For many Muslim women, going to the hairdressers is not possible. That's why a Melbourne stylist has created a safe space to sit back and relax in.
Melbourne woman Zulfiye Tufa spent years cutting her own hair, unable to find a salon willing to offer a private space for her to remove her headscarf.
“I’ve gone to hairdressers and actually asked them ‘can you just style my hair in the back?'” the 29-year-old Muslim tells SBS News.
“But they weren’t really accommodating, they just looked at me like I was kind of crazy - and I don’t blame them, because I guess they didn’t understand, and if you don’t understand it can’t make sense to you.”
Things changed when she discovered Neel Morley - the owner of Australia’s first curly hair salon Neel Loves Curls - who recently started closing his doors to the general public for special ‘headscarf days’.
Every few months, Mr Morley sends himself home, brings in a team of all-female stylists, and creates a safe space in Melbourne’s Fitzroy for Muslim women to remove their headscarves and be pampered.
“For me, even though I cover my hair, it’s my biggest asset, it’s a big part of my identity, and I’m very proud of it,” Ms Tufa says.
Even though I cover my hair, it’s my biggest asset, it’s a big part of my identity, and I’m very proud of it.
- Zulfiye Tufa
“So it was nice to have a place I could go and relax, let them do what they were doing, and trust them fully - that was the best part for me.”
Born in the UK, Mr Morley arrived in Australia 15 years ago and quickly became known as 'the curly hair man'.
He opened his own salon in 2014 and says he has been fully-booked ever since - but the past year saw him receive more and more requests to offer a safe space for Muslim women to get their hair done.
He says it was a no-brainer.
“We now do them every few months on a Sunday and Monday, we give people two months’ notice, and they just book out so quickly,” Mr Morley told SBS News.
“I just can’t imagine being in your 40s and never having had a decent haircut before, and a lot of the women who come in say they would have to just trim it themselves or get a close friend to do it.”
The salon has hosted three lots of headscarf days so far and plans to hold more in the future.
Stylist Christine Pike, who ran the previous day, said the service was so simple to offer, yet so hard to find.
“Besides from us creating a discrete space - we pull the blinds down at the front and put a covering over the door so we’re enclosed and not visible from the street - it was exactly the same as any other day in the salon,” Ms Pike said.
“When I work, I just like people to feel comfortable, so it was just getting on with the normal conversation, and only in very few cases did the scarf even come into the conversation.”
Speaking with her new clients, Ms Pike said she quickly realised how difficult it had been for many of them to find culturally appropriate services.
“It’s a double whammy because they can’t find anyone who can cut curly hair, but they also need private spaces where their cultural differences are respected,” she said.
“Being able to offer a curly haircut and a space where someone could just come and have their needs observed respectfully with no drama was wonderful, and we were on the receiving end of a lot of gratitude – they were such a lovely bunch of women.”
While the reception from his clients and the local community has been overwhelmingly positive, Mr Morley said some people did question why the service was necessary, when he announced the salon’s headscarf days on social media.
Ms Tufa said there was still a general lack of understanding over why and when Muslim women wear headscarves.
“It’s because whenever people see us, we’re wearing it, and when they see us the next day, we’re wearing it, so they just assume we even wear it in the shower,” she joked.
“When we do cover, it’s more for when we go out in public, whereas when I’m at home, the first thing I take off is my scarf.
“It’s not worn in front of your family members, in front of your husband, in front of your dad or your brothers, it’s only for people who aren’t family or for strangers.”
Since he opened his doors in 2014, Mr Morley’s salon has become a safe haven for women from many other backgrounds and cultures.
He says he now has other salons and stylists knocking on his door and asking him how to cater for women with textured hair.
“We’re getting a lot more people from African backgrounds in the salon, and being Melbourne, the majority of our clients are Greek and Italian, but after that we have a lot of Indian and Sri Lankan clients too,” he said.
“They say they’ve been fighting this stereotype that curly hair isn’t beautiful because that’s what they were told growing up, but it drives me and it makes me feel happy to know that people love the way they naturally look.
“That generally isn’t what most salons try to do - they usually want to change you to look different.”