Published in The Independent in May 2010

Momoca Beauty Parlour

As the number of mega franchises appearing in Dhaka continues to grow at a startling rate, it’s refreshing to stumble upon a small business with a personality and products all of its own.  I first visited the beauty salon Momoca in Dhanmonhi on a sultry Friday afternoon, after nearly a month of reluctantly passing it by on my way to the office.  Little did I know before I entered that I would find myself utterly charmed by the experience, and that I would emerge four hours later with a radically different hair colour…

The first thing I noticed as I stepped inside Momoca’s pink and green façade was its individuality.  Whilst many beauty salons opt for a modern, almost hospital-like white-wash of minimalism, Momoca is girly and kitsch.  The walls in the waiting room are a dusty rose pink and covered with an eclectic mix of decorations, including a cabinet full of mysterious looking oils and a European porcelain bust.  Three sets of wind chimes dangle from the partition leading to the salon and floral curtains abound.  A laughing Buddha grins at the countless women who submit themselves to beauty treatments before him, while the upper walls of the main salon feature portraits of female beauties from around the world.  In every corner, in every nook and cranny, there is something to rest your eyes on.  Which is no doubt a wonderful thing if you happen to be waiting for your chocolate face-pack to set.

The second thing I noticed – and it didn’t come long after the first – was the gentle kindness of the staff.  After being led to a 1970s style red vinyl seat before my massage began, a young girl scooped up my hair so that it wouldn’t get in the way.  Rather than asking me if I had my own hair tie, she simply took out her own hair clip and placed it in my hair.  At Momoca there doesn’t appear to be a division amongst staff as to who was attending to whom – they all seem to be there to help.  One young woman brought me a cup of tea, whilst another brought me slippers for the bathroom; on a later visit, a different girl patted the sweat off my face with a tissue.  All smile warmly when eye contact is made.

Two women then gave me an odd but pleasant massage; I can only describe it as a dry bath.  The technique was Thai, and I was scrubbed clean with tiny seeds and a soapy mixture – later I learnt that pain balm was also applied.  After an hour, my skin felt smooth and tight, and it glistened as though it were a day old.

Momoca's owner, Naima Mahmud

I was thoroughly enjoying myself – which is no doubt why I decided to prolong the experience.  I retrieved a magazine cutting of a red-haired model from my handbag.  Could I possibly change from being a dark brunette to a strawberry blonde, I asked? “It’s possible,” said Naima Mahmud, the owner of Momoca.  She said those two words with such confidence that I didn’t doubt her capabilities for a second.  Nor did I have reason to.

Naima 32, started her business eight years ago with a little money, three staff and one room.  Today she has three rooms, at least 150 customers per week and eleven staff, several of whom are Chakma.  Naima said that most of her staff are already trained when they join Momoca, but she also offers training on the premises.  Momoca now offers almost every conceivable type of treatment, including waxing, pedicures and manicures, massage, hair cuts and colours.  Whilst I was there a few young women lay face-up, their eyes laced with cucumbers and their skin covered in something resembling dark clay.  One customer, Farhana, 37, who stoically spoke to me while having her arms waxed, said, “I like the style here.  I also really like the staff.  One of my friends comes here regularly for hair cuts and facials, and that’s how I heard about it.”

Naima is petite and she looks very young, so I was startled to discover that she has a 15-year-old daughter.  I’m not the only one who was charmed by her demure smile – once a woman from overseas who was staying in the hotel opposite the salon tried to convince Naima to marry her son.  No doubt that woman was just as surprised as I was to be told that Naima was married when she was 12.  Naima and her husband moved to Dhaka from a village in Jessore and after school she began studying Honours in economics, though she hasn’t been able to complete it.  She is now working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and obviously has no time for further study.  She opened her business eight years ago out of financial necessity, and she said she continues to work long hours for the same reason.  She said, “This business is suitable for Muslim women because women do not have to go outside to run it.  And a Muslim woman can pray while she works.” She added, “I encourage young ladies to start similar businesses, and if they need any help, I can provide some assistance.”

Naima’s sister, Zaqia Rafique, is a chemist and she lives above the salon.  From an upstairs laboratory, Zaqia creates more than 50 beauty products, which are available to purchase as treatments or to take home.  There are some unusual face-packs, such as grape, chocolate, vegetable and coffee, as well as fruit polishing lotions, washing powder, shampoos and hair oils.  Everything is made on the premises, and it’s all natural.

Momoca’s services are offered only to females, and like many beauty salons, there’s an unspoken rule that it’s strictly a girl-only zone.  However one exception is made – for Oomi.  The 18-month-old toddler, the son of one of the staff, has big brown eyes and an even larger grin.  Oomi waddles around the salon unsteadily as he carries containers of soap that he likes to play with.  He’s not shy about wandering up to customers and thrusting out his hand to show off his “products.” One wonders how many women’s beauty secrets he must already know…

Momoca is on Road 3, 19A, Dhanmondi, Dhaka