Election the talk of the town in Kabul salons

Improvement in women's rights is hailed as major successes of US effort in Afghanistan

Kabul: Behind the opaque windows of the Black Diamond beauty parlour in western Kabul, Saturday's election has been a prime subject of conversation among clients dropping in for manicures, eyebrow grooming and massages.

The women-only salon is one of hundreds of beautician shops that have sprung up in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, serving wealthier women, the fashion-conscious urban young and wedding parties. Owned and staffed by women, Black Diamond provides an intimate venue for sharing time and gossip with friends in a conservative Islamic country where female lives are often restricted to the family home.

"When women are together we like to talk, and here we talk about everything including politics," Balqis Azizi, the salon's owner and manager, told AFP ahead of Saturday's vote to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai. "We want to make our customers feel welcome and happy," she said. "So we always chat while we do our treatments.

"The style of the salon is new for Afghanistan and our clients like it," said Azizi, wearing a headscarf and jeans. "Business is good; we get between 10 and 20 women a day. "A television is on permanently in one corner of the salon, and the election campaign has been followed closely by staff and regulars.

"We think Zalmai Rassoul is a good candidate. Ashraf Ghani is a talented and brilliant man, but when you listen to his words he is divisive," Azizi said.

"I have my voter card and I will vote. God forbid there will be any chaos. "Improved rights under threat?

Azizi, who is 49 and unmarried, admits her family disapproved of her setting up a business, but they have been reassured by the salon's location in a gated residential complex. Under the Taliban, who imposed a strict version of Islamic law during their 1996-2001 rule, women were barred from work and education, and the all-encompassing burqa was compulsory on rare trips outside the home.

The improvement in women's rights has been hailed as one of the major successes of the US-led effort in Afghanistan, but the limited gains could be under threat as international aid declines and NATO troops who fought the Taliban depart. "The next president should respect women, he should let women work like us so that women go forward," said Salma Hadari, 25, a beautician at the salon.

Salma spent years in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey as a child during the Taliban era, but now loves working in Kabul despite the regular suicide bombings and gun attacks. "It is nice because women come here for fun, they like our beauty parlour, and they like to talk to us, they are happy here," she said. Afghanistan's career women have one stand-out role model in the election.

Habiba Sarabi, the former governor of Bamiyan province and now a vice-presidential candidate of Zalmai Rassoul. The Rassoul ticket is one of the strongest in the race, so Sarabi could become the first woman to ever hold a senior position in Afghanistan. Officials are hoping for an improved female turnout in the election, after low voting figures in the 2009 election especially in the south and east of the country.

Experts such as Kate Clark, of the Afghan Analysts' Network, say that real progress has been made for women in Afghanistan over the past 13 years, though cultural norms still hold many back. "Now it's a legal thing to work, it's a legal thing for girls to go to school or university, and there are women in parliament," she said.

"A free environment gives these girls opportunities and aspirations, even if not everyone can fulfill them."Afghanistan is still a deeply patriarchal society. But in most parts of the country, people now want girls as well as boys to go to school and that is a huge shift."

( Source : AFP )
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