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In the Name of God بسم الله

That's How Un Us $$ Changed Life Of Girls In

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Kabul

Safia, 32, took out a BRAC small business loan for 70,000 Afghanis ($1,555) so she could improve her beauty shop in the Kabul neighbourhood of Polisukhta. A large vase with fake pink flowers adorns the window of Stara Beauty Parlor, where Safia and her employee do hair and make-up.

Safia had to ask permission from her husband to get the loan, but said her success had earned her more respect from him.

Posters of heavily made-up women with elaborate hairstyles decorate the shop walls and a thin curtain in the front window hides customers from people passing on the busy street outside.

In a dimly lit room at the back of an Afghan house, 21-year-old Zahara is crouched on a plank of wood weaving a large carpet on a loom that she was able to buy using a microfinance loan of $1,100.

Zahara started weaving carpets when she was 10 and did not go to school, but the loan from non-profit development group BRAC allowed her to start her own business about 18 months ago and she has since taken out two more loans of $330 each.

"When I first got the money, the carpets I was making were small and now I can make bigger carpets," said Zahara, who heard about microfinance loans from her neighbour in Kabul. "Before I made carpets for other people and now I make them for myself."

Baghdad/Najaf

"I'm the girl from Baghdad," says Ban, who spoke on condition that her last name not be revealed. "They look up to me."

Her father was wounded when gunmen ambushed his car. Soon after, a neighbor warned her parents that they were on a list of people to be killed. The family fled to Najaf, where they knew they would be safe and Ban's father, a doctor, could find work.

Najaf was a rude awakening. Neighbors didn't say hello to Ban and her older sister, Dina, the way people did in Baghdad. The girls missed their friends.

They felt closer to death in Najaf. Whenever a relative or friend died, the body was brought to the city's vast cemetery for burial, and her parents greeted the mourners. "My mom doesn't like black because so many people died," Ban says, pushing her bangs from her eyes.

At first, her schoolmates would tease her because she wore sandals to class, not shoes like the rest of them, and because her mother, not her father, drove her to school. Students would jeer, "She's a Baghdad girl."

Her teachers forced Ban to wear a head scarf. In her second year, it got worse: The school also ordered her to wear the dark gown called an abaya.

"The ayatollahs go overboard," she says angrily. "Everything is haram [forbidden]. Nail polish. Makeup. Everything is no, no, no."

Depressed, Ban combed the Internet for songs and quickly became a fan of Evanescence, a moody goth band fronted by Amy Lee, a woman from Texas with a penchant for black leather, red lipstick and butterflies. Ban memorized Lee's lyrics:

"Fear is only in our minds. But it's taking over all the time. You poor sweet innocent thing, dry your eyes and testify."

At first, her friends made fun of her skull-and-angel sneakers, but soon they bought Converses too. Even her sister Dina, who had decided she was religious and enjoyed wearing head scarves, wrote "life" on one shoe and "death" on the other. Dina decided to help Ban create her new style.

Other girls ridicule their skull rings and spikes, but Ban says her rivals secretly copy them. She giggles and calls her enemies "Hakimus," a playful reference to the Hakims, one of Najaf's most famous religious families.

Edited by Baseej
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