If you’re one of those people who noticed the many news reports about the intention of the Taliban to shut down all beauty salons in Afghanistan, as of Tuesday this week, and yawned, then you shouldn’t have. The story has implications that go beyond, well, the mere shutting down of beauty salons.
First, the bare facts.
The order to shut down these salons was issued in early July by the Taliban government officials, who claimed that these enterprises — all owned, run and patronised by women only — were “forbidden” by Sharia, the body of religious precepts derived from Islam’s holy texts, mainly the Quran and the Hadith.
The restrived order, which has drawn widespread global condemnation, especially from Muslim governments, was added, by those whose business it is to keep count, to other equally grim edicts issued by the Taliban administration curtailing women’s rights, such as barring women and girls from most public spaces, from travelling any significant distances within the country without a male relative in escort and from attending school beyond the sixth grade at age 11.
Gender apartheid and gender persecution
The salon ban was viewed by the international community as being so severe that the UN warned that the Taliban may be held responsible for “gender apartheid” and “gender persecution”, both considered crimes against humanity.
The economic fallout for countless Afghan women from the shutdown of these establishments is incalculable, given that tens of thousands of women employed by the approximately 3,000 beauty salons across the country will now lose their jobs — and suffer grievously as a consequence. And here’s a case in point.
“Shukriya Afshar, 48, has worked as a beautician at the Gal Raitham Beauty Salon for years”, wrote New York Times reporter Christina Goldbaun in a news story last week. “She said that her husband earned just a few dollars a week as a day labourer and that the money from the salon was critical to supplementing the family’s income”.
And here’s a quotable quote that not only sums it all up well but says it all best. “This is not about getting your hair and nails done”, declared Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “This is about 60,000 women losing their jobs”.
These salons are cherished havens, famed for being social spaces where women enjoy the company of other women in an informal atmosphere, one that enables them to form bonds not only with each other but with the hair stylists as well.
Beyond this being an economically crippling blow to Afghan women, it is also, in equal measure, a socially bruising blow to them, for by closing down these salons, the Taliban will have closed the last public space for Afghan women outside the home — a truly cruel fate to inflict on women who live in a country that allows them few rights to congregate and share with each other their communal sense of reference.
Look, it is well-known that when women go to beauty salons, wherever those salons are located in the world, they don’t go there merely to have their hair styled and their nails polished.
These salons are cherished havens, famed for being social spaces where women enjoy the company of other women in an informal atmosphere, one that enables them to form bonds not only with each other but with the hair stylists as well, to whom they vent freely, given that hair stylists are often adept at acting as surrogate therapists, listening to — but never judging — their clients’ malaise. And, heaven knows, the relentless hardship and grinding drudgery of everyday life in Afghan society today embodies the kind of malaise that needs to be siphoned off before it eats away at one’s internal psychic economy.
To be sure, men’s own hairdressing salon culture, anchored in the barbershop — you know the place, often downtown, with the cutsie staff pole outside the store, adorned with a red and white helix of twined stripes — is no different. The barbershop has been an essential part of human society since ancient times, a community hub where men went, yes, true, to have a shave and a trim but also went there to socialise and share their experiences and discuss their ideas.
But where these men’s redoubts in Afghanistan are not likely to be encroached upon any time real soon, women’s beauty salons now are no more.
Well, Gee, ain’t nothing we can do about it, say the Taliban, it’s Sharia, insisting that their edicts are forever guided by that law and that law alone, although one wonders how a thoughtful reading of the theological questions raised there could lead anyone to issue edicts of such dubious merit.
That’s not the first time the Taliban have subverted Sharia, exploiting it in pursuit of crazed undertakings. Many of us still recall how, when the group was in power the first time around, from 1996 until October 2001, they declared their intention, four months before their regime was toppled by invading American forces, to blow up the two towering, 175-foot Buddha statues (the world’s tallest), hewn from a rock cliff 1,600 years ago, in the Bamiyan Valley — statues revered by so many people from so many cultures across so many centuries — all the while ignoring worldwide condemnation and pleas from so many Islamic nations to please, pretty please, cease and desist. Why
Why the Taliban do not understand
After the Taliban turned these statues, which were part of the heritage of humanity, into rubble, and after world leaders, along with ordinary folks like and me, expressed their outrage, the Taliban then Culture minister, Qudrallah Jamal, whose name translates as the Beauty of God’s Strength, told reporters, seemingly with great exasperation, “We do not understand why everybody is so upset, because all we’ve done is destroy stones”.
That’s the problem. The Taliban do not understand. And what they do not understand is Sharia, of which they seem to have little knowledge. Here, no doubt, you will agree with the English poet and satirist Alexander Pope (d. 1688) when he asserted that “a little knowledge is dangerous” — and to put in your own two cents’ worth by adding, “more dangerous than total ignorance”.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.