Mohammed Yassin, 33, has enjoyed a weekly visit to his favourite barber for the past ten years. He has good reason to be a loyal customer.
“He handled my hair expertly from the very first moment and did his best to make me look really great,” the salesman said of his barber, Waleed Abdullah. “No one cuts my hair as nicely as he does.”
Abdullah, 35, welcomes customers with a broad smile and treats them like long-time friends. Once they’re settled in the barber’s chair, he strikes up a conversation with them that continues until his work is done.
“I enjoy my job,” he said. “I like chatting with my clients so they don’t get bored.”
Customers give him a boost of positive energy, he added, especially those like Yassin who ignore class differences.
But a shadow of injustice hangs over Abdullah’s workday. Social norms in some Yemeni regions stigmatise certain professions and forbid friendships or marriage with anyone involved in them.
“There are prejudices against us that come across through some people’s actions or words,” Abdullah said. “Mazayna, as some call us, can marry only within our class. On a social level, we rarely enjoy full acceptance.”
“We have to stop putting down such vital and valuable occupations.”
Hairstyling belongs to a group of occupations that are routinely frowned upon in Yemeni society. These include butchers, henna tattoo artists, and musicians. The origin of this discrimination is unclear, but it’s likely rooted in the exclusion of those unable to trace their ancestry to Yemen’s main tribes. Anyone in these professions who commonly falls outside this tribal affiliation is looked down upon, even though their work is considered legitimate.
Women hairdressers have it slightly easier, especially since the outbreak of the war in Yemen. Once a number of civil society organisations began offering training in hairstyling to women from all walks of life, it became an accepted source of income, regardless of one’s background. However, Mazayna women working in salons inherited from their mothers do encounter discrimination, though it’s less pronounced than what their male colleagues endure.
Abdullah and his family have lived with such prejudice for generations. But it doesn’t dissuade him from doing what he loves; on the contrary, he’s determined to pursue his craft with the highest standards and keep up with developments in the field.
Gamhoor al-Humaidi, who heads the Psychological Guidance Centre at Taiz University, describes the contempt for barbers as “unfamiliar behaviour in Yemeni society, which is known for tolerance and acceptance of others.”
Al-Humaidi attributes this bias to an inability to perceive the value of a cohesive society. But he’s convinced such negative attitudes toward the beauty profession are not representative of the entire population.
“This is a psychological disorder that we must confront and overcome,” he said. “We have to stop putting down such vital and valuable occupations.”
Mohammed Yassin agrees. “There is a rebellion against many of the customs that have handicapped us throughout previous stages of our history,” he said. “I feel cities are moving beyond this.”
Walid Abdullah is hopeful these old prejudices will dissipate over time, not least because he’d like his ten-year-old son to take over the business one day.
“I am teaching him the trade,” Abdullah said proudly. “My love of this profession is the most important thing for me.”