Three African immigrants sue Idaho over expensive hair-braiding license rules

By The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Three Idaho women are suing the state in federal court over its expensive training requirement for professional hair-braiders. The women, represented by the Institute for Justice, filed the lawsuit against the Idaho Barber and Cosmetology Services Licensing Board in Boise’s U.S. District Court on Tuesday, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Idaho is one of five states that still require cosmetology licenses for professional hair braiding. The licenses require 1,600 hours of training and can cost up to $20,000, even though cosmetology schools aren’t required to teach braiding techniques for naturally textured hair.

Scott Graf, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on pending litigation.

The women who are bringing the lawsuit — Sonia Ekemon, Tedy Okech and Charlotte Amoussou — are all refugees from Africa and have more than 60 years of experience practicing African-style hair braiding between them, according to the Institute for Justice.

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Ekemon, 40, learned to braid hair as a child while living in a refugee camp in Benin, a country in West Africa. She honed her skills over the years and eventually earned a professional hair-braiding license as a teenager before moving to the United States in 2000.

As an Idaho Central Credit Union employee, she thought offering her hair-braiding skills would be a good way to earn extra money — until she learned it was illegal.

“I am a single mother … my husband passed away from liver cancer,” Ekemon, a Boise resident, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I have a mortgage and three little kids that I take care of and have to feed. This is what I have to do to feed my kids. I really need this.”

Cosmetology training largely focuses on how to cut, color and chemically treat hair. Only two of 110 questions on the written cosmetology exam are on braiding, and the practical exam doesn’t cover the topic at all, according to the Institute for Justice.

“I have a friend who actually attended cosmetology school,” Okech said. “She went to Paul Mitchell for a good two years. She said she spent $25,000 in schooling. … She didn’t learn how to braid hair. In fact, they wanted her to teach the rest of the class how to braid hair.”

The requirement means it can be difficult to find anyone offering hair braiding services. People who braid hair without a license are afraid to advertise. Okech said a number of traveling nurses recently came to her because they couldn’t find any professional braiders.

Ekemon said she has received a flood of requests from one group in particular: white parents with adopted Black children. The parents didn’t know how to braid hair themselves and struggled to find a salon that offered the service.

“Most of the time, the mothers say they don’t know how to take care of African-American kids’ hair, so I’m very happy to help them,” Ekemon said.

The Institute for Justice has worked to end braiding license requirements in 31 states through lawsuits and legislation.

“Instead of getting their businesses off the ground, hair braiders in Idaho are tangled in senseless regulation,” said Dan Alban, Institute for Justice senior attorney. “Idaho should not be putting entrepreneurs out of business with unnecessary licensing laws.”

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