Hair Braiding Hindered by Iowa Laws

The Institute for Justice (IJ) is again joining Black women in the fight to deregulate state laws that restrict African-style hair braiding services.

The IJ, along with hair-braiding entrepreneurs Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit of Des Moines, Iowa, filed a civil suit in Polk County District Court on Oct. 28 against Iowa’s Board of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences. They are challenging the state’s requirement that hair braiders need to obtain a pricey cosmetology license that is unrelated to the practice of hair braiding.

In order to legally provide African-style hair braiding services in the state, one must be a high school graduate or its equivalent; obtain a cosmetology license; complete 2,100 hours at a licensed cosmetology school, which costs more than $20,000; and pass a cosmetology exam.

According to IJ, the hours of cosmetology training equate to hundreds more hours than it takes to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Iowa, which only requires 120 hours of training.

The lawsuit filed states:

These laws deprive Plaintiffs and other African-style hair braiders of their constitutional right to economic liberty, a right protected by Article I, Sections 1, 6 and 9 of the Iowa Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Aicheria Bell. Photo courtesy of Institute for Justice.

“Iowa has no business licensing something as safe and common as hair braiding,” IJ attorney Meagan Forbes said. “You shouldn’t need the government’s permission to simply braid hair. Iowa’s cosmetology licensing laws create a needless barrier for braiding entrepreneurs who are not cosmetologists and do not practice cosmetology.”

The art of African-style hair braiding has been in existence for centuries. It is a method of natural hair care that employs both traditional and modern styling techniques. It involves no heat, dyes, scissors or glue and does not use chemicals to physically alter textured hair.

Related Story: Natural Hair: To Straighten or Not To Straighten

“Braiding is a skill I already have,” Bell said. “It’s a way to keep my culture alive, and it has helped me provide for my family. I just want the right to earn a living and not feel like I’m a criminal.”

For the past 15 years, she has braided hair professionally in Georgia, Texas and Iowa and completed more than 900 hours of cosmetology school in Minnesota. But she has not completed Iowa’s licensing requirements.

“I’m not trying to not pay taxes or break any laws,” she said. “I just want to live the way that God gave me the right and the talent.”

Achan Agit. Photo courtesy of Institute for Justice.

Agit was born in what is now South Sudan. She left her country in 2001, settling in the U.S. in 2004,and used her ability to braid hair as a means of survival. Agitmoved to Des Moines and eventually opened her own salon. But theIowa law is preventing her business fromoperating.

Hair braiders in Cedar Rapids who are not a part of the lawsuit also agree the state’s cosmetology training does not contribute to their skills. Salon owner Erika Stowe has a cosmetology license but said she learned how to braid hair on her own.

“I have been braiding hair for years since I was in middle school,” Erika Stowe told KCRG. “It was something that was taught to me by an African lady that worked with my mom.”

“They teach you the basics, the simple things, they don’t teach you intricate stuff,” Monique Diaz at the JCPenney Salon said.

In the past two legislative sessions, Iowa lawmakers have tried to pass a bill exempting African-style braiding from the definition of cosmetology, but it failed to advance.

IJ, a national public interest law firm, has instituted a national Braiding Freedom Initiative, which seeks to protect braiders’ right to pursue their trade free from cosmetology licensing laws.

In Dallas, Texas, Isis Brantley, owner of the Institute of Ancestral Braiding, fought for the right to own a hair braiding shop and teach African hair braiding when state regulators first cited her in 1995. After Brantley was arrested for braiding without a cosmetology license in 1997, IJ joined her in posing a constitutional challenge to the law.

In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that deregulates the practice of African-style hair braiding and repeals the occupational license aspiring braiders were mandated to obtain. IJ has won similar challenges across the nation.

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