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African-Style Hair Braiders Sue State Cosmetology Board

Iowa Public Radio / Sarah Boden
Achan Agit (left) and Aicheria Bell are sueing the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences for requiring them to obstain a cosmetology license in order to braid hair professionally.

Two African-style hair braiders in Des Moines are suing the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences.

Hair braiders in Iowa are required to complete 2,100 hours at a licensed cosmetology school and pass an exam, even though these requirements generally don’t train or test the practice of African-style hair braiding. The lawsuit says Iowa code is burdensome, arbitrary and impair a hair-braider’s “constitutional right to economic liberty.”

In an emailed statement the Iowa Department of Public Health, which oversees the state’s cosmetology board, says, "Although IDPH cannot comment on pending litigation, we would like to mention that the legislature did look at this issue last session and declined to take action. IDPH encourages the legislature to look at the issue again this session."

In the meantime hair braiders can face a maximum of $10,000 in fines for practicing without a cosmetology license or pay thousands more in tuition at a cosmetology school. These schools by and large don't teach hair braiding and only provide instruction in the use of heat and chemicals to relax, soften or straighten natural, textured hair. 

"The curriculum is a French or British curriculum. I am practicing African braiding," says plaintiff Aicheria Bell, who currently can only work as a salon assistant and is prohibited from using any tools other than a comb. "I feel like this has been a human's rights issue, an identify issue."

In addition to combs, braiders also use threading instruments to attach weaves. However the plaintiffs say they do no use heat, chemicals, dyes, scissors or glue.

Another requirement the suit cites as onerous is the requirement of a high school degree or equivalent. Achan Agit, the second plaintiff, left what is now South Sudan in 2001 and never graduated high school. While Agit says she has limited literacy skills, she has been braiding hair since she was five years old and supports her family with the skill. 

"I don't have a job, I just had a baby... I buy diapers, I buy soap, I put gas in my car, I pay my car insurance (with) it," says Agit. "But I don't get much because I do hair at home." 

Both Agit and Bell would like to open their own shops and be able to publicly advertise their trade. According to U.S. Census data, 14 percent of residents in the Des Moines Metropolitan Statistical area are African-born and another 10 percent identify as black. 

According the the plaintiffs' brief, "Natural hair care is particularly meaningful for many African-Americans because for decades Western culture pressure African-Americans to use chemicals or heat to straighten their hair to imitate Western standards of beauty."

Bell and Agit are being represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that began in 1991 with funding from Charles Koch. The organization has won several challenges across the U.S, including Minnesota. Currently IJ is also challenging Missouri's hair braiding regulations.