Braiding Freedom

A project of the Institute for Justice


Natural hair braiders in Pennsylvania are being fined and closing their shops because the state requires them to get an unnecessary license, in order to practice a craft that’s been handed down over generations. The license costs thousands of dollars and requires braiders to spend hundreds of hours in school, learning a cultural artform they have already long mastered.  But natural hair braiding is a safe practice: it involves twisting, weaving, and locking hair into beautiful styles without using damaging chemicals, dyes or heat.  This license is only preventing braiders from working and providing for their families, or forcing them to go into the underground economy.

            Astou, natural hair braider 

“I get worried every time someone walks toward my shop door,” said Astou, who owns a braiding shop in Philadelphia and was fined $500 for not having a license. “I could probably get the license, but I would have to take (significant?) time away from my family and my business and spend a bunch of money I don’t have. As I’ve been braiding hair since I was six-years old, there is no point for this waste of time and money.” Many braiders can’t get the license both because they cannot afford it and because they don’t have the English fluency necessary to take the courses and pass the exam. “We shouldn’t need to get a license for something we already know how to do,” she exclaimed.

                 Awa, natural hair braider

At least Twenty-six states do not require a license to braid hair, and these states have seen growth in minority and women-owned small businesses, not safety complaints. Women like Awa use braiding as a means to support their families. “I was a cashier, and then I tried being a nursing assistant, but I didn’t like it,” she said. “I always went back to braiding because it’s what I’m good at and pays my bills.” Awa is licensed and owns her own shop, where she employs two full-time braiders and one part-time assistant. She would hire more braiders, but the license prevents many of them from working for fear of being fined. “We don’t steal. We pay our taxes. We’re just using our talent for braiding hair to feed our families. We’re not doing anything wrong.”

By adhering to common sense sanitation – like simply sterilizing combs – natural hair braiding does not pose a threat to health and safety. “In all my years as a braider and then a shop owner, a customer has never complained about the misuse of a chemical product. This is not because we are experts at using them but because we do not use any chemical product,” said Adidjatou. “The brave, virtuous and law-abiding women who work in my shop use their hands, combs, and pure water to braid hair and provide satisfaction to our customers.” The government should not be standing in the way of these women from using their hands and combs to make an honest living. 

To fight for their right to earn an honest living, entrepreneurs like Astou, Awa and Adidjatou have joined together from across the state to form the Pennsylvania Natural Hair Braiders group. They have partnered with the Institute for Justice and local organizations to make it easier for braiders to work, practice their ancestral craft, and provide for their families.