By Barbara Spindel
The January opening of Le’Jemalik Salon and Boutique in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn was, for Huda Quhshi, the realization of a cherished, long-held goal. “At 17, I sketched out what my dream salon would look like,” the 37-year-old cosmetologist recently recalled. “I’ve always loved beauty. It’s something I always had a passion for.”
Yet for Quhshi, a Yemeni-American from Greenpoint, Brooklyn who wears a hijab, her passion came with a complication. Women who cover only allow men who are close relatives to see their hair, making salon visits a fraught endeavor.
“When I wanted to get my hair curled or blow-dried, I’d try to find the most secluded area, a salon that was on a side street, that barely had any windows, and that seemed small enough that there wouldn’t be too many clients walking in,” Quhshi said, adding that a stylist once hastily moved her into an uninviting hallway after a man walked in midway through her appointment. Over the years, hijabi clients told her stories of beauty parlors that stuck them in basements or others that erected makeshift dividers but then rushed them through in an effort to remove the unsightly barriers as quickly as possible.
Quhshi, who had spent most of her career freelancing, carried her supplies from home to home because many of her clients didn’t want to worry about being in a public space where men might enter. She found herself coloring hair in settings without proper ventilation or doing makeup without adequate lighting.
And so her vision for her own business involved making it a women-only space; Le’Jemalik (“for your beauty” in Arabic) is thought to be New York City’s first salon to cater to hijab-wearing women. Men are allowed in the reception area but not through the double doors that lead to the salon floor and to the downstairs bridal shop, which houses a collection of brightly colored, intricately laced and beaded gowns.
Quhshi stresses, though, that Le’Jemalik is “open to all women”: among her clients are Muslims who don’t wear hijabs and Orthodox Jewish women, who, like hijabis, only allow males who are close relatives to see their hair. A beaming Quhshi says the community response to her opening has been “unbelievable.”
She has been especially moved by the encouragement she’s received from women of all faiths, whether in person or on social media. “I think women are excited to support another woman who opened a business that’s specifically for women,” she said. The support has been meaningful given the widespread misconceptions about Muslim women who wear hijabs. “A lot of people have this misunderstanding that we are forced to be covered up by our husbands or by our family, and we’re not,” Quhshi, who is married and has three teenage children, said firmly. “It’s a decision that we make based on our faith.”
“If a woman goes out in a bikini, she made that choice on her own,” she continued. “I can’t tell her, ‘You’re underdressed.’ And it’s the same thing for us. Just like she has a choice to reveal her body, we have the right to cover our bodies. It’s a beautiful thing, to me, to be able to cover up and kind of say not everybody gets to see my beauty. I show it to who I want to show it to. It’s my choice.”
Quhshi is aware that some see a contradiction between covering up out of modesty and focusing on beauty. (She’s been asked, “Why would you even do your hair if you’re going to smush it under that scarf?”) “Just because we cover it up to the outside world doesn’t mean we don’t want to look beautiful,” she explained, adding that she socializes often without her headscarf, but at women-only parties. “We want to pamper ourselves as well. We want to get our nails done, we want to get facials.”
The timing of the salon’s opening is striking. In a period when hate crimes against Muslims have surged, when the Trump administration has tried twice to restrict travel to the United States with what many consider a Muslim ban, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, Quhshi has created her own sanctuary for Muslim women.
She demurs a bit at this interpretation. She is, in her words, “not a political person,” and she says the daily conversation at the salon revolves around personal lives, not politics. Still, she does see serendipity in the timing. “It took so long to build this place, but I think it was meant to happen when it happened,” Quhshi said. “With everything that’s going on, I feel like everyone’s come together more than ever. All religions are coming together and saying we are all human and we’re here to support each other. Sometimes something bad happens but a good thing comes out of it, and I think that’s what’s happening right now.”
Of course, there are concerns. Quhshi and her husband have family members in Yemen; they worry about the worsening conflict and humanitarian crisis there. Closer to home, she hears troubling stories from her community: travel postponed, Muslim-Americans who were out of the country when the ban was announced and who struggled to get back home. “It’s installed a fear in all of us. It just makes no sense,” she said. Then she smiles and adds, assuredly, “But we’ll get through it.”
Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Slate, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Barnes & Noble Review, Details, Tablet and other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies.
Photographer Sue Jaye Johnson is a documentary artist working in radio, photography, film and interactive technologies. A two-time Peabody Award winner and a 2017 TED Resident, Johnson’s work frequently looks at the role of women in society.
Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.