Sonia 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.”
In Idaho, people must have a cosmetology license to braid hair for money. It’s one of only five states left that still require it. Ekemon and two other female refugees from Africa, Tedy Okech and Charlotte Amoussou, are teaming up with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian, public-interest law firm, to sue the state’s Idaho Barber and Cosmetology Services Licensing Board for the right to braid hair without a license.
“I shouldn’t need the government’s permission to use a safe skill I learned when I was little to provide for my family,” said Okech, a 27-year-old Boise resident who was born in Sudan, in a news release.
Scott Graf, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, declined to comment on pending litigation.
At the news conference on the steps of the Capitol, the women expressed frustration at having to obtain an expensive and time-consuming license that doesn’t even require learning hair braiding.
“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.”
Idaho cosmetology licenses require 1,600 hours of training and can cost up to $20,000. The state doesn’t require cosmetology schools to teach “African-style” hair braiding. Instead, hair braiders must learn complicated techniques like how to cut, color and chemically treat hair – even if they have no intention of ever providing those services.
“Before any of these women can legally use that skill to earn a living, they have to spend thousands of dollars and at least a year of their lives learning an occupation that has almost nothing to do with braiding,” Caroline Grace Brothers, Institute for Justice attorney, said at the news conference.
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.
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 filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Boise.
“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.”
The law firm said it filed its first lawsuit on behalf of hair braiders in 1991 and has since helped eliminate licensing requirements in 31 states.
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