Monday, November 16, 2009

The hidden beauty parlour of Helmand

Make-up and fashion have become a form of resistance for many women in Afghanistan. Katrina Manson reports from Lashkar Gah.

Pamela Anderson and Afghanistan's most dangerous, conservative province might not at first glance seem to have much in common. But step into a busy, cramped room in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, and there she is: blonde locks, wide darkly made-up eyes, and petulant pink lips smiling down from a large mirror.

The crinkly laminated poster of the Playboy model's face is not the only surprise in a room filled with hairspray, fake eyelashes and lipsticks. For this is a hidden beauty parlour in a land where women appear in public only when shrouded in full-length burkhas that obscure even their eyes. Tucked into a private home down a dusty dead-end alley, women are indulging in playing at dressing-up in the province in which the fight against the Taliban rages and where more than 90 British troops have lost their lives since the start of the Afghan war in 2001.

It's the night before Roya's wedding, a white dress hangs on the wall, and she is leaning back. Wearing light, flowing fabrics of red, blue, gold and purple dotted with sequins, three more giggling women pack into the parlour. With a rapid, practised hand, beauty therapist Malika spreads lashings of gaudy, garish bright blue eye-shadow over Roya's eyelids before painting a thick goo of glitzy red lipstick on her parted mouth. "It's a form of personal resistance," says a justice expert at the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), "and they're doing it with and for each other."

utside is the gritty Afghan reality familiar in the West from the coverage of the war. In the hot and dusty streets, bearded labourers pour concrete into ditches, auto-rickshaws painted with love hearts weave and swerve through a town which was planned by the Americans in the 1950s as a suburban "Little America" in Afghanistan. Amid the shopping stalls and mobile fruit-carts, men sit smoking and chatting as they drink green tea on the pavements, breaking off for the odd bit of trade.

Women are not allowed to run their own shops in the bazaar, the main shopping area, or to shake hands with men. Indeed, they rarely leave their homes. "Although we'd like to, we're not allowed to have this shop outside," explains Malika, "because it would not be safe and in any case our family would not allow it. But we like to wear colourful clothes and we love different colours – in fact, we'd like more make-up and more colours." Her tiny home-based boutique, one of three in the battle-hardened town whose name means "army barracks", makes 5,000 Afghanis (£60) profit a month.

For the full story click here for the Independent website

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