Kent hair braider defeats WA Dept. of Licensing

In the current political climate where government agencies shut down small businesses for irrational reasons, an African hair braider’s victory in Kent last year is a small but welcome blessing.

The mission of the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) is to advance public safety and consumer protection.  So how did this agency get tangled up in a federal lawsuit about hair braiding?

In June 2014, hair braider Salamata “Sally” Sylla filed a federal lawsuit against the Washington DOL, because the agency had ordered her to either get a cosmetology license, or shut down her business.  Sylla was represented in her lawsuit by the Institute for Justice.

Sylla sought a judicial order requiring the department to adhere to its own stated policy that African, or natural, hair braiding does not require a cosmetology license.

Sally Sylla. Photo from the Institute for Justice
Sally Sylla. Photo from the Institute for Justice

That policy was the result of a previous lawsuit from ten years ago.  In 2005, African hair braider Benta Diaw sued the DOL when they sought to shut down her business because she didn’t have a cosmetology license.  Benta prevailed, and as a result, the agency instituted a policy that exempted hair braiders from needing a cosmetology license.

Ten years later, however, the DOL took two steps back. The agency stated that their prior agreement with Diaw was non-binding for future braiders like Sylla.

The safe, natural art of African hair braiding

The Senegalese twist
The Senegalese twist

Sally Sylla practices the art of African hair braiding at her business, Sally’s African Hair Braiding in Kent.

African hair braiding, a 5,000-year-old practice, involves styling hair into intricate patterns of braids, without the use of chemicals or scissors.

African hair braiding is becoming more popular, particularly among women with coarse, thick hair who previously had their hair chemically straightened and cut into styles.  African hair braiding is a natural alternative.

The growing practice of African hair braiding has also provided a road out of poverty for many women, because it is an easy entry business that doesn’t require expensive equipment or supplies.  Experienced braiders can earn additional income by training new braiders.

senegalSylla has been braiding hair since she was a little girl.  She came to the U.S. from her native Senegal in 1999, and opened her own business in 2012.  A single mom, she had found economic freedom and self-sufficiency in her lifelong skill of braiding hair.

License for chemicals and scissors – not braids

hair braiding 2Washington hair stylists who use either chemicals or scissors need a cosmetology license from the DOL.  That is consistent with the agency’s mission to advance public safety and consumer protection, because misuse of chemicals or scissors could injure a customer.

A Washington cosmetology license requires a candidate to complete 1,600 hours of schooling, 2,000 hours of apprenticeship, take an exam, and pay for a license.

hair braiding 1But African hair braiders don’t use scissors or chemicals in their profession.

Yet the Washington DOL threatened to take away Sylla’s livelihood and her ability to support her child, because she didn’t have a license that wasn’t even relevant to her line of work—in spite of the agency’s own policy exempting braiders from licensing requirements.

Cosmetology schools do not teach hair braiding.  If Sylla had been forced to get a cosmetology license, she would have paid for an education for which she would have no use.

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–Melissa Genson

Feature image from the Institute for Justice


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