Iowa's African Immigrants Seek to Braid

Feb 4, 2015

There’s a new coalition at the statehouse of African-American Democrats and free enterprise Republicans.  

They’re joining forces so that immigrants in Iowa can set up shop doing African-style hair braiding without a full-fledged cosmetology license.   

Waterloo Democrat Deborah Barry, one of the few African-Americans in the legislature, was picked for a three-member panel on a bill to exempt African-style hair braiding from the definition of cosmetology.   Barry knows a thing or two about the subject.

“Everywhere you go in the African-American community people are braiding hair,” Barry says.

Some lawmakers say they want to empower those skilled in hair braiding  to be entrepreneurs without going through the training required for cosmetologists.    Others say if the women take money for their services, the state ought to have some oversight.  Nancy Mwirotsi, an immigrant from Kenya, says it’s no small change that the women can earn.

“A braider can earn 200 dollars an hour,” Mwirotsi says.  “When I get my hair braided it costs me a lot of money and they get constant clients, so if you want to empower women especially in the  city, this is amazing.”

The bill’s backers say, unlike many other hair styles, hair braiding is natural with no chemicals involved.    But lobbyists who speak for the beauty industry say not so fast.  Kent Hartwig represents cosmetology schools.

“I totally appreciate what is trying to be attempted here,” Hartwig says.  “But if someone has a negative experience with an African-style braider they would have no recourse but the justice system.    If we've got bad actors out there they need to be reprimanded in a timely manner.”

Hartwig wants to see something less than full-fledged licensure.   That way regulators could keep an eye on safety and sanitation.    African-American lawmakers add if the braiders stay in business, black people can get hair care they can’t get anywhere else.    Representative Barry says regular salons aren’t doing the job.

“I've walked into salons and said I'd like to have my hair done,” Barry says.  “People say we don't do black hair.”

Des Moines Representative Ako Abdul-Samad says  it doesn’t make sense  to send African stylists  to Iowa cosmetology schools.  

“This is something that we in America and especially in Iowa aren't trained to do,” Abdul-Samad says.   “You’re not trained to do it.  You don't have people who specialize in this.  The individuals who come here are the ones who specialize.  So we're asking someone who is excellent at their craft, someone who specializes in their craft to come to a school that doesn’t even teach their craft." 

Some states like Iowa require a cosmetology license to braid hair have been sued, and lost.  The other extreme is what some call the wild west with no oversight at all.   A three-member panel signed off on the bill, vowing to work to come up with some kind of middle ground.   

Nancy Mwirotsi who works with immigrant families in Des Moines has promised them she’ll spend time at the statehouse pushing for the bill.    

“Most of the women who want this are ladies from Sudan, Eritrea and Liberia,” Mwirotsi says.   “If these women are out making more money it will be better for everybody.”

Mwirotsi adds some of the women will also likely come and add their voices as work on the bill continues.  

For the first hearing on the legislation, she says, the snow kept them away.