Pakistani men are sitting prettier than ever

Times Staff Writer

The facialist at a popular salon here couldn’t help being a bit nervous. Her client that afternoon was a particularly demanding one, certain to quiz her unrelentingly about the latest anti-wrinkle creams and pore-reduction potions.

But such exactitude, she said, is typical of her male customers.

Pakistan may be a macho, tradition-bound society with conservative Muslim mores, but the male-beauty trade is booming here. Urban professional men, following a trail blazed by their counterparts abroad, are waxing and highlighting and plucking and primping like never before.


The trend appears to be a durable one, even in tough economic times. Banker Nauman Zafr said that although things were little tight these days, he had no intention of relinquishing his monthly manicure- pedicure.

“I like to look good and feel good,” he said languidly, relaxing in a “nail bar” while his nails were buffed to a pearly pink sheen. “I’d definitely give up other things before this.”

Attention to male glamour is apparent in the public sphere, where the country’s new political leaders have demonstrated an affinity for looking their best.

Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the senior party in the coalition government, has stopped dyeing his mustache a harsh black, letting it grow in silver-gray.

“Mustache-dyeing is seen now as a little passe -- a natural look is more subtle and sophisticated,” said Nadia Furqan, who manages Nirvana, a popular day spa and salon in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

Nawaz Sharif, head of the governing coalition’s other main party, returned last year after nearly a decade in exile to lead his party in parliamentary elections. He and his politician brother, Shahbaz, had receding hairlines when they left; on their return, both had luxuriant locks, leading to reports of hair transplants.

“They used to be called ‘the Bald Brothers,’ ” said a journalist in Lahore, the eastern city that is the Sharifs’ power base. “They’re looking different these days. Better.”

Not content with raiding their wives’ cosmetics cases, Pakistani men are spending more on beauty products of their own, shopkeepers say.

“They buy everything -- hair products, skin products -- and they want to talk and talk and talk about which one is the best,” pharmacist Riaz Assam said. “They take it all very seriously.”

The beauty business is not without its perils. Nirvana closed its doors for more than two weeks last summer after clerics at a radical mosque nearby spearheaded a campaign against perceived vice that included the abduction of several masseuses from another establishment.

In still-rare unisex salons, female stylists tend to be either foreigners or Pakistani Christians, because few Muslim families would want their daughters to have a job that brought them into such close contact with men. Some are cautious about disclosing their livelihoods to outsiders.

For the growing male clientele, attention to appearance has entered previously uncharted realms, some not only expensive but also painful. Lately, hirsute but image-conscious men have been getting their backs waxed regularly.

“Once they start, they don’t want to go back to the way they were,” Furqan said.

Preening, of course, is not an entirely new phenomenon among Pakistani males. Many long-standing grooming practices have cultural and religious permutations. After returning from the hajj, some conservative older Muslim men dye their beards with henna, which turns gray hair flaming orange. Pashtun tribesmen often line their eyes with kohl. Even in Taliban circles, men sometimes sport dainty sandals with a slightly raised heel.

But the metrosexual lifestyle that has taken hold in big cities such as Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore is probably a product of globalized pop culture, a growing middle class -- and female expectations.

“If I like it when a woman looks pretty, I should make an effort too,” said Munir Imtiaz, who was booking a manicure. “At least, that’s what my girlfriend tells me.”