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NEW YORK — Afghanistan, a country whose government once outlawed women from showing any part of their body in public, is welcoming its first beauty school.
Scheduled to be renovated by the end of September, the beauty school — which still is searching for a name — looks to teach women a trade, as well as business-building skills, so they can create an industry in a land rife with poverty. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, the country had been stripped of much of its culture, which at one time celebrated freedom of expression through hair and makeup.
The school, which will measure approximately 1,400 square feet, is currently under construction at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, a building that since January 2002 has served as the headquarters for a variety of women’s learning programs, such as home economics and computer training.
The beauty school is a project headed by the Body & Soul Wellness Program, a joint collaboration between the U.S. beauty industry and the nonprofit charity group PARSA, which was founded by Mary MacMakin in 1996 and stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation in Support of Afghanistan.
Afghan-American women, who are also professional hair and makeup stylists, will travel to Afghanistan in the next several months to teach women there a three-month course on everything from makeup application to salon sanitation to ordering products. American beauty companies, such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal USA, Revlon and Intimate Brands are developing training curriculum, and are donating computers, distribution services, money and products so ultimately the school can operate autonomously.
According to Patricia O’Connor, one of Body & Soul’s founders, MacMakin believes in the philosophy of getting Afghan women in school and making them independent. “She’s no bleeding heart. She does not go for giving food; she’s more about the individual grassroots movement so people are not dependent on anyone except themselves,” O’Connor said. MacMakin, who resides in Afghanistan, was unavailable for comment.
Up until the fall of the Taliban last year, women in Afghanistan have had few choices in supporting themselves. Decades of war have left many women widows, and with the Taliban in power, women were forbidden to work, leaving begging and putting their young children to the streets to sell cigarettes as ways to raise money.
Shaima Ali, an African American woman who now runs her own beauty salon, Shaima Unisex, in Glendale, Queens, fled to the U.S. in 1982 after her husband was killed in the Russian/Afghanistan war. With a brother based in the U.S., Shaima was able to find a way to leave Afghanistan through Pakistan. She settled in New York and eventually looked for a job. Attending beauty school seemed appropriate — her aunt once operated an exclusive salon in Kabul, where as a child Ali worked as an assistant.
Ali will return to her homeland to train women there in beauty techniques so they can become independent like herself.
“I felt so little,” she said of her hairdressing trade. “I am not a teacher, not a doctor, not an engineer, and I wanted so very badly to help. But then I got a phone call saying that there was some way I could contribute. It was like God heard how much I wanted to do something for the women I see on TV, starving and struggling to survive.” Ali’s return to Afghanistan will be the first time in 20 years she has set foot on Afghanistan soil.
The call Ali received was from Terri Grauel, who along with O’Connor, founded Body & Soul in January 2002. Grauel, a beauty sessions stylist, and O’Connor, a marketing and business development consultant, connected through a mutual client who knew about PARSA’s charitable work in Afghanistan.
Grauel and O’Connor followed PARSA’s strict guidelines that teaching a trade was more helpful than simply donating money, so the two thought a beauty school would fit in well with Kabul’s bustling salon business.
Since the fall of the Taliban last year, as many as 60 beauty salons have opened in Kabul, according to Arzo Mansury, press secretary for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. The beauty industry, she said, is one area of business that women can operate independently without the interference of men.
“It is very poignant that maybe a week after the Taliban were removed, women started opening up makeshift salons. That showed how much they wanted to reclaim that part of their lives,” Mansury said.
Grauel, who returned from Kabul last week to oversee the school’s construction progress, said the swift return of salons doesn’t surprise her either. Beauty salons were a popular social-gathering place for women before they were shuttered.
“I could say that [in Kabul] every few blocks there was one or two salons,” Ali recalled. For weddings especially, salons drew hundreds of customers a day. “Our weddings are very high fashion, so you would book a salon for a day and the whole bridal party would get their hair done, as well as facials, manicures and waxing,” Ali added.
When Grauel was there she said weddings were held on a daily basis. Women seem to find the money for their hair and makeup, since it’s always been such a rich part of their culture. “They find a way to afford it. It is something that throughout the ages they have bartered for, with clothes or food,” Grauel said.
Despite the ever-watchful eye of the Taliban, many salons during the Nineties continued to operate underground, Grauel learned from PARSA’s MacMakin. The two met during a photo shoot Grauel was styling for Vogue magazine last year on an issue that featured women with power, that included an article on MacMakin.
“[Mary] explained how so many things were forbidden, and how women anyway were doing hair and makeup underground. Mary and I kept in touch, and after 9/11, I told her I wanted to come over and help out in any way that I could.”
Grauel noted that while it was more important that the current salons serve as a social-gathering place for women than as top-notch beauty centers, many that she visited smelled strongly of permanent solution — perms are the most popular Afghan hair treatment — and that many women were left with fried hair. Color treatments there also tended to yield orange-red results rather than auburn and golden highlights. The beauty school looks to change that.
To get the school off the ground, eight to 10 U.S.-based Afghan-beauty experts will be taught the 3-month curriculum, which has been developed by a number of American beauty companies. These women in turn will travel to Afghanistan and teach it to experienced salon owners there, who will pass their knowledge on to the next generation of students.
While the school will only cost between $150,000 and $250,000 to build, resources such as computers, products, visual aids and training supplies could cost in the millions of dollars. O’Connor pointed to Vogue magazine as Body & Soul’s voice to the beauty industry to raise these essential resources. In May, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour hosted a luncheon for executives from leading beauty companies to see they could help make the school a reality. Vogue’s beauty director, Sarah Brown, explained that Vogue’s role is more than making a one-time contribution and walking away, but instead a way the magazine can utilize its vast beauty resources.
“This is a real concrete way in which we can help empower women. PARSA is creating something from the ground up. It is exciting to build something that is going to last. This isn’t about making a one-time contribution and walking away. [PARSA] is building an academy that women can go to for years. It’s really about education and making an enormous difference in their lives,” Brown said.
So far, many beauty companies have come on board.
MAC cosmetics is developing the makeup artistry training curriculum for the school and has supplied the basic products to assist in its establishment. John Demsey, president of MAC, said the company “has always been about helping other people and inspiring women’s empowerment through creativity. By offering PARSA the knowledge and material to train their staff, we are helping develop freedom of expression and an industry in a culture where beauty and self-expression had historically been, but had been suppressed for many years.”
L’Oréal’s Matrix, which has the largest education team in the country, will translate existing curriculum to provide training for how to color hair and how to perform texturizing treatments. “We will also teach salon business-building skills, which is key to the success of the program,” said Kathleen Travers, a spokesperson for the company.
Revlon is dedicating all the nail-color and nail-care products for the school. Rochelle Udell, Revlon’s executive vice president, creative development and design, said: “Beauty is a very important expressive part of women’s lives. We feel very good about our contribution to PARSA and empowering women all over the world.”