By Diona Donelson
Fatima Traore’s plans when leaving West Africa in 2001 didn’t include becoming an African Hair Braider. Growing up in Mali, Traore learned how to braid hair as a young girl using her grandmother’s head as a canvas. “My grandmother used to ask us to do her hair and I would always volunteer,” said Traore. Her grandmother told her that she had “magical hands” because the section that she would braid continued to grow. However, Traore wanted to focus on a career in another field. “I was not intending on doing braids, I wanted to be an architect,” said Traore.
Traore moved to New York City in 2001 to study architecture, but her plans suddenly changed during a visit to Chicago to help out in her aunt’s hair braiding salon. While in Chicago she discovered how much money and independence she could acquire using a skill learned as a child—African hair braiding.
Like her aunt, Traore wanted to open her own salon after gaining a vast clientele. But, she did not have a cosmetology license, which is required in the United States when operating a hair salon.
Many of the braiders were not informed about the state licensing laws, nor could they afford to pay for a license. The braiders were operating without one or forced to remain braiding from their homes, which threatened the safety of their families. Just like Traore, many African immigrants come to the U.S. to acquire an education. Some African women use trades like braiding—which they learn in their native countries—as a source of income while completing their education.
Although braiding was culturally significant to them, it was not recognized as a profession in the United States,” said Sarah Travis, community resource specialist for the United African Organization. Instead, braiders were being recognized as cosmetologists, which required them to take 1,500 hours of training, costing more than 10,000 dollars for skills that were irrelevant to their chemical-free practice, according to the United African Organization.
The courses on hair braiding were very limited, only two or three,” said Traore. “Majority of the program catered to learning about how to use products like perm, color, hot curls and hygiene.”
This dilemma caused Traore to slip on her political hat, which isn’t unfamiliar to her since her father was a politician in Mali. Why do we have to struggle just because of our talent, why do we have to struggle to be able to practice our craft?” said Traore.
Traore recruited hair braiders from all over the state of Illinois and started fighting for a new license, specifically for braiders. In 2009, with the help of the United African Organization (UAO) the braiders lobbied in Springfield to make their voices heard, said Traore.
The braider’s hard work paid off in 2011. They succeeded in passing a law (HB 5783) that recognized natural hair braiding as a profession in Illinois, separate from Cosmetology. Under this law, hair braiders were freed from the cost and time spent on training for chemically proceeded hair treatments, according to the UAO. Instead, the cost of obtaining a license was lowered to 30 dollars with the completion of 300 hours of classroom time focused on hygiene and business etiquette, said Traore. Hair braiders can now pursue their dreams as legitimate entrepreneurs, creating jobs and opportunity for low-income women, according to the UAO.
In an effort to keep braiders informed and help them understand how to take their culture to the next level, they formed the Illinois Association of Hair Braiders–Traore is the president.
Since the passage of the law, African women have started teaching hair-braiding courses and opened hair-braiding salons throughout the state of Illinois. The IAHB is currently working with braiders in other states where the profession remains illegal.
We are working in a billion dollar industry that people don’t really value,” said Fatima. “We want people to value our culture and know that we have safe ways of growing hair.”