Behind the Veil
By Troy Headrick
As soon as I stumbled upon the name "Deborah Rodriguez" on the Internet, I just knew I had to write something about the woman it belonged to. Writing that first sentence, though, brings up an interesting (and perhaps troubling) point about me. Why had it taken me so long to come across her name in the first place?
After all, Deborah Rodriguez is quite famous. Her book, Kabul Beauty School, ghostwritten by Kristin Ohlson--got to give credit to the real author even if she does seem to want to remain "veiled"--sold enough copies to make it to the renowned New York Times bestseller list and is slated to become a major motion picture, starring Sandra Bullock. The subject of the book and movie is Afghan women and culture, two subjects I'm deeply interested in. One would have thought that I would have heard of Debbie Rodriguez long before making my serendipitous discovery. I suppose this just goes to show how out of it I can sometimes be. For those of you who haven't yet heard of Debbie or her book, I'll provide a little background.
In 2002, at the time of the founding of the beauty academy that would eventually become the famed Kabul Beauty School, Deborah Rodriguez was a hairdresser living in the upper-Midwest. In the summer of 2001, shortly before 9/11, she was feeling a bit "bored" with her life in the salon and was looking for a way to take a "vacation with purpose," meaning to combine holidaying with some sort of humanitarian work. Then the NYC Twin Tower attacks took place, and she got the opportunity to work with firefighters at ground zero. That experience whetted her appetite for such "holidays." So, in 2002, she joined a disaster relief team, consisting mostly of doctors and nurses, and flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she both helped the people of that war-torn country and garnered the strength to divorce her abusive husband who'd remained back in the States.
Eventually, Deborah was to discover that there was great need in Afghanistan for beauticians, and the Kabul Beauty School was created as a result. Though she has maintained that she was not the founder of the school and that she was only one of several women--some Afghan-Americans included--who assisted in getting the institution up and running, she did eventually become its director. At some point in her adventure, she was introduced to "Sam," a warlord with limited English skills. Following a courtship that would be considered unorthodox by American standards, she eventually married Sam (pictured here).
To make a long story short, Deborah ended up staying in Kabul for five years and becoming a successful businesswoman there. Her enterprises included the Kabul Beauty School, Oasis Salon, and Cabul Coffee House. Her book (which I have not yet read) chronicles her experiences in Afghanistan and offers insight into the culture and beauty practices of the women of that fascinating country.
After watching this video and hearing about Debbie and her book, I felt that we were kindred spirits, which is one of the reasons I was so determined to write this. Like her, I heard the "call," the need to involve myself in some form of humanitarian work outside the confines of the United States, which led me to join the Peace Corps. Similarly, I ended up spending a significant number of years living in the "Islamic world." I did not, however, marry a warrior--women, it seems to me, are, on the whole, too intelligent to go around playing with guns--but I did marry a village girl from southern Poland. I haven't yet written my book or made my fortune doing so, but the potential is definitely there. It's only a matter of time before that happens.
Most Americans, I think, have a pretty skewed view about women in the Islamic world. They would assume that anyone who would cover up with a burka or an abaya has to be as sexually drab as that curtain of clothing she has pulled around herself. As Deborah makes clear in the video I've embedded, nothing could be further from the truth.
I'm reminded of something I witnessed while living in Abu Dhabi, the ugly stepsister to the United Arab Emirates' more glamorous Dubai. One evening my then-Polish wife and I were out shopping and happened to wander into a boutique that specialized in selling really sexy lingerie. The shop was absolutely filled to the gills with Emirati women who were covered head to toe in black abayas. Some were even wearing matching gloves, so that their hands wouldn't be exposed to prying, male eyes. Anyway, as we moved among those concealed women, we noticed that they were purchasing large quantities of the most risqué merchandise the shop had to offer. The sorts of things they were hauling to the cash register had us doing double and triple takes. That lesson, along with several others, reminded me of something that I already knew but perhaps had forgotten given my present context: Never, ever judge a book (or a woman) by its cover (or her abaya).
By the way, if you’ve found this article interesting, I invite you to visit the SWM blog. New entries are posted weekly, every Monday. I’ll be seeing you there!
About the Author:
Troy Headrick is a writer, artist, and academician. He currently teaches writing courses at The American University in Cairo.