For Rola Amer and Sara Safwat, their curls were once an embarrassing nuisance to their careers. Now part of an aesthetic liberation movement that has swept Egypt in recent years, they own a curly hair salon that caters to women and men alike.
Amer used to spend hours straightening her bouncy curls, she told AFP as she started her day at the Closed workshopwhich became Egypt’s first natural hair salon in 2018.”Curly hair takes much longer to cut than straight hair,said Amer, meticulously cutting the curly mane of a client in an affluent Cairo suburb.
Three hours later, she can finally show the result to her client, and both are thrilled as the salon buzzes around them. That’s a far cry from Amer’s own experience a few years ago. “If I ever left my hair curly, I’d feel unkempt, like I wasn’t taking care of myself,” she says.
At this rare type of salon in Cairo, the end product is tailored to each client’s curl pattern, and rollers have replaced hair straighteners to prevent heat damage. Safwat, 38, thinks straightening hair can be dangerous.
The obsession with straight hair, rooted in what Safwat calls “completely false ideals of beauty,“has caused generations of women to burn their hair using chemical treatments and excessive heat damage.
With her curls considered “unprofessional”, Safwat says that before becoming a hairstylist, she was often asked in job interviews: “Will you come to work like this?“
A marked change
In the early 2000s, Lebanese singer Myriam Fares was one of the first curly-haired icons in the Middle East. On the other side of the world, black women in the United States were increasingly embracing their curls in a natural hair care movement. Many of the biggest brands built by black women at the time would eventually find their way onto the shelves of curbed Cairo salons.
In 2012, Egyptian actress Dina el-Sherbiny became one of the first to break the on-screen taboo, flaunting her chestnut locks in the hit TV series “Hekayat Banat” (Girl Stories).
Ten years later, the curly heads are appearing in TV shows, movies and on billboards lining Cairo’s highways, a marked shift in pop culture. In Hollywood, Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy even shows off her curls in Marvel’s latest series, “Moon Knight,” directed by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab.
“There was a real social movement,“, Doaa Gawish told AFP. In 2016, Gawish started a Facebook group called The Hair Addict to help women get rid of harsh chemicals and hair dryers. Within months, the online forum was increased from 5,000 to more than 80,000 members, while the local cosmetics market grew by 18%, according to Euromonitor International.
Two years later, Gawish launched her eponymous hair care company. “Many big cosmetic companies started marketing curly hair products because they saw it was an essential customer base,“, she told AFP.
Approximately 500,000 hair salons
This base continues to grow in the important Egyptian cosmetics market. With a population of 103 million, the country has about 500,000 salons and more than three million employeesas estimated in 2020 Mahmoud el-Degwy, head of the hairdressers division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.
Natural hair educator and influencer Mariam Ashraf (pictured) has seen the market potential firsthand. Only hobby at first, his Instagram videos quickly became “a real source of income“, she told AFP before shooting a new clip for her more than 90,000 followers.
“Brands contact me more and more to present products for curly hair,“, explained the 26-year-old player. “And now modeling agencies are contacting me for ads.“
But the world of natural hair care is not accessible to everyone. While the average monthly income in Egypt is 6,000 pounds (US$325), a haircut at the Curly Studio can cost up to a tenth of that amount.
Some men also let their curls run free. Ever since he inadvertently discovered his curls during the Covid-19 lockdown, cybersecurity expert Omar Rahim is happily paying to maintain his style.
Today, he maintains a complex regime, despite the taunts of his friends in a conservative and patriarchal society.
“We have a problem with fragile masculinity; people think that a man should not take care of his hair or buy products,“, he told AFP.I want people to understand that this is normal, but I’m not ready to fight this fight yet.“