African Hair Braiders in the State of Washington Don't Need a License


FREEDOM TO BRAID: Salamata Sylla, the owner of an African hair braiding business Washington, has won licensing freedom for all African hair braiders in the state.

By Melissa Genson | Watchdog Arena

In the current political climate where government agencies shut down small businesses for irrational reasons, an African hair braider’s recent victory in Washington state could signal a turning point for entrepreneurial freedom.

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 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.

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.

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

Photo by Institute for Justice

Photo by Institute for Justice

Salamata Sylla, business owner of Sally’s African Hair Braiding, braiding the hair of a client.

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.

Sylla 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.

Washington 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.

But 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, in her profession.

In November 2014, Sylla agreed to put her federal lawsuit on holdwhile the Washington Department of Licensing revisited their hair braiding policy.

Sylla asked the agency to make their policy statement exempting hair braiders into a legally binding rule.

In the meantime, the agency issued an apology to Sylla.  Sylla stated that if the DOL upheld their policy for her and other braiders, she would dismiss her lawsuit.

Last week, Salamata Sylla won.

On April 10, Sylla asked the federal court to dismiss her lawsuit against the DOL, after the agency finally agreed to officially exempt hair braiders from the state’s burdensome cosmetology licensing requirements.

Sylla’s case attracted local and national media attention.

Sylla’s message is simple.  “A person should be allowed to use their natural gift to make a living,” Sylla told the Seattle Times.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.