he knew, the less risk the family shouldered for her illegal work. Nasifa talks of the fear she’d feel whenever a Talib knocked on her door—yet every time she’d open the door, there was an officer requesting services for his wife. Other Taliban wives didn’t have husbands who were so permissive; they’d come in and get their hair done but not their makeup, as makeup left telltale traces more readily than a coif.

The most telling moment involves—what else?—the burqa. As Nasifa tells us of the hair and makeup work she did on clients that had to be covered up, her expression told me more than the subtitles could. She appeared indignant that her handiwork had been deemed illegal for years, remaining unseen; finally, I thought to myself, her work could be seen in public, garnering her client referrals, not to mention the pride of seeing her clients walk out of her home with their heads held high. Her actual concern hadn’t occurred to me, its subtitle coming as a reminder of how easily we can get it wrong: “Our work would be ruined.” It wasn’t the lack of visibility of her work that was troublesome; it was that the quality of it was eroded the minute the fabric of the burqa flattened the hair, smeared the makeup. The pride wasn’t in having the work seen by the public; it was in having it done right.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t think we should be aiming to up beauty talk within international discourse on women’s health and basic quality of life. American feminists couldn’t really tackle the beauty question until after we’d tackled, oh, voting, and unfair financial and divorce laws, and statutes saying it was okay for a man to rape his wife because, hey, that’s what marriage is. And we still have so far to go, but appearance now has a loud place in the national feminist conversation. I’m thankful for that, and I also recognize that it’s a goddamn luxury. But just because it’s a luxury for us to talk about appearance as a feminist issue doesn’t mean that the topic doesn’t have a valid role in the lives of women whose gender-related challenges are greater than I could imagine—or that it doesn't have a valid role in our work as feminists concerned about international issues. We talk of acid-throwing, bride-burning, honor killings: horrific acts that the international community must prioritize. The woman walking into a market in Peshawar to buy some hair oil is a part of the conversation too.


  1. that book is fantastic. I adore it. It's one of the best books I've ever read.

  2. Great post. I wish I had something more to add but I hadn't even heard of Beauty Without Borders or any of this before now. I found some articles, though, and I'm going to read some more.

    It's good to remember that just because I experience, say, make-up one way (aka this sometimes fun, sometimes annoying thing I feel obligated to do), it doesn't mean it is experience the same way by women all over the world. I know that sounds obvious and kind of duh, but I feel like a lot of U.S. feminists forget this.

  3. Well thought out, and well said. Thanks.

  4. Sascha, reading about Rodriguez as such a colorful personality made me curious--perhaps I'll do the same.

    Caitlin, it's something that's easy to forget. The first time I ever really investigated this (a piece in my college magazine) I had it all planned out at this sort of space of resentment, and lo and behold not everyone felt that way!

    Marsha, thank you!