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The state vs. hair braiders

Until October 1997, Dana "Isis" Brantley, a single mother of five children, had been elated that her hair-braiding business in Dallas had allowed her to get off welfare.

Then she was arrested, handcuffed, taken to jail, and strip-searched.

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Her crime? Braiding hair without a state cosmetology license.

The case is not unique. More than a dozen states have prosecuted hair braiders who don't have cosmetology licenses, claiming that stylists haven't been taught proper sanitary procedures.

"It's an entry-level barrier. The laws are designed to protect a cosmetology cartel," says Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah, of the Washington-based American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, which successfully fought to reopen Ms. Brantley's salon.

In California, a statute that required hair braiders to undertake 1,600 hours of cosmetology classes (at a cost of between $5,000 and $7,000) was ruled unconstitutional. The law, according to court findings, did not take into account that none of the state's cosmetology schools even taught African-American hairstyling.

California isn't alone.

"In 1992, the state of New York passed a Natural Hairstyling License [law that required] a 900-hour course. But no school in the state offered the course," says Mr. Uqdah, "so you couldn't comply with the law, even if you wanted to."

Mr. Uqdah and his wife - who braids Diana Ross's hair - fought a messy 10-year legal battle with the District of Columbia after threats, hearings, and a $1000 fine for not having a license. District officials eventually backed down.

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"There are more people who are coming out of their homes to practice the hair-braiding business. And we encourage them to do so," he says, "just do it as a matter of civil disobedience. I would question [the government's] ability to regulate what we do."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society