A Story of Glitter and Plastic Flowers

Afghanistan, January 3, 2007

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    Shala (right) and her husband (left) lost everything to the war but with the help of Mercy Corps' microfnance organization Ariana Financial Services Group, she has built up a successful bridal and floral business. Photo: Shirine Pont/Mercy Corps Photo:

Shala is an Afghan success story. At 31, she has managed to rebuild her life after having lost everything to the war in Afghanistan and lived as a refugee in Iran. She now is the proud owner of two shops in Kabul and spends her days focusing on the most joyful occasion in an Afghan woman's life: marriage. Shala has a beauty parlor specialized on brides and a second shop in which her husband makes wedding flower decorations.

Afghan fashion for brides follows the trends in Turkey and in Saudi-Arabia. Currently orange and pistachio green (for makeup as well as for decorations) are in vogue. Fashionable Afghan brides are pale, and have their hair elaborately curled to cascade down over their shoulders. Eyes and lips are heavily emphasized. Brides will change their clothes several times during the wedding, and if they can afford it one dress will be an elaborate ball gown in light green or white. Shala shows us the glitter that is the height of fashion right now, it is a bright, shimmering green which is applied on the eyes, on the hair and hands to highlight and decorate.

Shala offers her customers a complete service at her beauty parlor: she will cut and dye their hair, do their nails, massage their faces and do their makeup for them. A regular haircut will cost between 100 and 150 Afghani (2 to 3 USD) depending on the length of hair. Making a bride ready for her big day can cost from 2,500 up to 5,000 Afghani (50 to 100 USD).

Shala has worked hard to make her life a success. She started working at 7 years of age, making flower decorations for weddings. At 14 she learned how to be a beautician as an apprentice at a beauty parlor in Kabul. Now she herself teaches apprentices. She takes on 4 students for half a year, after which they officially graduate with a certificate. Apprentices pay her 500 AFA (10 USD) a month to study with her.

Shala got married at 18 and shortly after that she and her family had to flee to Iran as the Taliban took over Kabul. Life in Iran was difficult, for as an Afghan refugee Shala was not allowed to work officially and therefore could not earn much. Her children could not go to school there. Shala and her family stayed in Iran for 8 years. They returned to Afghanistan two and a half years ago because as Shala puts it: "The fighting in our country was finished" and they simply wanted to come back home.

Back in Kabul Shala wanted to start working again right away but neither she nor her husband could find a job. She finally rented a small shop in the area she still is in now, opened a beauty parlor in it and started working on her own. She was paying a rent of about 120 USD per month, an exorbitant sum, and as soon as she could, she moved out.

What enabled her to move out was a loan from Mercy Corps' microfinance organization Ariana. Shala had heard about Ariana from a family member. She had tried to borrow money from her relatives to start her business but they had not been able to help her. The loan of 7.500 AFA (150 USD) from Ariana allowed Shala move to the larger store she is in now, and seriously invest in her business. Currently Shala is on her third loan from Ariana and she has managed to rent the store next door, where her husband now makes and sells plastic flower decorations for weddings and birthdays. Shala has made her beauty parlor a success and customers come from the other side of town to have their hair cut by her. Sometimes she has up to six brides in her store ready to be prepared for their big day.

Shala's recipe for success is: "I am honest. I am strong and I am not afraid to work hard, I always work as hard as possible." She says she continuously tries to invest in and improve her business. Shala is saving all the money she can. She hopes to rent an even bigger shop with better furniture in 6 months time.

Shala says of herself that she is a modern Afghan woman. She does not want to rely on her husband to support her family; she works as if she were solely responsible for their well being. She wants her children to go to school and be able to have a better life. Her dream is to earn enough money to buy land, build a house, and have a garden for her children to play in. With the help of glitter and plastic flowers she is coming closer to fulfilling her dream one step at a time.