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French Sikhs battle for their turbans

As part of a struggle to separate religion from the state, France is poised to pass a law banning religious symbols from public schools.

india Updated: Jan 13, 2004 14:25 IST

No one, it seems, thought about the Sikhs and their turbans.

As part of a struggle to separate religion from the state, France is poised to pass a law banning religious symbols like Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public schools.

But a report by an official panel and a speech by President Jacques Chirac last month recommending passage of a legal ban said nothing about the head coverings worn by Sikhs.

After all, France is home to only several thousand Sikhs, compared with about 600,000 Jews and five million Muslims. Historically, the Sikh population is quiet, law-abiding, apolitical and almost invisible — living, working and worshiping mainly in a few isolated pockets of suburban Paris. Now they have found their voice, demanding that they be exempted from the anticipated prohibition.

"I'm 100 percent French, I speak French, I was born here," said Dhramvir Singh, a 17-year-old student who wears a dark blue turban knotted in front to school everyday. "But it's impossible for me to take off my turban. If they force me, I'll have to drop out, and never be able to do anything except a job that no one else wants."

In a recent letter to Chirac, Chain Singh, a leader of the Gurdwara Singh Sabha temple in Bobigny, has asked for an exemption for Sikhs.

The Sikhs' outcry so late in the game has stunned and dismayed French officials.

"Why didn't the Sikhs come forward, why didn't they protest while we were doing our investigation?" Bernard Stasi, who led the commission that produced the report, said in an interview.

The Sikh letter to Chirac injects a new twist into the debate, arguing that the turban should be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious, symbol.

"Different from a Muslim veil or a Jewish yarmulke, a turban has no religious symbolism," the letter said. The Sikh religion requires Sikh men never to cut their hair, but says nothing per se about wearing turbans.

First Published: Jan 13, 2004 00:00 IST