With her red hair and freckles, Patricia O’Connor certainly stands out from the crowd on the streets of Kabul. But she moves through the streets both in Afghanistan and through her home in the city of New York with a purpose — empowering women with the opportunities that the beauty industry offers them. Her work with Beauty Without Borders (www.beautywithoutborders.com) brought her to Kabul where the dream of a beauty school for Afghan women has become a reality.
O’Connor, who was born in the UK to Irish parents, found that one of the initial challenges was actually finding an appropriate site for the Kabul Beauty School following its inception in 2001. “Since so much of the city has been destroyed, it became apparent we had to build a building, which took us a year from beginning to end.” The first classes started in August 2003. Of course, funding was needed and O’Connor used her contacts as a marketing and development consultant to the beauty industry to secure companies including Clairol, MAC cosmetics and Vogue magazine to support the School.
The School recently had its first graduation ceremony, where the only female Afghan general in the Army came and gave an inspiring speech about the future for women in the changed country. The graduates are looking toward a time when they can not only provide many beauty services to other women, but when they can own and operate their own businesses to reap the profits of their education.
Said O’Connor, “The School is on par with any school in the world. Women learn color formulation and pigmentation. You’re really teaching science when you’re teaching chemistry and color.” Another challenge was combating the lack of education many of the students had. She adds, “Half of the students were illiterate, but we have interactive live demos and videos in addition to textbooks. One of our students said she was so focused on learning that she worked at it until it clicked, even though she couldn’t read.”
O’Connor found parallels between the students and women in her own life. She laughs, “The Afghan women are as tough as the Irish women! Their family comes first and they’re tough and they’re strong. What they can achieve is limitless, there’s no stopping them. They are an inspiration to all of us.” ♦