x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 October 2017

WATCH: Meet the female barber challenging cultural norms in the UAE

After securing special legal approvals, Chaps & Co employs Samantha Lloyd – one of the first women to cut men’s hair in a UAE barbershop

Samantha Lloyd's uniform, which consists of tapered black trousers, black braces and a white blouse, is identical to that of the male barbers at Chaps & Co. Reem Mohammed / The National
Samantha Lloyd's uniform, which consists of tapered black trousers, black braces and a white blouse, is identical to that of the male barbers at Chaps & Co. Reem Mohammed / The National

Hair salons across the UAE often have signs plastered on their doors that say “ladies only” or “no men allowed”. While signs excluding females are rarely posted outside of barbershops, there is an unspoken rule that this is male-only territory.

Popular barbershop Chaps & Co is challenging this long-held tradition by adding female barbers to its team. Having qualified in hair styling five years ago, Samantha Lloyd, 29, left the United Kingdom and landed in Dubai earlier this month.

She’s currently one of the only female barbers in the UAE who is licensed to work in a non-hotel barbershop for males. “I’m overwhelmed, it still hasn’t sunk in,” she says when we meet. Her uniform, which consists of tapered black trousers, black braces and a white blouse, is identical to that of the male barbers at Chaps & Co, save for a black scarf tied around her neck. “I told them when I first came that I didn’t want to stand out,” she says, recognising that the culture here may not be accepting of a female figure in the barbershop, let alone one that routinely touches a man’s hair and beard.

Section 4-9 of the Health Requirements for Barber Shops, compiled by the Dubai Government’s Public Health & Safety Department, states that: “females are not allowed to work/be present in barbershops. Only in the barbershops that are existing in the hotels that [are] graded as four or more stars.”

Special approvals were secured for Lloyd. “Our female barbers were recruited specifically for our Dubai Design District [d3] location, which as a community that boasts creativity and innovation and all things ‘different’,” says Jordan Davies, owner of Chaps & Co. “Obtaining approvals from our business partners at d3 was straightforward and the idea was encouraged.”

Davies acknowledges that there are prejudices surrounding the idea of a female barber in the UAE. “We believe this is deeply rooted in the barbershop tradition, combined with the Middle Eastern tradition,” he says. Which raises the question – why bother to recruit female barbers at all? “In short, it’s unique and it’s cool,” says Davies.

But there’s also a weightier reason behind Davies’ decision to put a female on his team. “In the grooming industry, there’s a different type of glass ceiling. It’s in the barbershop instead of the boardroom, and it works on the assumption that women can’t make good barbers simply because of their gender, and that barbershops should be sanctuaries for men,” he explains. “At Chaps & Co, we’re not proto-feminist; if females happily visit male hair stylists, why wouldn’t the reverse be true?”

Still, female barbers aren’t always treated exactly like their male colleagues. In her few weeks working in Dubai so far, Lloyd says that she has faced resistance from a client who seemed gob-smacked that he was getting his hair cut by a woman. “He wouldn’t look in the mirror, and he was so rude. He sat in my seat and made me feel like I was nothing, but I didn’t let him walk all over me. I know my job,” she says. With conviction, Lloyd kept the client and cut his hair, and he walked out of Chaps & Co promising to come back to her. “He even left me quite a good tip,” she adds.

When she first started in the business, Lloyd assumed that a friendly disposition would be as important as technical skills. “But no, probably about 60 per cent of my clients are so fussy about their hair, that they wouldn’t even talk to me. So that’s when I knew my work was showing – some people would come in, just say hello, and I’d say goodbye at the end, and that was it. They didn’t want to know anything, they just wanted a great haircut and then they would go home,” she says.

So why choose to cut men’s hair, rather than women’s? “The vibe in a barbershop is quite different from that in a women’s salon. It’s a much more laid-back atmosphere and you have more chances to be creative,” says female barber Bianca Heslop, who will be joining Lloyd at Chaps & Co this August. “Guys are a lot more adventurous with their hair, and easier to talk to than females – although they’re not any less fussy.”

Lloyd maintains that a barber’s work requires a specific skill-set and extra attention to detail. She explains that many men’s styles cannot be replicated by ordinary hair stylists – they require a barber’s training and experience. “If you went into a barbershop and asked for a skin fade, you’d come out looking clean, smart and confident with your haircut. If you went to a hairdresser, you’d come out thinking ‘Oh God, now I need to go to a barber [to fix it]’. They’re used to long, bouncy, colourful hair, things like that; we’re all about little nitty-gritty details,” she says.

Over the past few weeks in Dubai, Lloyd has been introduced to some new techniques – like threading, which is commonly used at UAE barbershops to give the lines of the beard precision and definition. She has also observed that men here seem more concerned about their beards than men back in the UK.

“Being in a country where there’s a lot of money, men like to look good in every way,” she says. “There’s no point having a Rolls-Royce and then rocking up with a beard like Santa Claus.”

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* Updated: July 30, 2017 10:30 AM