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Much like every Afghan woman, 26-year-old Yurish Jawad is no stranger to street harassment, experiencing catcalling, mockery, and abuse during even a short walk on the streets of central Kabul. Except that Jawad isn’t an Afghan woman. He’s a hairstylist in the capital city of Afghanistan, and he wears his own style with élan and pride, much to the disapproval of the conservative Afghan men who hold dear a strict interpretation of values in Islam.
“They believe that fashionable looks and hairstyles are against the religion, and they criticise me for it,” Jawad tells Racked while working at his Kabul salon. His luscious, full hair, bleached blond, falls beautifully over the side of his face. He boasts a full beard, designed to emulate New York hipsters. His client, a young man in his 20s who did not wish to be identified, nods in agreement. He has similar hair and beard styles, matched by an upturned mustache. “We can go for a walk around the block and you can see the harassment for yourself,” Jawad says. We take his word for it rather than pull him away from the trendy salon’s clients, including a groom awaiting a bridal makeover.
Hair salons like Jawad’s that provide styling services are gaining immense popularity in Afghanistan, with its young population eager to experiment with new and trendy styles from around the world. Disapproval and criticism from the conservative crowd have been little deterrent to the growing population of fashion enthusiasts. However, this zeal for hair fashion in particular has a history that is rooted deeply in the country’s troubled past.
Not too long ago, the Taliban regime that controlled Afghanistan imposed sharia-compliant haircuts and long beards on Afghan men. “Those in violation were punished and forced to get a haircut that the regime approved of,” says Jawad who was a child during the repressive years. “That’s how they controlled the men.” As a result, keeping stylish haircuts under one’s turbans became a form of defiance — a silent revolution among men.
The film Titanic was very popular those days, and many young men and women watched smuggled, pirated copies on their illegal televisions. “And then they wanted the same hairstyle as Leonardo DiCaprio has in the movie,” recalls an older gentleman at Jawad’s salon. “The Taliban wouldn’t allow it, and started detaining men with similar hairstyles and giving them forced haircuts.” A report by the LA Times in 2001 corroborates his account, saying that at one point, the Taliban’s Ministry of Virtue and Vice arrested 22 men over hairstyles that they “deemed offensive to Islam because the long bangs interfere with the ability to bow and say prayers”.
“The Taliban was comprised of fighters and individuals who came to Afghanistan from other [fundamentalist and conservative] countries,” reason Abdul Wasid, a 24-year-old media professional from Kabul, who gets his hair done every couple of weeks at Grey Hair Salon in West Kabul. “They had learned that a certain style was necessary to be a good person,” he explains in between breaks in his session, which involves a deep hair wash, cut, beard trim, and styling. “They did not know that it’s not only about styles. Haircuts and regular shaves are better for hygiene.”
Such was the industry, if one can call it that, under the Taliban. Jawad didn’t even find out until years later, after the US occupation, that being a hairstylist could be a viable career choice. “There were no fancy hair salons, because no one dared touch a man’s beard and everyone got the same hairstyle. So why would anyone pay to go to a fancier, more expensive salon for the same haircut that they could get for cheaper from a roadside barber who trims hair using one old pair of shears?” he says with a laugh.
Afghan hair fashion has come a long way since then. “Italian and Turkish hairstyles are very popular these days as fall cuts for men,” says 25-year-old Mahdi, a hairdresser at the trendy Grey Hair Salon in West Kabul, which he started with two of his friends. “About two years ago it was the Korean haircuts from characters in a dubbed TV drama that were in demand.” Mahdi has been a hairstylist for eight years, all his adult life, and much like his colleagues, he learned the art by working with a local barber. “A lot of the newer styles, we’ve recreated from the internet,” he says.
In fact, it isn’t uncommon for Afghan men to bring a picture of a haircut they saw on Facebook or on a celebrity and ask their barber to replicate it. “These days it’s also popular for clients to bring us photos of beard art they’ve seen online for us to work with,” says Sadiq, 23, co-owner and hairstylist at Grey Salon.
As the demand for fashionable hairstyles increases, so does the number of artsy salons around Kabul that operate profitably. An average session for a haircut costs about 1,000 Afghan afghanis (approximately $15), while other services, including washing, styling, head massage, and facial massage could set you back by 3,500 Afghan afghanis (approximately $50). Meanwhile, grooms-to-be sometimes spend between $100 to $150 for a bridal package that involves intensive treatments and styling, with generous glitter work to meet the standards of the Afghan wedding scene.
Faced with diminished but continued opposition, the young men of Kabul continue to wear their styles of rebellion on their sleeves, sometimes literally. Wasid has some advice for the critics of newer, fashionable styles: “This may not be our culture. But we aren’t supposed to simply hold on to our culture, but should evolve our culture while learning from other cultures.”