The first time that I went to a parlor was with two Saudi sisters whom I had befriended that wanted to show me a “Saudi experience”, and took me to their mall (their father owns the entire complex). There was a shabby looking door between the electronics store and a glitzy ice cream parlor, and through it I went, only to fine myself in a large, marble floored, mirrored and chandelier glistening salon where not a single women was covered in a headscarf. The waiting room was decorated with paintings and plush couches, European magazines, flat screen televisions, as well as a little stall that were selling all kinds of goods from makeup to Gucci wallets.
A Philippine woman (they primarily make up the workforce in these salons) took me to one of their highly equipped leather chair as they gave me a set of books to choose a hairstyle from, massaging my hair, calling me “darrrrling” and “sweetie” every now and then as they complimented me. Once I chose, or rather one of my friends did for me as she pointed to a blond model with a multi-layered straight cut (“It’s so modern!”) for myself, I was handed a menu of their coffee service. With a cappuccino in hand served on vintage china, I just stared in awe at the other women who came in and out ripping off their abbayahs to reveal designer clothes and heavily highlighted hair all looking simply radiant. With one of the best haircuts I had ever received, I had to politely refuse their other services (mint massages, arm waxing, Persian manicures, to a full body oil massage, to name a few) as my friend paid for my service so I never got a chance to look at how much all of this cost me. The hospitality Saudi women that I have been able to friend have been truly generous.
Most beauty parlors are run by expats who are usually sponsored by a male relative and work under a Saudi family name, or another sponsor. The city of Jeddah alone has about 7,000 beauty parlors. In 1968, a ruling was passed that states that women are not allowed to open a place for styling for fashion. So, salons usually operate under women’s tailoring shops. While social norms are made clear in all possible ways, these beauty parlors are highly demanded.
Going to a beauty parlor in Saudi Arabia is something no women should miss out on if they are ever lucky to even come to the Kingdom. I have been to beauty parlors twice in my three visits here, and they left me in quite a state- not only do you get to meet Saudi women underneath all of the covering, but you are made to feel like an exclusive star (especially when they hear that you are from a Western country).
I thought that my experience was unique, but I learned through asking many that parlors are indeed as amazing as I experienced on my few encounters. One woman told me how it was the only place that she could go to and makes herself feel good about her, mingle with her friends, and indulge on things that would be otherwise frowned upon in the public eye. It was a place for women to show off to other women. And also a place that one young, newly woman told me was necessary as her husband wanted her to look “perfect” for him everyday. And of course, the place is just fun- clean, low stress, and at least two stylists always on your case whether it is because you want more coffee or demand a change of nail polish. Coloring the eye brows and shaping them is apparently one of the most popular services as often they are the only things you will see of a woman on the streets. And in a culture where luxury is parallel with day to day living, paying for beauty is rarely a concern.
Locating a parlor is difficult enough, given the taboo of the subject. Parlors and salons are usually hidden, even in popularly termed “ladies’ market” that is found in every city. You almost always have to ask someone to get an idea of where you go for a much needed haircut.
They are usually gated; entrances marked by a tall door that will unlock once you press the buzzer. Signs that warn against male entry are mandatory. My last visit was a private home turned parlor that was equipped with a camera and three different buzzers that made sure that it was only women who were entering the vicinity. This makes the entire experience that much more exclusive, and further reinforces the segregation of genders in the Kingdom. So while we can endlessly discuss this segregation and its cultural implications upon women, in the meanwhile they enjoy this luxury without complaint.