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Cornrows, also known as rows, braids, or canerows in the Caribbean, are a traditional Middle Eastern and African style of hair grooming where the hair is braided very close to the scalp, using an underhand, upward motion to produce a continuous, raised row. Cornrows are often formed, as the name implies, in simple, straight lines, but they can also be formed in complicated geometric or curvilinear designs.
Often favored for their easy maintenance, rows can be left in for weeks at a time if maintained through careful washing of the hair and regular oiling of the scalp.
A traditional way of styling hair throughout North Africa, East Africa, and West Asia, depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara that have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C. This tradition of female styling in cornrows has remained popular throughout Africa, particularly in North, East, and West Africa. Historically, male styling with cornrows can be traced as far back as the early nineteenth century to Ethiopia, where warriors and kings such as Tewodros II and Yohannes IV were depicted wearing cornrows.
Cornrows made a comeback in the 1960s and '70s, and again during the '90s.
Over the years, cornrows, along with dreadlocks, have been the subject of several disputes in the American workplace. Some employers have deemed them unsuitable for the office and have banned them – sometimes even terminating employees who have worn them. Employees and civil rights groups have countered that such attitudes evidence cultural bias. Some such disputes have resulted in litigation.
In 2011, the High Court of the United Kingdom, in a decision reported as a test case, ruled against a school’s decision to refuse entry to a student with cornrows. The school claimed this was part of its policy mandating ‘short back and sides’ haircuts, and disallowing styles that might be worn as indicators of gang membership. However, the court ruled that the student was expressing a tradition and that such policies, while possibly justifiable in certain cases (e.g. skinhead gangs), had to accommodate reasonable ethnic and cultural practises.