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Opening Afghan Eyes With Beauty Classes

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For Afghan women, going out still usually involves little more than throwing on a burka before leaving the house. But two American "beauticians without borders" are introducing Afghans to Western-style ideas of womanhood by teaching them the finer points of applying lipstick.

About 25 students have been chosen for an eight-month beautician course by Debbie Rodriguez and Patricia O'Connor, who were dismayed by the beauty regimen of local women — and wanted to help widows and uneducated young women who have no other means of earning a living.

The million-dollar program, funded by major cosmetic companies, including Revlon, L'Oreal and Clairol, proved so popular last year that it has been continued. This year, 400 women applied.

"This educates the women…. We teach them to operate their own business," said Rodriguez, a Michigan native. "And women here love makeup. All you have to do is go to a wedding to see that."

Rodriguez dismissed concerns that the cosmetics firms are using the school to create a market in Afghanistan for their products. "First of all, when people here are making $30 a month — how can they afford a $25 lipstick?" she said. "If they could afford it, that would be the best thing that could happen."

Beauty salons have proliferated since the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and are thriving in this capital. For women, who were not allowed to leave their homes or get an education during the repressive years, opening a beauty parlor is one of the few ways they can earn money.

Beauticians can make $160 a month — three times the national average and, in most cases, more than their husbands. In the weeks after the Taliban fled, there were only about five beauty salons in Kabul. Now there are hundreds.

Soraya Nawabi, 40, a mother of six, said she looked forward to taking the course. "We can have an independent life and help our families," she said. "Women can become businessmen."

The salons are socially acceptable because the women do not have to come in contact with men, a major reason most husbands refuse to allow their wives to work.

Afghan culture is caught up in a struggle between Westernization and traditionalism. When Vida Samadzai, who had attended Cal State Fullerton, walked onstage wearing a bikini as Afghanistan's representative in last year's Miss Earth pageant in Manila, she provoked outrage. Clerics threatened to have her arrested if she set foot in Afghanistan again.

Last year, Trina Ahmedi, 25, won the Anna Wintour Award — named for the Vogue magazine editor — as top student in her graduating class of the beautician program. She said the class was not always well received by Afghans uneasy over the Westernization of their culture.

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