Hair Braiders Want Exemption

Illinois lawmakers offer a compromise

By Susan Rivera
|  Monday, May 3, 2010  |  Updated 8:00 AM CDT
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Hair-braiders want an exemption for cosmetology laws.

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Illinois lawmakers are trying to compromise and smooth-over a hairy situation with certain hair dressers. 

It boils down to a clash between rules and one group's cultural traditions. 

The tradition in question is African hair braiding.

Chicago is home to dozens of salons that specialize in the highly complex, expensive and time consuming technique with many practitioners having learned their craft not through formal class-room training, but informally from one generation to the next.

But under Illinois law anyone – that includes hair braiders – operating a hair salon is required to have a cosmetology degree, which can take 1,500 hours and cost $15,000 to achieve. After accreditation braiders must apply for a license, just like people who give haircuts, manicures and facials.

Proponents say the rules are needed to protect consumers if they develop problems such as hair loss or have service complaints.

The law seems ridiculous to many braiders, the majority of whom are African and African-American women who learned as children and have refined their talent in kitchens and on stoops for generations.

"Hair braiding is not cosmetology," said Alie Kabba, executive director of the Chicago-based United African Organization. "You cannot ask an engineer to get a degree in history."

Now Illinois lawmakers are trying to carve out some relief. Under legislation that passed the House and Senate,  braiders who prove they've practiced their craft for at least two years could automatically get a hair-braiding license after paying a fee. New braiders could get a license after undergoing 300 hours of training in braiding methods and sanitation.

"At the end of the day, this bill is about creating opportunities for people who want to scale up businesses, who want to create jobs, who want to pay taxes," said Rep. Will Burns, the bill's lead House sponsor.

The United African Organization approached Burns to push for a hair-braiding license as shops owned by African women, many of them recent immigrants, were being raided and shut down by the professional regulation department.

Kabba said that "created an atmosphere of fear in the community," and women either closed their shops or, like Wague, went underground.

Burns' bill passed the House 95-20 after a spirited debate, and some opponents said it doesn't go far enough to lift the restrictions on braiders. State Rep. Monique Davis wants braiders to be able to operate without any license at all the way they do in other countries.

"I just think it's overkill," Davis said.

The newly passed legislation needs to be signed into law by Governor Quinn. 

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