Last week, the New Jersey Senate unanimously passed a bill to remove excessive licensing fees for hair braiders, who for years have been forced to spend thousands of dollars in order to provide a service that has been around for centuries in West Africa.
Hair braiders have been required to take beauty courses that cost upwards of $15,000 despite the fact that this schooling is for a cosmetology license. The hair braiding practice simply requires a comb, according to braiders interviewed by NJ.com earlier this year.
"What sense does it make for us to go to beauty school if everything we learn is irrelevant to what we do? You learn nothing about braiding and you typically only learn how to do one person's type of hair and it's not ours," said Tiana Francis of Paterson, NJ, referring to black women’s hair.
However, not having the state-imposed schooling and license has prompted a police response.
"It was crazy, they treated it as if it was a drug bust or something," said Melek Ustunluk, who was arrested in 2014 by an officer whose hair she had previously braided. "They had a list that said I did bleaching, coloring and curls, but I'm just a braider."
Though a judge eventually dismissed the charges, the state’s imposition and heavy burden has remained evident. Brook Fallon, the assistant director of activism at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal advocacy organization that has lobbied to remove the fines, explained her view that the hair braiding requirements are out of control.
"Braiding is a safe and natural practice, but New Jersey requires 1,200 hours of cosmetology, which is more than EMT workers. There are so many people held back by these barriers," she said back in May before the recent legislation was passed. "Right now, there are tons of hair braiders operating in fear of being shutting down for providing for their families."
Indeed, one hair braider who immigrated to the United States from Cameroon 17 years ago was hit with a $1,150 fine for braiding without a license. "I do everything with this," she said of her braiding business. "I pay for my house, car and my daughter's schooling," said. "I pray that bill gets passed almost every day,” she said prior to its approval.
The bill, A-3754, received bipartisan support and has already made it through both the Assembly and the Senate. It will now go to the governor’s desk for final approval.
Though as of 2016 there were 20 states that do not require any licensing for hair braiding, many others still do. As Institute for Justice has noted, the state of Tennessee has fined hair braiders nearly $100,000 since 2009.
“The new law would be a dramatic improvement over the status quo of strict laws and heavy fines that harm entrepreneurs, and would be a major step forward in protecting braiding freedom,” Fallon said in a press release upon the Senate’s passage of the bill last week. “We urge the governor to sign it.”