Muslim students practice giving a facial treatment at a beauty salon in Kelantan, Malaysia. - AP photo.
KOTA BARU: In a softly lit, wood-panelled spa, the personal beauticians of a Malaysian queen are training a new generation of Muslims in the art of feminine grooming as part of a royal effort to save young women from vice.
The project has drawn attention as much for its objective as for its location -- Malaysia's most backward state, Kelantan, and the only one governed by the opposition Islamic fundamentalist party that recommends keeping the female form under wrap.
With the motto "beauty is women's top asset," the salon set up in 2004 by Kelantan Queen Tengku Anis Tengku Abdul Hamid teaches underprivileged girls the art of grooming -- bridal makeup, massage techniques, facial and hair care, spa and slimming treatments, salon management.
"Many girls from rural areas migrate to Kuala Lumpur to look for jobs and end up working in bars or nightclubs. Our queen wants to teach these girls a trade so they can earn a living and avoid being caught in vice," said project manager Tengku Zarina Tengku Din.
"We want to train a new generation of Muslim beauticians," said Zarina, a relative of the queen, who is the wife of Kelantan's constitutional king.
Nine of Malaysia's 13 states are ruled by sultans or kings, each of whom takes over as the country's constitutional monarch on a rotation basis.
The queen's project has received a guarded welcome by the ruling Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, which has imposed strict Islamic rules in Kelantan, including a prohibition on mixing of sexes in public and a ban on liquor.
Lo'Lo Ghazali, a senior leader of Islamic party known as PAS from its initials in Malay, said there is nothing wrong in Muslim women wanting to look beautiful for their husbands, but added it is important to balance physical beauty with spiritual values.
"I hope they instil some spiritual aspects into the course," she said.
The courses are conducted at the Beauty Spa Centre, on the top floor of a two-storey building in downtown Kota Baru, Kelantan's capital. Designed with a royal touch, it has two massage chambers, identical to the queen's own, equipped with bathtub and a portable steam sauna machine.
"Beauty is important for a woman," said Wan Rohani Wan Hussain, a 20-year-old trainee wearing the uniform of all the students and instructors -- a white medical coat and a headscarf.
The PAS government in Kelantan requires all Muslim women to wear a headscarf, but in the rest of the country Muslim women have a choice whether to cover their heads. Many do, with colourful headgear worn with equally bright sarongs and loose shirts.
"Muslim women in headscarf can still look beautiful. There is nothing wrong in wearing makeup because it's for personal satisfaction," said Tengku Zarina. "Beauty is a gift from God, so it's important for women to take care of their physical appearance."