If the customer is king for most brands, Masarrat Misbah is the undisputed queen of her brand; her wish to ‘make a difference’ trumps all other concerns when it comes to managing her business.
Graceful and poised, she arrives dressed with understated elegance. Patiently answering my questions with effortless charm, she pauses with a smile as I fiddle with my recorder, and apologises whenever she has to take a break to answer queries of her staff who pop in constantly, or play with her granddaughter when she bounces into the room, demanding attention.
Born into a family with links to the pharmaceutical industry, Misbah wanted to be a doctor until her early marriage. After the marriage broke down, she decided to do something worthwhile with her life. In 1980, supported by her father, she applied to the Shaw College of Beauty Therapy in the UK – and so began her journey, which includes the establishment of the trendsetting Depilex salon. Today Depilex has over 62 branches across Pakistan and Misbah is also planning to open one in the UK in October.
When she launched her first salon in Karachi in the late 1980s, backed by a team of psychiatrists, gynaecologists, dieticians and dermatologists, she was to pioneer a holistic approach to beauty and wellness, long before it became fashionable in Pakistan.
Speaking about her early days, she laughs as she recalls how they began by doing the makeup for a few fashion magazines, selecting girls “with a pretty face and a cute smile, a friend or a friend’s sister to model for us” until, step-by-step, Depilex morphed into a premier beauty institute, which among its many successes, has also made salons for men mainstream.
In the beginning, Misbah personally trained the aspiring beauticians at Depilex. Over the years, as the Depilex brand grew, Misbah’s direct involvement in the training has reduced to some extent. However, all Depilex employees undergo specialised training in various aspects of beauty therapy and cosmetology at the salon branches they work for. Depilex has thus evolved from a salon to ‘a hub of health and beauty solutions’ for its employees, people who want to be professionally trained, as well as its customers.
Misbah strongly believes she must use her recognition and success to make a difference. This is why she has lobbied tirelessly for three years to pass a legislation that requires skin whitening creams to comply with international standards and list all the ingredients. Furthermore, her entry into the halal makeup market stemmed from an awareness of the presence of non-permissible and toxic ingredients in most cosmetics. She launched her halal makeup line ‘Made in Turkey’, after two and a half years of painstaking research and obtaining the halal certification from Shari’ah compliant international organisations.
However, the project that is closest to her heart is the Smile Again Foundation, which she started after a heavily disfigured woman walked into her salon in 2003.
“That day changed my life,” she says.
Seized by the certainty that she had to do something about this woman and the many others in her predicament, she decided to advertise in the press and invite the victims of acid attacks to come to Depilex on a fixed date.
Forty two young women from all over Pakistan came. “I was overwhelmed,” she confesses, “and within two years, I registered the Smile Again Foundation as an NGO for acid attack victims. By then, I had learnt a great deal about this terrible crime, including the attitude of the families who lack the means or the knowledge to have them treated or pursue lengthy legal battles.” Since 2003, 760 victims (which include several young men) have been treated by her NGO. “Most victims didn’t survive because of the abysmal lack of facilities; even Lahore has only one proper burns unit at the Jinnah hospital,” she tells me with disappointment.
The Smile Again Foundation offers counselling and therapy and as most of the women come from conservative areas, workshops are arranged twice a year to enable them to meet, watch plays, attend drawing and pottery classes and go for outings and generally have a good time.
“We identify, treat and then rehabilitate women and this includes helping them with education and training so that they can sustain themselves. One of the women has done her MPhil and another is a lawyer, although most of them opt for beauty or sewing and embroidery training.”
When the families do not consent to the women working outside the home, the Foundation helps them set up work facilities at home, where possible. To encourage them to expand their home businesses, they are asked to deposit Rs 1,000 per month with the Foundation; after six months, the Foundation returns a sum of Rs 12,000 to help them invest in upgrading their facilities so that the scope of the business can increase.
“We identify, treat and then rehabilitate women and this includes helping them with education and training so that they can sustain themselves."
Misbah is particularly proud of how the image of these women has changed within their families and neighbourhoods as a result of their earning capacity. Many of them are managing Depilex franchises or opening salons in Hyderabad, Jhelum, Peshawar, Sahiwal, Saidu Sharif and Sargodha, and most are happy to report that their families are now giving them the same respect they would give to their sons saying: “humara puttar hai yeh toh.”
All Depilex salons provide employment opportunities for these women as a matter of policy. In fact, the front desk of the Lahore salon is attended by one of them. Misbah says it is really heart-warming to see them come into the salon, put on a lipstick and look positively in the mirror – simple, ordinary things which illustrate how “blissfully normal” they feel about themselves. Eighteen of the women are now married with children.
Misbah is dismissive of the many accolades she has received and the fact that she is often referred to as a philanthropist. What she really wants is for the society to play a proactive role, assume responsibility and give back if they are in a position to do so. In her opinion, there is a lot of room for improvement and feels that there have been insufficient efforts to bring the stories of acid burn victims to life through dramas and movies. “I did participate in Ramzan transmissions and morning shows, but I realised that instead of creating awareness, these shows are focused on ratings.”
Despite enthusiastic promises from various designers to provide jobs to these women, none have really delivered on this and the government only pays lip service.
“They invite me to shows on Women’s Day and present me with awards and medals,” she says, “but nothing is done to provide employment to these women.”
In her own salons, although most clients are appreciative and encouraging, some do feel uncomfortable, “but I ask them to give these women a chance. They are working; if they don’t do the work well, don’t pay but do not discriminate on the basis of a misfortune which these women have worked so hard to not let themselves be defined by.”
Her dedication is total. The first to arrive and the last to leave the salon, her focus has won her the success, respect, love and prayers of many. Although her family remains a priority, her life, to a great extent, revolves around those whom she fondly refers to as ‘my girls’. There are usually five to six girls at her house at any given time receiving treatment or staying because they want to.
“Apart from training and psychosocial treatment, I want to instil confidence in them and strengthen their faith; especially when they feel so helpless,” she says.
Misbah believes she receives a lot more than what she gives and this is what brings a smile to her face.
Hira Salman is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. email@example.com