CHICAGO — Oumou Wague has been braiding hair in her Chicago shop for more than a decade, carrying on a tradition passed down for generations in her native Senegal. To braiders, her talent for weaving women's hair into elaborate styles isn't just a livelihood, it's an art form.
But in the eyes of state regulators, it's also illegal.
Illinois requires hair braiders to get a cosmetology degree – which can take 1,500 hours and cost $15,000 – and then 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.
But 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."
In a clash between rules and tradition, hundreds of braiders have chosen to ignore the law – including Wague, who said threats by state regulators to shut down her shop forced her to go underground, working only with established clients.
Now Illinois lawmakers are trying to carve out some relief. Under legislation that passed the House and Senate and awaits the governor's signature, 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.
It isn't uncommon for women who wear their hair in braids to have never stepped foot into a salon, relying instead on relatives or friends who have the knack, time and energy for braiding and who do it to supplement their incomes. Braiding is a way for mothers to work out of their homes at flexible times and for teens to make decent spending money for a few hours of work.
Braiders charge $300 and up for the most elaborate styles, which can take up to 12 hours, and around $50 for simple cornrows than can be done in an hour, they said.
Sherry Williams, 44, learned to braid as a teenager and did hair out of her home as a side job for 10 years before opening her own salon last year in Chicago's south suburbs. She, like many braiders, learned the craft from family members and hasn't had any formal training.
But there are 63,000 licensed cosmetologists in Illinois, and "many of them do not look kindly on people practicing their profession without a license," said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. In fact, most of the tips about unlicensed braiding shops that come into the department are from licensed cosmetologists, she said.
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.
"It has really had an impact on my income," said Wague, who estimates her pay is down 50 percent so far this year because she hasn't been able to take in new clients. Wague said she took 600 hours of cosmetology classes but stopped because she said they had nothing to do with hair braiding. She's counting on the hair braiding bill to become law so she can get a license and reopen her shop.
As of 2006, Illinois and six other states required hair braiders to have a cosmetology or similar license, according to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-area group challenging braiding laws across the country. Ten states and the District of Columbia had a special license for braiders, and 11 states exempted braiders from any cosmetology licensing.
"If there's no public safety interest at play, we think the Legislature should step aside," said Elizabeth Milnikel, director of the institute's Clinic On Entrepreneurship.
The cosmetology industry just wanted to make sure people are properly trained and that the public is protected, said Paul Dykstra, CEO of Chicago Cosmetologists Association Inc. Dykstra, hair braiders, legislators and officials from cosmetology schools negotiated to come up with a bill that balances everyone's needs.
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.
Williams, the suburban Chicago braider, said she had no idea she needed a license when she opened her salon after losing her job. She's looking forward to not having to worry about regulators knocking on her door.
"We're really trying to push this law so we can do it correctly," she said.
The legislation is HB5783.
On the Net: http://www.ilga.gov