Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 -27 February 2008
Issue No. 885
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Taking beauty personally

A beauty salon for veiled women has provoked the wrath of secularist Egyptians. Gihan Shahine delves into a world of elegance and controversy<

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A couple of young beauties enjoy relishing their coffee at the salon's attached café; the trendy façade

On a relatively quiet side-street in Heliopolis, a colourful banner reading "Veiled Beauty" stands in solemn defiance to the nearby gigantic 'M' of the American food chain, McDonalds -- commonly perceived as one sign of Americanisation in Egypt. Behind the trendy façade and colourful curtains lurks a world of elegance and warmth -- not that arising from the vapour of hair dryers, of course -- but a friendly ambiance immediately offers a brief respite from teething traffic deadlocks and itching morning chill.

Sabaya -- meaning young girls in Arabic -- seems to live up to its name. Not just because the recently-opened, highly controversial, café and beauty centre brims with young beauties venturing into the women-only enclave to pamper themselves with the latest products of an ever- growing grooming industry, but because the clientele are all invariably those who have chosen to keep their groomed femininity under the cover of the Islamic veil once out on the streets.

Run by veiled young women, the posh beauty salon manages to create an exclusive haven for veiled lady customers who may dispel the boredom of waiting for their turn to get their grooming service by relishing a cup of coffee at the salon's attached café, indulging in a warm, sometimes religiously-tinted chat with a cohort of veiled peers, or just flipping through some of the trendiest scarves, accessories and homewares on sale in an attached boutique. The novel idea is the brainchild of young veiled women who, intentionally or not, are giving a new spin on the lifestyle of veiled women in Egypt.

The woman at the helm is young actress Hanan Tork who, after a successful, albeit short, career as an actress, decided to don the veil and quit acting. The actress-turned-businesswoman is now focussing on her two new ventures: the centre and a magazine for children. Her current partners are similarly young women with an ambition to launch a profit-generating business that would strictly adhere to the fundamental tenets of Islam.

"When I got veiled two years ago, I felt so humiliated when every time I would go to a beauty salon, I would end up in a small crammed room for veiled women. It made me feel like a second- class citizen," Tork starts. "So I decided to establish a women-only venue where veiled women, who now represent more than three quarters of Egyptian women, would be able to enjoy its full potential, sit comfortably and meet with friends in a cosy atmosphere without having to cover up."

Tork, however, kept her black veil and abaya (long Islamic dress) on during our meeting. Neither she nor her two companions, Noha and Dalia, took off their scarves. Noha, however, later took off her headdress to try one of the shop's new hair treatment masks, while Dalia was busy roaming the place to make sure everything was running smoothly.

The three women seemed anxious. A few customers had arrived during our meeting -- but Dalia reasoned that "it was still early morning and not a weekend," conceding that the shop has "just started working a few months ago and any new business is not expected to make much profit at the beginning." If the outlet's elegant furniture and superb interior decoration are anything to go by, those young women must have injected a huge budget into a business that has recently created a storm of controversy and may be at the risk of losing many of its potential clientele.

Hijab is becoming a social trend in Egypt, spreading among over 80 per cent of the female population and, more importantly perhaps, among the wealthy female elite, who have become veiled, but do not wish to sacrifice too much of their lifestyle. This new category of veiled women has attracted the interest of many an entrepreneur, who are capitalising on the new type of market demand by catering to their lifestyle needs.

Nevertheless, the very idea of segregation -- albeit welcomed by the conservative majority -- has created as much controversy as the hijab itself, especially among secularists who slam such trends as backward and regressive.

Sabaya has been widely criticised for its purported exclusionary policy of not accepting non- veiled women clientele -- be they Muslims or Christians. Following its launch, rumours soon spread on the web and by word of mouth that the centre does not allow Christians or non-veiled women into the place, which, according to the shop owners and staff, is "definitely not true". The first spark was a web-circulated invitation, which Tork insists was not written by any of the shop's owners. The web promotion invited veiled women to "come to Sabaya Café, the right place for young Muslims trying to get closer to God and to expand the search for virtuous friends. There is no music here, no films, no vice, no sin, and do not bring Christian friends."

"It was all done with good intention," Tork snapped with a deep sigh. According to Tork, a customer was so fond of the place that she decided to promote it on Facebook without telling any of the salon's owners. "Those were her own words, not ours, and we definitely didn't know about it except later when the storm erupted," Tork explained. Tork then got in touch with the girl on the web and explained that the shop does allow non-veiled and Christian women in.

The damage, however, had already been done. The web invitation provoked an immediate storm of controversy. The secularist Rose El-Youssef weekly magazine -- one of the staunchest critics of women-only beaches and hijab -- spearheaded a fierce campaign against Sabaya, slamming it as "extremist", "racist", and the product of a "retrograde" culture. "What sense does this prohibition of Christians make? Is this religion or religious ignorance and apartheid? It is a madness that will transform Egypt into another Lebanon," scoffed Wael Lotfi in an article. The controversy was strong enough to invite the curiosity of veteran journalists like Al-Ahram columnist Fahmy Howeidy, who spoke to Tork and explained the misunderstanding in one of his columns.

Tork strongly insists that all women -- veiled, unveiled, Christians, Muslims and nuns -- are welcome in Sabaya. "We never actually said they should not come," Tork maintained, waving her hands in assurance. "All we said is that we will not do the hair of non-veiled women -- be they Muslims or Christians -- because we do not want to share in the sin [of them going out unveiled on the streets]. That, of course, is not our own opinion. We got three religious edicts from three different [Egyptian, moderate] scholars before we decided to do that." Unveiled women, according to Tork, can use all other facilities in the place. They can, for instance, do hair treatments and cuts, skin masks, pedicure and manicure and enjoy sitting in the café. "The issue is as simple as this: you cannot ask to eat koshari [a popular Egyptian dish of mixed rice, pasta, and lentils with fried onions and garlic tomato sauce on top] in a Chinese restaurant and you cannot blame the restaurant for offering only a certain type of cuisine. Same with us: we offer beauty services for veiled women; this is the kind of service we provide and people should respect that. I have a Christian customer who respects our rules and comes to do her nails because she happens to live nearby. What's wrong with that?"

Tork's voice becomes increasinglya strained. She has been subject to so many "fierce press attacks and lies", but what distresses her most is that these assaults "have to do with the face of Islam -- and not just the famous Tork."

"As a Muslim who understands her religion, I would never be the instigator of sectarian rifts because this is not what Prophet Mohamed did: our religion gives so much esteem to Christians," she said in a passionate voice. "I'd love nuns to come to this place because I respect them a lot."

That said, the salon's strict policy continues to incite more than a few frowns from non-veiled women, who said they felt "hurt" by the whole idea. Anan, one of the customers, is entirely happy with the professional atmosphere, elegance and cleanliness of the centre, but said she would have loved to bring her unveiled daughter there instead of taking her to another salon. "I think it would have been nice had they allowed unveiled girls to do their hair as well; this would have perhaps encouraged them to get veiled," she said.

Tork, however, remains undaunted in the face of criticism and potential financial loss. "It is all a matter of principle -- no offence," she insisted. "If an unveiled woman comes in for the first time, I would do her hair so as not to embarrass her, but then I will explain to her that this service is simply not on our menu."

Arguments aside, I decided to attempt a hair treatment mask which, for a new mom like me, is entirely indispensable. Once I placed my skull under the steamer, I closed my eyes in relaxation and forgot all about the controversy -- it is a rejuvenating experience that can be enjoyed by any woman, veiled or not.

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