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.
Congratulations on your woman owned small business and service to your community. I saw your store the other day and was curious. It’s nice to have the backstory about your journey to Alameda. Your family has accomplished so much in the short time you’ve been in the United States. From one immigrant to another! Best of luck!
BTW I’m entitled to my opinion and free to speak it without having someone tell me I’m ridiculous, In fact if it was reversed my comment would have been censored as yours should be for attacking me personally.
When I read “Safe space” who is it a safe space from? It should be a safe space from abusive Muslim men and the oppressive culture that they continue to subject themselves to even when they reach the united states. It’s just so hypocritical for Liberal / “Progressive” women to hate conservatives and their values but yet support a culture that has abused Women for 100’s and 100’s of years, It just doesn’t add up.
It’s also just messed up and ridiculous that the first thing some people do when they read a story about Muslim women is comment with anti-Islamic messaging. Particularly when it’s done in the form of concern trolling on behalf of those women.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali,founder of AHA Foundation to protect and defend the rights of women in the US from harmful traditional practices, explains “The Price of Modesty”
I had to click on this article because it’s hard for me to imagine anyone needing a “safe space” in the Bay Area. Now I wonder who else will be seeking one here.
I have a simple suggestion to improve the lives of Muslim women: Require that all Muslim men wear blindfolds when they are in public. It is apparently dangerous for Islamic men to see unrelated women, and there are way too many non-Islamic women in the country to require them all to wear burqas (at least currrently) so that requiring that Islamic men wear blindfolds seems the only reasonable solution.
Thanks for the information, Pietro.
All of this comment is quoted directly from the Clarion Project website that is linked at the beginning.
About the Clarion Project:
The Clarion Project (formerly Clarion Fund Inc.) is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization founded in 2006. The organization has been involved in the production and distribution of the films Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, The Third Jihad, Iranium and Honor Diaries. These films have been criticized for falsifying information and described as anti-Muslim propaganda.
Funders include ,,, casino owner Sheldon Adelson.
The project’s advisory board included Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, and Walid Phares of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A popup identifies Frank Gaffney as an “anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist.”
What’s happening in Yemen must be heartbreaking for expat Yeminis, and this shop seems like a refuge.
Agree! (I posted this comment in response to the post “It’s Baffling…” but it ended up under “the truth…” which makes it look like I was responding to that comment. There are also some good points in that second comment too, although some of it is a little deep. Anyway, I think that all this accomodation of Muslim women with their scarves, which are almost veils, is a giant step backwards for women’s rights.)
It’s Baffling to me how the people of Berkeley who are supposed to be so “Woke” are so supportive of a Culture / Religion that Historically is SO oppressive to Women, it’s hypocritical actually.
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