This beauty salon is a safe space for the East Bay’s Muslim women
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
In the backroom of an Alameda beauty salon on Encinal Avenue, a Yemeni woman sits with foils coated in dye folded around her long, black hair.
Another young woman in a long-sleeved, ankle-length, gray dress sits next to her, giggling and making small talk with the hairstylist as if they’ve known each other for a long time. A portrait of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, gazing proudly upwards, hangs on the wall.
This is Nefertiti Beauty, and it isn’t an ordinary salon. It’s a women-only space catering to customers from Arab diaspora communities, many of whom wear the hijab, consider themselves modest, and are not comfortable in the standard, co-ed, open-to-the-public salon.
Mufadhella Al Badeh opened the salon in 2018 and now runs it with help from her 20-year-old daughter Katebah. Offering a broad range of salon hair services, bridal make-up, kathab (black Yemeni henna), traditional Yemeni clothing, perfumes and bakhoor (Yemeni incense), Badeh provides immigrant women from Berkeley, Oakland and other East Bay locales the goods and services they need from home, all in one store.
It’s “a place where you can come and get your hair taken care of by people who look like you and know your hairstyle because Middle Eastern hair has a unique texture to it,” said Badeh.
Badeh, who wears the hijab herself, arrived in the East Bay from Yemen more than 16 years ago. Her husband lived here for a short time but has since returned to Yemen. Now Badeh lives in Oakland with her four children: Khawla, 23, who graduated from UC Davis, Katebah, who graduated in the spring from UC Berkeley, Marwat, 19, a rising junior at Cal, and Mohammed, 18, who recently graduated from high school.
Katebah, who translated for this interview, now lives at home, helping her mother run the business and translating for clients who don’t speak Yemeni Arabic. She also works at an anti-fraud machine-learning startup in San Francisco.
The hair salon has ”really taught all of us random skills, like how to make business cards, how to make a website, and how to make everything from scratch,” Katebah said.
There is no clear count of the number of Yemenis who live in the East Bay, but it is one of the larger communities in the United States, numbering in the thousands. Yemenis started immigrating to Oakland in the 1970s and were the third-largest group of newcomers to Oakland public schools in 2018, according to the Oakland Unified School District.
While other Middle Eastern immigrants, like those from Palestine or Lebanon, came to the Bay Area to go to school, many Yemenis came on lottery visas. Consequently, they are not as economically established as others, said Katebah.
“With a lot of other groups, they came with educational visas. Meanwhile, a lot of Yemenis came with lottery visas or papers or just some way, so they start off in blue-collar jobs,” Katebah explained. “It’s very much, ‘just make it here.’ ”
Many Yemenis have established themselves as small business owners. They run small markets throughout Berkeley and Oakland, as well as janitorial and taxi services. Many Yemenis are learning Spanish as well, maximizing their language skills to work with other immigrant communities, said Katebah.
“A lot of it is with the intent of being your own boss and having your own schedule,” she said, adding that their situation gives them unique business opportunities “because we have direct access to the community.” In most cases, though, the men run these businesses, and women work within women-dominated spaces, by babysitting, running daycares, or being teacher’s assistants.
Badeh’s salon stands out as an independent, female and immigrant-owned business. But she has always pushed some boundaries. She’s the type of woman to mention in passing that she faked her age as an elementary school student so she could volunteer with UNICEF — a position she needed to be five years older to hold — while working part-time and finishing her schooling in a short six years. She proudly recounts how she attended ESL classes and taught herself to drive when she first came to the Bay Area, despite disapproval from her husband and the community. According to her daughter, she’s serious about the women-only rule in the salon, too.
“We’ve had men say ‘Oh, I want to come with my wife,’ because they’re strict or whatever, and my mom is like ‘Absolutely not. She comes in and gets taken care of and he waits outside,’” said Katebah.
Badeh started the salon when she recognized there was a need for beauty services friendly to immigrant women. Many women, according to Muslim custom, must wear clothing that covers their arms, legs and hair. They cannot be in public spaces with men unrelated to them. (In fact, none of the female customers wanted their photos taken. Badeh did not want her face photographed.)
It can be difficult to find a beauty salon that ensures the privacy required by Muslim customs, according to a 21-year-old Berkeley native and recent Cal graduate who asked not to be named for privacy reasons. Few salons advertise that they can help hijab-wearing women by cutting or dyeing their hair in a private backroom or at after-hours appointments, she said. Women find the accommodating salons mostly by word of mouth said the 21-year-old, who said that she had only been to a salon once in her life.
Alexandra Sussman, the owner of Elixir Salon and Spa on Hopkins Street, said their salon caters to hijabi women a few times a year, through after-hours appointments. “Unless it’s after hours and the door is locked, we can’t control if a man walks in,” she said.
Inspired by Queen Nefertiti, who was known for keeping her famed beauty by using natural oils and treatments, Badeh only offers natural products that will not damage her client’s hair or skin. She said that profitability is much less important to her than the quality of goods and services. She asks her friends overseas to find the best producers, and she imports oils and perfumes directly from where they are pressed in the Gulf or North Africa.
“A woman’s hair is something really, really important to her, and the hair can be a symbol of beauty,” she said. “Taking care of that, and helping restore it, especially if they’re facing baldness or thinning of the hair, can really help a woman’s self-esteem.”
Getting a business established in the U.S. can be difficult as language and a lack of education can cause serious barriers for many new immigrants. Sometimes immigrants can be exploited, too. They can be so worried about working that they accept extremely low wages and become economically stagnant, said Badeh. When she first came to the East Bay, her husband made only $1,800 a month working for a Yemeni man in the store beneath their home, paying $800 back to the same man each month for rent. “Sometimes, it’s the ethnic enclaves that exploit you,” Katebah said.
However, Badeh said there are also many resources within the community that help people become established, like the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals, which just threw a celebration for Yemeni high school students who are going off to college. The Al Salam mosque in Oakland often connects the community to legal and translation services to navigate citizenship paperwork and public benefits, said Badeh.
“What my mom appreciates about living in this country, despite how hard it is, is that there are a lot of opportunities to get the help that you need,” Katebah added. “Even when applying to school, you can apply to scholarships and grants. Back home you don’t really get that. If you’re on your own, you’re on your own.”
Sitting proudly behind her desk with her daughter, Badeh tells me she has ambitious goals for her business. Nefertiti Beauty is the first beauty salon of its kind on the West Coast (the Mark Garrison Salon in New York has a private room and stylists for modest women), and there are many more women who could use her services.
“My goal is to eventually have it in every town,” Badeh said.