Underneath the emerald green and gold cloth covering her like a burqa was the 18-year-old bride, excited, nervous and too shy to be seen by the men who came into the cramped beauty salon, usually the exclusive preserve of women, in Laskar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province. Sakinah was going to be married later that day and her dark hair was wrapped up in rollers in preparation for the elaborate hairstyle that Royah would do. Her make up was also resplendent, like the cloth, heavy and colorful against the desert background in one of the country's most conservative provinces.
In a tiny room at the front of a private low standing house you find one of the city's few beauty salons along ths strip. This is where Royah and her sister Rosiah have been doing women's hair for many years, a skill they learned from their mother, Anissah, who was taught by an American three decades ago. She is now the director of a daycare centre. It doesn't have a name but is known informally as the beauty salon of Anissahjan. The room has shiny posters of women with up-dos that have been preserved in time, styles too elaborate and old-fashioned but popular with women who either wear the all enveloping burqa or hide behind veils.
In front of the bride on a table sits a palette of brightly colored eye make up -- grass green, deep sea blue -- Royah will also make her up. She will be presented to her husband gift wrapped like a present. Traditionally she will leave her family and live with her future husband's clan. "The brides," says Royah, "bring in their own pictures of how they want to look, but most of the time she will create a style to suit the person, just like in Canada."
The idea originally was for Royah to do my hair, but the security situation remains tense and we only have a few minutes for our visit. Instead she sits me down in another chair and takes a flat plastic brush and drags it through my hair, thickened with the sand and dust that get caught in it. It usually takes and hour or 90 minutes to do bridal hair, with me it will be less than a couple of minutes. Price depends on how much you can afford. Sakinah will pay Af500, about US$10.00 to make her up, but the cost never exceeds Af1500.00, or the equivalent of US$30.00, a lot of money in a country where the average income is less than US$450.00.
Like women everywhere, hairdressers are often where the best gossip comes from, where you can catch up with friends and find out what is going on in the area. Royah and her sister have been working out of their house for 10 years, and they want to encourage other women to do it. They worked under the Taliban but tthe salon (as opposed to saloon as is so often written) was hidden.
Of the ten women in the room I am the only one without a head scarf. The men with me, one is translator, the other an American diplomat, invoke a cultural response and the girls hide their faces and the bride, who I caught a glimpse of, immediately put the large piece of fabric over her hiding everything except her feet and a bit of her dress. The vibrant colors stick out against the Helmandi background that is flat and mostly mud. The houses blend into the landscape. Driving through town the equally vibrant colors of vegetables and fruit, carrots, huge cauliflowers, pomegranates contrast the harsh environment where unemployment is high, and women are not often seen. Men, mostly, are busy in the city, children play on the streets and there is a notable amount of construction.
There are pockets of stability in the province and Lashkar Gah is one of them. The US Marines and the resident British infantry unit, the Queen's Company of the Grenadier Guards, went out on a mission nearby where a serious firefight went on with Taliban fighters.
One of the clients at the salon is Fowzea Olomi, director of women's affairs, who I have just interviewed in her cold spartan office not too far away. Like so many Afghan women she is talkative and forthright, strong and bouyant, not meek and mild, and she chastises me when I say that we think women in Helmand cannot leave their house. WInter has come to Afghanistan and she is wearing open toe shoes without socks. She has come to the beauty salon with us, her little grand-daughter in tow and she tells me that i am "absolutely wrong. Women do go out of the house in Lashkar Gah," says the former teacher and principal who taught Royah's mother.
Olomi studied science at Kabul University and returned to Helmand to work as a teacher. "In Lashkar Gah boys and girls go to school up until the 12th grade." Under the Taliban regime the school where she was a principal was closed and she went back home. "Was I supposed to sit quietly?" she asks. "Ask anyone in Lashkar Gah, they know me because I am a teacher," she says proudly. "Three hundred students came to my home and I taught them.
Surprisingly she taught three high ranking Talib families, including that of the governor.
They came looking for a teacher for their women and children, girls and boys. They never saw my face and I never saw the faces of the men, but the governor's daughter used to come to my house. I would teach them the holy Koran, writing and reading, tailoring and cooking, and the children wanted to learn English, so I taught them their ABCs. They used to respect teachers.
When the Karzai government took over he appointed her as the director, a job she has done for nine years. The annual budget only covers the salaries for the staff and fuel for cars, "and sometimes for stationary," she says. They have received financial assistance from non-governmental organizations and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the NATO-led reconstruction effort first established in Afghanistan in 2001.
