The world of hairdressing often seems limited to matters of style and personal preference. However, what if there was more at stake behind the shears and combs than just a failed fringe or a botched gradient? This is the question posed by Olivier Serva (Liot), a deputy from Guadeloupe who is currently working on a bill aimed at recognizing and penalizing "hair discrimination." The catalyst for this legislative endeavor was an airline incident involving braids and a steward who, after a decade-long legal battle, emerged victorious.
A Marginalized Issue Given Serious Consideration
In November 2022, the Court of Cassation ruled that Air France could not prohibit its stewards from wearing braids. The plaintiff had initiated legal proceedings in 2012, having worked for years wearing a wig. "He won the case based on gender discrimination, not hair discrimination. We realized there was a gap to be filled. We want to amend article 225-1 of the Penal Code, which deals with discrimination," explains Olivier Serva. He references a recent study conducted in the United States by Dove and LinkedIn, where ethnic surveys are allowed, revealing that nearly two-thirds of African-American women surveyed change their hairstyles when applying for jobs.
"In France too, non-white individuals are aware of the discrimination they face due to their hair. They style their hair based on their professional careers," notes Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist, director, and author of Afro!, a book addressing this issue. Hair discrimination is often marginalized and not taken seriously.
Beyond Employability: Health and Economic Implications
According to the parliamentarian, the issue of hair encompasses various realities beyond employability, including health. "Women who chemically straighten their hair are three times more likely to develop uterine cancer or fibroids," he explains. Another concern is the economic aspect, as hairdressing services come at a cost, particularly during challenging times.
Legislation Leading to Accountability
Changing one's physical appearance to conform to societal norms, enduring ridicule from colleagues, and being denied employment due to an afro hairstyle are just some of the challenges faced by many racialized women and men. The level of protective legislation varies. "In the United States, the Crown Act was enacted to prohibit hair discrimination. This issue has received more attention there for a long time due to greater mobilization and visibility within the African-American community. Consequently, it has permeated mainstream spheres more readily," explains Rokhaya Diallo. In France, the approach should not be viewed as backwardness but rather as an opportunity to comprehend racial issues. There may be a stronger denial at play.
While legislation and case law already provide tools to address discrimination related to hair, the crucial aspect lies in effective enforcement. Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, asserts that "both the law and its interpretation equip us to combat hair discrimination. What matters is the application of penal sanctions, and currently, there are none for this issue."
Sopo doesn't shy away from emphasizing a grim reality: in 2021, "zero convictions were made for racial discrimination in France." After identifying discrimination, the challenge lies in making it actionable and, more importantly, proving it. "Applicability poses difficulties," acknowledges Olivier Serva, the Guadeloupe deputy. It will require a change in mindsets.