State of Iowa opens door for braiders to pursue ‘dignifying profession’ without hurdles

Photo by Steven Depolo
Photo by Steven Depolo

For many black women, the sweltering summer heat means hair appointments with braiders specializing in cornrows, micro braids, faux locs, box braids and Senegalese twists — to name a few. And as of July 1 braiders in Iowa won’t have to risk jail time for cashing in on the steady customer flow without a cosmetology license.

Prior to that date, braiding hair without taking 2,100 course hours at a cosmetology school — which seldom teach natural hair braiding and cost upwards of 20,000 dollars — could result in a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in prison.

The battle against this Iowa law began with Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit — two black women and braiders whose dreams of opening their own salons in Des Moines were shut down due to the fear of prosecution for a natural skill rooted in black culture. In a Facebook message, Bell told Little Village that “burdensome occupational licenses ruined [her] life.”

For Agit, the lack of a license gave customers the impression that she wasn’t professional and thus didn’t need to be paid the full amount or paid at all for a hairstyle.

“It was scary to do hair … customers threatening to sue me and running away with my money and I didn’t know who to call because the cops would ask for a license,” Agit told Little Village during a phone call. “What am I going to tell the judge? Because I was violating the law myself.”

Both women, with legal help from Virginia-based law firm Institute for Justice, filed a civil lawsuit last fall against the state’s cosmetology board. The suit, according to an Institute for Justice press release, argued “that the state‚Äôs licensing requirements for African-style hair braiders violate their constitutional right to economic liberty, a right guaranteed by both the Iowa Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.”

Last year, the Iowa Legislature removed the training requirement for braiders but still required “natural hair braiders to take one hour of safety and sanitation curriculum annually and be subject to inspection,” the Des Moines Register reported.

But the disagreements about how to regulate braiding ended with Gov. Terry Branstad completely deregulating the work of braiders in Iowa via a veto. In the veto message, Gov. Branstad said, “Licensing and regulations should only be mandated when necessary to serve public health or safety. Natural hair braiding does not require government mandates, regulations or licensing.” Now natural hair braiders just have to register with the state; no cosmetology license needed.

The new legislation took root on July 1, resulting in the drop of the civil lawsuit and the start of a new chapter for both women.

“I thank God for the Institute of Justice’s legal support in freeing braiders across the country,” Bell said. “Earning an honest living as a braider is dignifying profession.”

“Very exciting that everything is over,” Agit said. “Braiding was the only way I got a chance to support myself and my family. Right now, any African who wants to do hair in Des Moines can. They can work in a professional salon [without a license].”

Still, the fight to free braiders from burdensome occupational licenses and laws continues in over 27 different states — a fight that the Institute for Justice has taken on via their Braiding Freedom initiative, a project seeking “to continue to increase braiding freedom and economic liberty nationwide.” Iowa now joins 19 other states that do not require licenses to braid hair, an advantage that’s opening doors for both women’s personal dreams to flourish.

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Agit hopes to open her own hair business in the future. For now she is working out of her home, without the strain of chair rental fees in a salon, to raise the money. Plans for Star Quality Beauty, Bell’s future salon, are in the works as well.

“I plan to continue helping people love their curls,” Bell said. “I have to reprogram my mind now. When you’re working under fear it affects the creative process. Now I create with unlimited possibility.”

Bell is currently doing contracted braiding and natural hair styling work in Los Angeles. She will be showcasing her work at the 2016 Nappywood festivities this weekend.