Finding male-free salon experience can be frustrating
for Muslim women
TORONTO — In a fit of desperation last summer, Rownak Chowdhury washed her hair, stood in the middle of her kitchen floor and handed her mother a pair of scissors.“Just chop it," she told her.
It was hardly the ideal salon experience, but for Chowdhury it was the quickest and easiest way to deal with hair that had grown long, heavy and scraggly under her head scarf.
“This is what I do when it gets really bad," says Chowdhury, recalling the incident. “It was just the chop across, but it did the job — kind of."
Like many who wear the hijab, Chowdhury couldn’t find a high-end salon that could give her the privacy she requires as a conservative Muslim and the stylish haircut she wants as a young, modern woman. “It shouldn’t be this hard for a Muslim woman in Toronto to get a good haircut," says Chowdhury of her years of searching for a salon.
“We just want a place where we feel normal, and can get our money’s worth." Instead, she and many others across the city have accumulated a war chest of hijabi horror stories — tales of having men walk in on them, of being shunted into basements and backrooms, of mediocre haircuts or worse, and of being forced to pay a premium for even this accommodation.
Many yearn for what a high-end salon can offer. They want to feel good during the process, and come out looking even better.
Sisters Zenab and Syma Khan had that experience when they lived in Winnipeg, so they were eager to find a salon when they moved to Toronto six years ago. The result was frustration. Syma called all the salons in Toronto’s tony Yorkville area and a few on nearby Yonge Street, most of which had been rated the best in the city.
“They were really nice when we asked them, but since many of them have an open-concept layout, they couldn’t really accommodate us," she says. “But they said they would if they could."
Zenab found that not everybody was as understanding. One salon rebuffed her, saying, “Why do you even need to cut your hair?’" “I was very surprised," Zenab says. “I thought that in Toronto, because it’s so multicultural, such a request would be normal.
And it’s a silly question. Of course we cut our hair. Just because they can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We’re just like other women. We want to look good for ourselves."
Four years ago, through word of mouth, the Khan sisters decided to call Civello and were told they could be accommodated at the chain’s Rosedale location.
When they arrived, they were ushered into the upstairs attic and had the entire room to themselves. Stylist Samina Khalid assured them that all the men in the salon were told not to come upstairs. Then they were pampered. “I could tell that this was a big deal for them," Khalid says. “We’re lucky that our building is large enough that we can provide this service."
For the sisters, it was a relief. As Zenab puts it, “It was so good to finally feel normal." Both had their share of difficulty before they found Civello.
Once, Zenab was at a salon with a makeshift partition and a man walked behind the blind. In a panic, the stylist threw a towel on Zenab’s head, trying to cover her hair. Another time, she was taken into a back room and forced to wash her hair standing up. At another salon, the stylist told her she had a separate room — which turned out to be a closet.
“She had to use a hair dryer that was plugged in outside the closet," Zenab says. “It was pretty awkward."
Syma had more long-lasting problems after having her hair dyed at a salon. The “private" space was a dark, dimly lit basement.
“Syma came out with a really bad colour, almost blond," Zenab says. “I am sure it had something to do with the light."
And although she appreciates the accommodations at Civello’s Rosedale location, there still are drawbacks. “Most clients can choose when they want to go to get a haircut, but with us, it’s like when can you fit me in. I have to plan two weeks ahead," Zenab says.
“Wherever you go, you always get the feeling that people are doing you a favour."
It’s better in suburbia, where ethnic salons and basement salons reach out to Muslim women with promises of privacy and women’s-only spaces. At the higher end, Jason Michael’s, a salon and spa in Square One in Mississauga, has renovated to cater to the Muslim community.
The salon created a private area with floor-to-ceiling drapes, a sink and two chairs, says Louie Galea, the manager of the salon.
The situation before the renovation “wasn’t such a pleasant experience," Galea says. The salon wanted to accommodate Muslim women, but its only separate room didn’t have a sink. Clients would run back and forth between the two areas while someone stood guard to watch out for men.
Since the changes, Jason Michael’s clientele has increased significantly and there are plans to build another salon, with an expanded women-only section. The location has yet to be determined, says Galea, but they are eyeing the east end of the city.
That could be good news for Chowdhury, a Scarborough resident who is still in search of the perfect haircut. Her last one wasn’t in a salon, but in a classroom at the school where she teaches. A colleague, the cosmetology teacher, wielded the shears.
“She did a great job, but she’s been away all summer," Chowdhury says.
But what worries Chowdhury more is what she will have to do for her daughter when she gets older.
“She doesn’t wear the hijab now, but if she starts to, I am not sure where we’ll go," she says.
“I may have to take a few lessons in haircutting myself."