A handful of beauty salons that painted over photos of women on their facades as the Taliban took control of Kabul earlier this year are continuing to operate, with the tenuous blessing of the Islamist group.
In what was one of the most visible signs of the looming changes to millions of Afghans’ everyday lives as Western military forces withdrew after 20 years, workers were photographed painting over images of women outside beauty salons and other shops. In some cases the photos were even scrubbed out, or ripped from the walls, as women feared for their rights and lives under the Taliban.
When news emerged that the president of Afghanistan had fled Kabul, an owner of a beauty salon in the capital closed early. “I had to let go 15 of my employees,” the 23-year-old told VICE World News via WhatsApp. “I felt my life has come to a complete halt.”
Another makeup artist in her early twenties, had her beauty salon vandalised within 24 hours of the Taliban takeover, while death threats led her to deactivate her Instagram account which she used to promote her business.
A customer shows her makeup done by a beautician in Kabul in October. Photo: MARYKE VERMAAK/AFP via Getty Images
The makeup artist, born just days after the US-led invasion in 2001, had only launched her business in 2020, and just weeks before Kabul fell had been hired to do makeup for Aryana Sayeed, a famous singer in Afghanistan, who was forced to flee.
In the following days and weeks, women’s rights suffered terribly: girls and women were banned from secondary school and universities, most women were restricted from the workplace, and Taliban fighters fired upon women-led protests.
But not long after the Taliban takeover, the 23-year-old beauty salon owner made a decision, and reopened her business.
As she had anticipated, the Taliban banged on her door the next day and ordered her to close up shop. Despite this, on the next day, she opened her salon again.
“The Taliban told me to close the salon and send a male guardian of my family to earn a living,” she said. “But I don’t have [anyone] except my old and frail father. This is how I feed my family; what do you want me to do when you take our only sources of sustenance?”
To her surprise, the appeal worked. The Taliban fighters told her to draw veils of black ink over any photos of women in the salon, but to otherwise carry on. Then they left, and haven’t returned since. VICE World News understands several beauty salons have been able to reopen in these circumstances.
Women's images defaced with black paint in Kabul in August, as the Taliban entered the city. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The 23-year-old beautician’s story is indicative of a wider trend of women who came of age during the 20-year Western occupation of Afghanistan. For most of these women, working is the only choice to continue to live in Afghanistan. But even under the Western-backed governments of the last two decades, many Afghan families continued to see a woman working as a blot on the family’s prestige.
“First I had to fight my family to work, now I must face the Taliban, every now and then,” the 23-year-old said.
Her career began when she starred in adverts on local TV, and from there she moved into the beauty industry.
“They were totally against it. They did not even want to hear the word makeup or beauty at home, let alone starting a beauty salon,” the woman said, referring to her family and relatives.
Despite setbacks, she didn’t give up and borrowed money from friends to start her business, which capitalised on a beauty boom in Kabul, driven by the new media industry and families spending money on weddings and other celebrations, as well as a growing nightlife scene.
“My regular clients were women working with the government and NGOs,” the 23-year-old said.
The young woman managed to pay back all the money she owed within a few months. But then the pandemic hit, and just as restrictions began to ease, the Taliban advanced towards Kabul.
The 23-year-old says she needs to work to earn money to keep her family alive, and will continue to do brides’ makeup as long as people can afford to pay her – or as long as the Taliban can tolerate her running her own business.
“The Taliban is allowing women to sell vegetables or beg for money on the streets, but it won’t allow working,” she said, “what is the logic behind this?”