KABUL – Afghan women are reacting with panic and dismay as a Taliban ban on beauty salons looms in the capital Kabul. It is the latest of dozens of edicts curbing women and girls from public life. The restrictions are so severe that the U.N. has warned that the Taliban may be responsible for gender apartheid and the crime against humanity of gender persecution.

The ban on beauty salons is also likely one of the most economically bruising for women since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan nearly two years ago. When it comes into effect at the end of July, it will shutter some 3,000 women-run salons in Kabul, which employ many thousands. The salons were one of the few places where women could openly work under Taliban rule.

Just as important, they were one of the last places where women and girls could congregate. Girls are banned from school beyond the sixth grade. Women are excluded from most professions outside of teaching and health care. They are not allowed to go to parks, once a popular pastime for families.

"I've been crying since I heard the news. I am crying at the salon. All my assistants are crying," said Samia Faqiri, a 38-year-old salon owner whose business supported her family. "What will we do after this?"

The ban was quickly condemned by U.N. officials and Western diplomats like Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. "The Taliban ban on beauty parlors removes another vital space for women's work at a time when they're struggling to feed their families, eliminates one of the few refuges for women outside the home & further transforms the country into a cruel & extreme outlier in the world," Amiri tweeted.

Afghans who can afford it often have extravagant weddings, and many who cannot go into crippling debt to pull off a party. A key part of the celebration are the beauty parlor makeovers that transform the bride and her female family members into big-haired Afghan beauty queens with sultry eyes, crystal face jewelry and eyebrows carefully shaped and brushed.

Even in a country where most people struggle to reliably eat, it is not uncommon to see convoys of shiny cars, decorated with roses, heading to ornate wedding halls, decked with thousands of lights.

And so beauty salons have been a rare, reliable money-maker for Afghan women, even under the Taliban.

That is why salon owner Samia Faqiri got into the business. Her husband and son could no longer find work as taxi drivers, but brides always needed a makeover. Faqiri says her salon did well — pulling in around $700 a month. She was even able to hire eight other women, including makeup artists, eyebrow threaders and hair stylists.

The women she employed were largely single mothers or supported their households because they didn't have fathers, Faqiri said, a common scenario in Afghanistan where so many men have been killed in decades of violent conflict. "They're the only person who works in their family," she said. "They were paying their rent from this money, all their expenses."

Another salon owner, 22-year-old Yalda Hashimi, said she was supporting her family – in fact she'd been working in salons since she was 7. Her own father has been unable to work for decades, she said, so she began earning her keep as a child, so she began by sweeping floors and quickly learned the trade. Two years ago she opened her own business, which did so well that she hired seven women. "They are all like me: we are the only breadwinners for our families," she said.

News of the ban emerged on July 4, after the Taliban acknowledged rumors that they had told Kabul municipality officials not to renew the licenses of beauty parlors next month, effectively outlawing them. The order came from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, which ensures Afghans adhere to the Taliban's ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law.

The reason for the ban was that Afghan men are pressured to go into debt to pay for wedding makeovers for brides and their womenfolk, said Sadiq Akif Mahjer, a spokesman for the ministry in a video posted on Twitter. He added that salon workers were giving some women hair weaves, and were plucking eyebrows; both are considered distasteful, even forbidden, by many conservative Muslims. "That is in obvious opposition to Sharia," he said.

The deputy director of Afghanistan's state-run media also shared videos of women approving of the ban. "Women leave the salons looking like cats and monkeys," sniffed one. "It's un-Islamic." Another young woman, speaking through a face veil, complained salons charged exorbitant prices for bridal makeovers, "and it is cleaned off in seconds with a washcloth." Such a waste of money, she suggested, was not Islamic.

Another reason may simply be opposition to women working.

Consider the deputy director of the ministry of public works, who told Afghan media outlet TOLO that most Afghan men did not want women to work. "Out of 100%, 95% of Afghans do not want their women to go to work," said Mohammad Haqbin. He told TOLO the minority of men who did support women's employment "are trained by the foreigners."

Salon workers had been on tenterhooks since the Taliban overran Kabul nearly two years ago, on Aug. 14, 2021, effectively seizing the country.

Shortly after the Taliban seized power, they ordered salon owners to cover up images of women's faces — adorned with rainbows of eyeshadow and fake lashes — on their storefronts. The exuberant images were an anathema to the Taliban, who demand women and girls envelope themselves in draping black robes, including their faces. (In June the U.N. reported that Taliban officials demanded girls as young as those in fourth grade had to cover their faces while on the way to school.)

Since the ban was announced, beauty workers have held small protests, including at the offices of the Union of Women's Beauty Salons. There, female workers told news outlet TOLO that they feared the ban would extend to all of Afghanistan's 12,000 beauty salons. And they said they were despairing. "We either leave the country, or we will go on the street and commit suicide. Or they put us under an atom bomb or execute us because we are women," one unnamed female makeup artist told the news outlet.

Hashimi, the 22-year-old beauty salon owner, said she was focused on that first option: leaving Afghanistan. She was trying to find a trafficker to take her to neighboring Pakistan, or maybe as far as Turkey. She told NPR: "If they really do close these salons, we can't stay here anymore."

Hadid reported from Fremantle, Australia.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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