Men are not allowed in Shamso Hair Studio and Spa, an L-shaped beauty parlor in Boston’s South End. Shamso Ahmed, who wears a hijab, opened the women-only salon last month designed for Muslim women whose religious beliefs include not exposing their hair in front of men who are strangers.
Muslim American women have ducked into salon backrooms, closets and basements to get their hair styled. One woman remembers hiding behind a piece of cloth draped over a doorway. Another recounts a haircut in a restroom. Others describe gut-twisting moments when strange men walked in and saw their bare heads anyway.
“I really want to make a difference in people’s lives by creating a place where women feel comfortable, safe,” said Ahmed, 34. “With this space, I can guarantee that there’s not going to be guys that walk in, so women will have the privacy they are looking for.”
Shamso offers haircuts, manicures, pedicures and massages, as well as lesser-known services such as henna body art and hijab wraps. The employees are all female; the windows are frosted to prevent passersby seeing inside; and customers must punch a code into a special lock to enter.
Ahmed’s shop is one of very few women-only hair salons nationwide, according to Elisabeth Becker, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia who researches urban Muslim communities. Becker said she knows of just one other: Le’jemalik Salon in New York City. Huda Quhshi, 39, who founded Le’jemalik Salon in early 2017, said that hijab-wearing women drive two or three hours to get their hair done at her salon.
Becker said the demand among Muslim Americans for women-only spa services far exceeds the supply. As of 2017, there were 3.45 million Muslims living in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. Of these, roughly 4 in 10 women wear the hijab.
“[It’s a] huge, almost fully unserved population,” Becker said.
Hadia Mubarak, a hijab-wearing assistant professor at Guilford College who researches gender in Islam, said it is a common misconception that observant Muslim women do not need to do their hair because it remains covered in public. Hijab-wearing women spend a lot of time at home with their heads uncovered, she said. Women also seek places where they can remove their hijabs — Mubarak said she favors all-female yoga classes for this reason — and sometimes attend special family events such as weddings and engagement parties with their heads bare and their hair styled.
“Muslim women who cover will at some point in their life need to go to a salon,” Mubarak said. “The Muslim women I know, some of them go to a salon on a regular basis — some of them every two weeks!”
Massachusetts’s gender discrimination law prohibits all-male or all-female spaces in some contexts, such as in public transportation, but private businesses have been allowed to cater only to women. Women-only gyms, for example, are specifically allowed under the law.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (D) said he would be attending the salon’s ribbon-cutting later this month. “We’re proud that Shamso has chosen to open her salon in Boston,” he said in a statement.
Ahmed said she wants to open salons in at least five more states. For now, though, she is reveling in the achievement of a dream she has pursued since age 12.
Ahmed and her family emigrated to the United States when she was 10 to escape civil war in Somalia. She grew up idolizing her mother and the prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija, both of whom pursued careers in business — her mother as the owner of a coffee shop, restaurant and grocery store in Somalia, and Khadija as a merchant. Ahmed vowed she would become a business executive and open a salon.
“I would always tell my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to be my own boss when I grow up,’ ” Ahmed said. “I said, ‘Mom, I want to open a salon, and it’s going to be a spa, and it’s going to have massage, facial, all these amazing services.’ ”
Her mother handed Ahmed pen and paper and told her to “just draw it, get it out.” Ahmed traced dozens of different versions of her fantasy, adding more square footage or a new service every week.
At Northeastern University, she majored in accounting and finance. After working in a car dealership, she founded a business in 2011, the International Translation Company, that provides interpreters for immigrants and non-English speakers.
She never forgot her dream. In her spare time, Ahmed earned a license in cosmetology. On weekends, she worked as a hairstylist.
Two years ago, Ahmed decided it was time. She dipped into her savings — she said the cost ran into “six figures” — and plunged into negotiations with the city of Boston and contractors.
She obtained special permission for the frosted windows. She picked out the light gray wallpaper, the plush blue chairs, the waterfall by the front door, the chandeliers.
Since the salon’s doors opened in late February, Boston women are quickly becoming fans. “That’s been a challenge for me, to find a place to get my hair cut or do any services — I do it when I travel to Lebanon,” said E’atimad Rizk, who has lived in Boston for almost 20 years. “Here, you go to a salon and ask them, ‘Can somebody cut my hair in a room?’ ‘Oh, we don’t have a room.’ ”