Lashkar Gah is considered 'a bubble of modernity' by some, but only in comparison to the even more conservative districts outside. The situation for women is not so straight-forward by a long chalk. It depends on class, education, and so much else. "If a woman gets sick here she can go to a male doctor. In the far away districts it is a tough culture They have no female doctors so if a woman is sick there is not much she can do."
In their programs they have taught women the best way to clean their homes (it is either dusty or muddy and hygiene is a problem) and taught them the concept of composting so instead of buying vegetables they can grow them and sell them. They also teach women about correctly nourishing children -- Afghanistan used to have the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and many children are still malnourished -- and most importantly, she says, they advise them about not using drugs. Helmand is poppy central. Recently a woman's rights union was launched but the issues regarding women are still complex.
The Americans came in the fifties and amongst other things built the school she attended. "Of course there were American teachers who taught us English and physics. My old english teacher came back two years ago, Americans helped us a lot. There were lots of doctors and nurses and teachers. Look at the the girls' high school building, it's still working and in good condition 30 years later." Olomi makes a comparison to the building where her department is based. "There is so much corruption here that even after only a few years this building needs refurbishment as it was so badly done. The concrete floor has already been re-done two or three times."
My next stop is Musqa Radio, the first all female radio station set up by Sabawoon Radio, which was originally launched in 2003 with USAID funding. "There have been lots of changes in the media over these six years," says Mirwais Pasoon, the station's director and former journalist. Before the idea of an independent media didn't exist. "My aim in setting up Musqa Radio was to provide an opportunity for women to work and talk about things relevant to them". In the main radio station, Sabawoon, men and women journalists sit side by side.
"But there were stories that the main radio station couldn't cover because men could not go into houses where there were women. "Having female journalists means we can speak to the women." He hopes that the situation for women in Afghanistan will change and equal rights will come about.
Razia is one of Musqa Radio's employees. The recording studio is a room beside the main station, which has a small transmission box. When the power goes off, as it did when I was there, work stops. Outside two small pairs of shoes have been left by the door, and the girls, and they are teenagers, walk barefoot. Razia is tiny, dressed in a long brownish colored coat and matching pants, her head is covered, and she blushes when I ask if she would talk more openly about women's issues, whatever that encompasses, if there were no men. She says no, but I am quite sure that isn't the case.
She has been working at the station for almost four months, although she trained as a nurse. Her previous job was in the emergency unit of the hospital, and she loved it. Her family, however, were not happy and insisted she leave. "I'm not sure why they didn't want me to do it.' Her training comes in handy? because they have programs about healthcare for women, as well as cooking shows and live interviews on radio about women's problems -- like domestic violence, which is very prevalent.
In the room where Razia and her colleague Maria, a charismatic girl with a huge smile, sit they are broadcasting a poem, a reader's request. Why does she like journalism, I ask. "Because we are connecting to the listeners." She apologies but has to go back.
Driving back I look to see how many women walk on the streets, and I count very few. All of them wear burqas, although I notice a mint green one as opposed to the usual blue. Nobody knows how many female drug addicts there are in Helmand because they cannot get into the homes. It's difficult anyway to get reliable statistics but gains made for women must be viewed within this conservative context.
The story is as troubling in Kabul when I return a few days later. I speak to a female accountant. She is Afghan born and has never lived anywhere else. She controls a large budget of a private British company. On the day that I meet her she seems concerned. One of the local staff has quit because he doesn't like the fact that she is in a position of power. He tells her to be worried, and she is. "Afghan men don't like it. They don't like it that I can say no to them if they ask for money. They want women to stay at home. It is very difficult, but we have no problem with foreign men. `I know women who trained as lawyers and they just sit at home because of the attitude of men. It is very difficult for women."
When she was at university another student told her he loved her, she wasn't interested and asked him to leave her alone. He persisted. One day he turned up at her house and threw a stone through the window. She and her mother could say nothing without it escalating out of control. "That man later stabbed someone, and a senior figure in the present government helped him escape," she tells me. Even Hamid Karzai's wife, who is a doctor, is never seen and does not practice.
In the evening the hujra, when men sit and talk, one of the things that comes up for discussion is the notion of women's rights. Whether we like it or not, the conservative rural rule outside of urban and multi-ethnic Kabul, does not take kindly to this. With women goes honour, ghairat, and embedded deep in the psyche is that by allowing women education and to be westernized, they will be beghairat, without honour, the worst possible crime. Men need to be educated about women's rights, something worth fighting for, but how best to do it is still the vexing question.