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Activism Through Beauty

Nancy Lee Hendricks has many stories to tell.

Ask her about her experiences during the 1973 coup and subsequent rise of Daoud Khan to power in Afghanistan. Or about the time she witnessed, from her own house, the kidnapping of a recently installed ambassador to Afghanistan. There was also the time that several men were shot and killed on her front porch.

And, of course, there's that whole Taliban thing.

The Tucsonan spent much of her time in Afghanistan engaged in social activism. She first visited Afghanistan as a military attaché spouse in the 1970s, and then pursued independent studies in Afghan history and culture at George Mason University. But her self-designed bachelor's and master's degrees were only the first chapter of her pursuits regarding Afghanistan.

She has undertaken projects with the American Women's Association; traveled to Tajikistan with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); visited Tajik refugee camps in Northern Afghanistan; and most recently, served as the United Nations provincial election officer in charge of elections in the Takhar district.

She will recount these and other stories and answer questions in a discussion on Sunday, June 25, at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., after Gadabout Salon Spas' presentation of The Beauty Academy of Kabul. The film begins at noon. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $8 for Tucson Film Society Members. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Beauty Without Borders project. For more information, call 795-0844 or visit www.loftcinema.com.

The film, directed by Liz Mermin, chronicles the establishment of a beauty school and parlor in post-Taliban Kabul by several American hairdressers volunteering for the Beauty Without Borders project. The project aims to elevate women above the devastation caused by years of war, and to revive them, in part, through beauty.

All the participating hairdressers--two of whom fled Afghanistan in the early 1990s--arrive in pairs to train eager Afghan women in the hair and makeup trade. The film focuses as much on the development of the Afghan women as the relationship between the Americans and Afghans.

Hendricks appreciated that average women from both Afghanistan and America were featured in the film. "You can see the warts on their faces," she said about the American women.

Among the cultural differences present in the film, one seemed particularly notable, said Hendricks: the unibrow. Hendricks mentioned that a singular eyebrow is considered to be beautiful in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Outlawed under Taliban rule, beauty parlors have begun to re-emerge in Kabul and other Afghan cities. "Beauty parlors are a really big deal in Afghan culture," said Hendricks. Many Afghan women, in addition to their domestic duties, operate small beauty parlors from their homes. For these women, beauty parlors allow them to exercise their social and economic skills.

Afghan women's social status and "how it's evolved" are addressed in the film, said Jeff Yanc of the Loft, "but it's not really preachy about it."

Hendricks has certainly noticed these evolutions. Since the fall of the Taliban, women's rights have been on the upswing. "I think more women are eager to get their rights and act on them," she said. Throughout her time as an election officer, she saw women line up at the polls two hours before their opening, and "of those who were registered (to vote), a higher percentage were women."

The re-emergence of beauty parlors, said Hendricks, may help facilitate the further development of self-confidence in women. She said that women "certainly have the talent, and they are a very dynamic gender in Afghanistan."

However, gender equality is still a long way away. "I think women are faced with more challenges than men," said Hendricks. Many women must still wear restrictive clothing; women in politics are sometimes threatened, and the uncertainty of future events shapes daily interactions.

"I think security is a major concern," she said. "We've got to reinstitute security in Afghanistan."

Beauty parlors, in the meantime, are beginning to enable women with the tools to create more comfortable lives for themselves. Yanc said the film shows this fact.

"It's a really good film," he said. "It's kind of humorous, because the subject matter is kind of goofy on the surface." What may seem a trivial approach to Afghan women's rights, he added, is "really about empowering them."

This will be Hendricks' first public talk on Afghanistan since moving to Tucson three months ago. She said she is excited to discuss issues raised in the film--and tell those stories about her own experiences in Afghanistan.

More by Beth Prosnitz

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